The year 2020 has exposed the universal need for reliable access to the internet. With the lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, quarantine requirements, distance learning, working from home, fast-evolving rules and regulations, and international and domestic border closures, the internet is being used to connect, inform and communicate like never before.
However, 3.7 billion people—almost half of the world’s population—has no access to the internet. According to the World Economic Forum, only about 12 percent of people in the least developed countries had access, compared to 47 percent in developing nations and 87 percent in developed countries.
Fortunately, tech initiatives are in place to help close the digital divide.
X Company—Alphabet’s team for “moonshot” cutting-edge projects—has launched Project Taara to overcome the infrastructural problems that prevent much of the world from accessing high-speed, reliable internet.
As explained on X’s website, implementing a fibre network often involves several complications in deployment and utilisation, which results in a palpable lack of internet in certain countries.
“Planning and digging trenches to lay lines can be time-consuming and costly, and tough terrain can pose physical challenges that make expansion nearly impossible,” the site explained. “Because of the difficulties laying fibre in some places, there’s a significant divide in mobile internet speeds between the countries with the fastest internet and those with the slowest.”
In an earlier initiative called Project Loon, the X team used balloons to transmit data over 100 km apart through wireless optical communication technology, which uses light to transmit data instead of cables.
The team then wondered: “Would it be possible to apply some of that science to solve connectivity problems down a little closer to Earth?”
Project Taara uses light to transmit data—at speeds up to 20 GB—through narrow, invisible beams between terminals on current towers or rooftops. A Taara link can extend up to 20 km, helping to close the gap throughout forests, mountains, bodies of water, rail tracks and other unconnected, cost-prohibitive areas.
According to TechCrunch, the network needs an unbroken line between terminals, so the system needs to be placed high enough to ensure that nothing will obstruct the link easily. This means the project is best used as an addition to an existing, traditional telecommunications network, instead of a completely new system. Fortunately, that also means it can be installed cheaply and easily, making the project a feasible solution to bring high-speed internet access to developing parts of the world. As the network is completely wireless, it is also less prone to failure and cheaper to run.
The project has partnered with internet provider Econet Group to create Taara links between its towers throughout Africa, starting in Kenya. India and Mexico have also implemented trials of the Project Taara system. Dinesh Kumar, a project officer at the Information Technology Development Agency, which is part of the pilot programme in Andhra Pradesh, India, said that Project Taara has accomplished the impossible in the region.
“Commercial mobile operators are not finding it financially feasible to set up their operations here because of the terrain, because of the vastness of the area,” Kumar said. “With this technology, we can connect to people for the first time in their life.”