While SpaceX continues to send off more satellites to space in order to complete its Starlink constellation, there are many questions that are still unanswered about the service performance and affordability. Earlier this year, Google's parent company, Alphabet killed off a similar project named Loon that it had been working on for years. But, recently, an offshoot from Loon called Project Taara, used lasers to stream 700TB of data through open-air, a project blog post said.
Picking up from where Loon left off, Project Taara's core mission stays the same: offering reliable and affordable internet across the board. While they have learned that helium balloons are not a cost-effective way, the lasers they planned to use for Loon can still play an important role. In a system called Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC), the lasers can be used to communicate between two points that have a clear line of sight, The Verge reported.
The Congo pilot aimed at solving a very local problem of a connectivity gap between two regions, Brazzaville and Kinshasa, just three miles (4.8 km) apart but with a 5X difference in the cost of accessing the internet. The reason is the world's deepest river, Congo, that flows between them forcing fiber-optic cables to make a 248-mile (400 km) journey to link up the two.
After setting up FSOC, the Project Taara team managed to transfer over 700 TB of data in 20 days with a 99.9 percent availability. Since the internet is already available in the region, the team was able to compare its performance and even switched data transmission between conventional fiber-optic cable and its own system, without affecting user experience, the team told Verge.
The blog post further explains how by using atmospheric sensing, mirror controls, and motion detection capabilities, the team has been able to transmit the invisible laser beam that is about the width of a chopstick using receivers that just is no bigger than two inches (5 cm). Although weather conditions and disruptions from wild animals can affect reliability, the team is confident of being able to deliver reliable and high-speed internet to most parts of the world.
The team has previously carried out pilots of the system in Kenya and India. Speaking to Interesting Engineering over email, Director of Engineering at Taara, Baris Erkman said, "Each new project and location comes with its own unique challenges and opportunities, which allows us to consistently improve our technology and increase performance." While the technology can work well across 12 miles (20 km) in good conditions, the team is also exploring other methods of making it work through the fog, where the laser beam is scattered and data is lost, according to this Linkedin post.
When asked what would be a subscription cost, Erkman explained, "Taara is designed not as a direct to consumer offering, and our current model is to be a technology provider to ISPs or mobile network operators (MNOs), who offer connectivity directly to consumers and will determine the rates." Like other X products, Taara will continue to work on improving the technology to offer reliable and affordable solutions to expand connectivity to underserved areas, Erkman said.
Update (Sept. 19, 1130 pm): Updated to include comments from Baris Erkman.