A remote tribal village, three hours from Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, had no internet connectivity as the economics of installing a telecom tower didn’t add up from a cost, terrain and accessibility standpoint.
Enter X, Google parent Alphabet’s moonshot factory that works on radical ideas, some of which sound like science fiction. It partnered with AP State Fibernet in December to bring fiber optic-like internet speed to the village without laying fiber cables.
X put light-emitting boxes on rooftops and used free-space optical communication (FSOC) to wirelessly transmit Gbps (gigabits per second) connectivity across vast distances. Signals are beamed directly between the boxes.
The Andhra Pradesh government is deploying 2,000 FSOC links to provide broadband to areas of the state that are difficult to connect with fiber.
“It’s an effort to propel fiber-optic communication into places where it doesn’t exist today. Abundance and affordability is a challenge. If you look at the technology, we have stripped the complexity and focused on ease of deployment and terrestrial safety,” said Tom Moore, who leads X in Alphabet. The FSOC link offers video and telecom services, augmenting the existing fiber networks in the absence of Wi-Fi or cellular towers.
X moonshots are at the intersection of a big problem, a radical solution, and breakthrough technology. Its Project Wing, for instance, is testing automated flight and delivery in rural California, while Project Loon is a network of balloons flying at 60,000 feet, much above the altitude that airplanes fly, to beam internet connectivity to rural areas.
Fiber rollouts take millions of dollars of investment. Instead, FSOC uses beams of light to provide connectivity over long distances. They can be quickly deployed. While Bharatnet has connected nearly 1 lakh gram panchayats and Telangana’s T-Fiber project is committed to connect 8,700 gram panchayats and 10,000 villages, there are many parts of India that would be tough to connect with fiber. FSOC is the alternative.
The technology infrastructure gap between the US and India is stark. In the US, there are 330 million people and about 420 million km of fiber, which translates to 1.3 km of fiber per capita. In comparison, India has 91 million km of fiber for 1.3 billion people. India has one Wi-Fi hotspot for every 40,000 people, while in the US, there is one for every six people.
“FSOC allows you to leapfrog over traditional ways of offering connectivity. We have done it in California, and Puerto Rico,” said Moore.