Google runs a plethora of aspirational projects to explore one moonshot or another, but only some become real products. The company’s Project Loon internet balloons didn’t make the cut, having shut down in early 2021. However, one aspect of Loon has lived on to become its own Googley project. Google says it has used the Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) links developed for Project Loon to beam hundreds of terabytes of data nearly five kilometers, no wires necessary.
Now under the purview of the company’s X labs, the little-known Project Taara is already enhancing connectivity in Kenya and India. Google says FSOC is essentially a fiber optic connection (up to 20 Gbps) without the wires, but it requires a direct line of sight. In Africa, Taara is now beaming data across the Congo River from Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. After setting up the links over the past few years, Google is now sharing some of the project’s more impressive metrics.
Project Taara lead Baris Erkmen notes that Project Taara transmitted 700 TB over a recent 20-day period. This helped to back up wired connections in use by Google’s local partner Econet. Testing Taara in Africa makes sense because line-of-sight laser communication falls apart in a foggy locale like Google’s Bay Area home, and the fast-flowing Congo River has made connectivity in the region much more expensive.
Even without a wire to insulate the optical signal from interference, Erkmen says the system had 99.9 percent uptime during that 20-day test. On the user side, there is no indication when their data passed through wires or FCOS nodes — Google aims to make the experience indistinguishable. The Taara links (see top) are placed high up, and they can automatically adjust their mirrors by up to five degrees to maintain a perfect connection. The system can hit a 5-centimeter target up to 10 kilometers away, according to Google. Taara has kept on ticking even in the face of inclement weather, flocks of birds, and other unexpected obstacles.
Mobile carriers are happy to talk about the benefits of high-speed 5G networks to replace wired connections, but FCOS makes more sense in places that lack infrastructure. While 5G is expensive and complex to deploy, FCOS is simple and comparatively cheap. There are plenty of places where this could make a difference, and Google is on the hunt for more partners to help it develop Project Taara further.
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