Alphabet bets on lasers to provide Internet in remote areas

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif., June 26 (Reuters) – Google’s parent Alphabet (GOOGL.O) has already tried unsuccessfully to bring Internet access to rural and remote areas using high-altitude balloons into the stratosphere.

But now, the company is providing Internet services to remote areas using beams of light.

The project known as Taara is part of Alphabet’s innovation lab called X, also dubbed the “Moonshot Factory.” It was launched in 2016 after attempts to use stratospheric balloons to deliver the Internet ran into problems due to high costs, company executives said.

This time, things are progressing better, Mahesh said

Krishnaswamy, who leads Taara.

Executives of Taara and Bharti Airtel (BRTI.NS), one of India’s largest telecom and internet providers, told Reuters that they are now moving towards a large-scale rollout of the new laser internet technology in India. Financial details were not disclosed.

Taara is helping to connect internet services in 13 countries so far including Australia, Kenya and Fiji, Krishnaswamy said, adding that it has struck deals with Econet Group and its subsidiary Liquid Telecom in Africa, internet provider Bluetown in India and Digicel in Pacific Islands.

“We’re trying to be one of the cheapest, most affordable places you could get a dollar per gigabyte for end consumers,” he said.

Taara’s machine is the size of a traffic light beaming the laser that carries the data, essentially wireless fiber-optic internet. Partners like Airtel are using the machines to build communications infrastructure in hard-to-reach places.

Krishnaswamy said he had an epiphany while working on the failed Loon balloon internet project that used lasers to link data between balloons and brought that technology to the ground.

“We call this lunar composting,” said Astro Teller, who leads X where he’s known as “captain of lunar heists.”

X is Alphabet’s research division that deals with projects bordering on science fiction. It has given rise to self-driving technology company Waymo, drone delivery service Wing, and health tech startup Verily Life Sciences.

“Taara is moving more data every single day than Loon in its entire history,” said Teller.

Bharti Airtel’s chief technology officer Randeep Sekhon said that Taara would also help deliver faster internet service in urban areas of developed countries. He said it’s less expensive to transmit data between buildings than to bury fiber-optic cables. “I think this is really disruptive,” he said.

Krishnaswamy was recently in Osur, an Indian village where he spent his childhood summers, three hours south of Chennai, for the installation of Taara equipment. Osur will receive high-speed Internet for the first time this summer, he said.

“There are hundreds of thousands of these villages all over India,” he said. “I can’t wait to see how this technology can help get all those people online.”

Google in July 2020 committed $10 billion to digitize India. It invested $700 million for a 1.28% stake in Bharti Airtel last year. X and Google are subsidiaries of Alphabet, while Taara’s partnership with Bharti Airtel is separate from Google’s investment.

When asked about the downside of the internet as X and Taara carry on their mission to connect the rest of the world, Teller said, “I recognize the concept that the internet is flawed, but I would suggest that maybe it’s the subject of a different moonshot to improve Internet content.”

Reporting by Jane Lanhee Lee and Nathan Frandino in Mountain View, California Editing by Kenneth Li and Matthew Lewis

Our standards: the Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Jane Lee

Thomson Reuters

Reports on global trends in computing from covering semiconductors and the tools to produce them to quantum computing. He has 27 years of reporting experience from South Korea, China and the United States and previously worked for the Asian Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones Newswires and Reuters TV. In his spare time he studies mathematics and physics with the aim of learning quantum physics.

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