Bridging the digital divide in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Bridging the digital divide in Sub-Saharan Africa

Increasing access to the internet will require affordable, reliable, and scalable infrastructure. Global internet traffic is projected to grow 24 per cent annually. Fibre-optic cable can support this growth in demand but rolling out an extensive fibre network often means deployment complications. 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. Because of the difficulties laying fibre in some places, there is a significant divide in mobile internet speeds between the countries with the fastest internet and those with the slowest.

A potential solution to this problem arose during work on Project Loon.  This was a project run by X Development to design a balloon that could last for more than 100 days in the stratosphere to deliver consistent connectivity. The company formerly known as Google X is an American semi-secret research and development facility and organisation founded by Google in January 2010, which now operates as a subsidiary of Alphabet. It has its headquarters about a mile and a half from Alphabet’s corporate headquarters, the Googleplex, in Mountain View, California.

Learning from Loon

The Loon team needed to figure out a way to create a data link between balloons that were flying over 100 km apart. The team investigated the use of wireless optical communication technology to establish high-throughput links between balloons. Like fibre, but without the cables, wireless optical communication uses light to transmit high-speed data between two points.

After experiencing some early success in the stratosphere, the team began to wonder: would it be possible to apply some of that science to solve connectivity problems a little closer to Earth? Thus, the Taara project was born

With a clear line of sight, wireless optical communication technology can transmit data at high speeds of up to 20 Gbps. The team has piloted their technology in India and Africa. Taara links help plug critical gaps to major access points, like cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, and have the potential to help thousands of people access the educational, business, and communication benefits of the web.

The Taara team is now focused on delivering the connectivity over distances of 20+ km between each terminal and on making the units fast and easy for partners to deploy. The team is in conversation with Telcos, ISPs and governments around the world about the potential for wireless optical communication technology to significantly accelerate the deployment of the extensive, high-throughput networks necessary to support the future of the web.

“Connectivity is more important than ever,” Mahesh Krishnaswamy, general manager for Project Taara, says. “The pandemic sparked a dramatic shift in how we work, learn, and stay in touch with family and friends, and underscored just how important fast and affordable internet is to our daily lives.”

Bridging the digital divide

Studies show that meaningful connectivity is essential for economic growth and to fast track access to opportunity, yet almost four billion people around the world remain unconnected according to the GSMA report ‘The State of Internet Connectivity 2020’. Meanwhile, many more people still cannot afford a connection that is fast enough to join a video call, let alone attend school or work remotely.

“At Project Taara, formerly known as The FSOC Project, we believe that the key to bridging the digital divide is to find new ways to deliver affordable high-speed internet connectivity,” Krishnaswamy adds. “Taara is developing wireless optical communication technology that delivers high-speed, high-capacity connectivity over long distances using beams of light. Over the last few years we have been working with partners around the world to learn more about how Taara’s technology can be used to help expand and augment existing fibre networks and bring the benefits of broadband to communities that don’t yet have access to it.

“Today I am pleased to share that Project Taara is now working with Econet and its subsidiaries, Liquid Telecom and Econet Group, to expand and enhance affordable, high-speed internet to communities across their networks in Sub-Saharan Africa. Taara’s links will begin rolling out across Liquid Telecom’s networks in Kenya first, and will help provide high speed connectivity in places where it’s challenging to lay fibre cables, or where deploying fibre might be too costly or dangerous — for example over rivers, across national parks, or in post-conflict zones. This is the first roll-out of Taara’s technology in Africa and follows a series of pilots in Kenya last year.”

 How does Taara work?

In the same way traditional fibre uses light to carry data through cables in the ground, Taara uses light to transmit information at exceedingly high speeds as a very narrow, invisible beam. This beam is sent between two small Taara terminals to create a link. A single Taara link is enough connectivity for thousands of people to be watching YouTube at the same time.

“Taara uses beams of light to deliver high-speed, high-capacity connectivity over long distances,” Krishnaswamy continues. “By creating a series of links from our partner’s fibre optic network over ground to underserved areas, Taara’s links can relay high speed, high quality internet to people without the time, cost, and hassle involved in digging trenches or stringing cables along poles.

“It is important that the signal between Taara’s terminals is not interrupted, so Taara’s units are placed high up on towers, poles or rooftops. Taara links offer a cost-effective and quickly deployable way to bring high-speed internet access to remote areas and help plug critical gaps to major access points, like cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots.”

 

 

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