Google’s Project Taara: Fiber Optics without the Fiber

Anush Mutyala
6 min readApr 12, 2021


Source: Google X

I think it's pretty evident that the internet altered our reality forever. I mean seriously, think about what our lives would be like if we didn’t have the internet. Well, for one, you probably wouldn’t be reading this article. Maybe Medium as a whole would not have existed, or maybe Medium in an alternate reality was just another newspaper.

Think about the number of cat videos you would have never watched or the number of hours spent talking to friends and family over video that would have never happened. Think about the amount of misinformation and BS you would have missed out on. Think about the amount of virtual learning that would have never occurred during the quarantine.

Funny Cat

Would you trade the current reality for one without the internet? I don’t know about you, but I know I wouldn’t. We(assuming that you are reading this using the internet) are lucky enough to have access to such a network, and question ourselves about alternate realities, whereas there are over 3 and a half billion people right now who are actually living this alternate reality.

That’s about half the world who can’t access utilities like banking, insurance, health, and education, who cannot communicate with the outside world, and who cannot access the goods and marketplaces found online. That’s a lot of stuff to be missing out on, and the list goes on.

Shopkeepers in Guwahati, India, playing a game on a mobile phone.

The crux of the problem comes down to the lack of last-mile internet coverage, as well as high costs -> low speeds. About 10% of the world live outside of the reach of mobile broadband, let alone any type of fixed connection. This is disproportionally true for Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, looking at 40% and 16% of their populations lacking coverage respectively. Part of the problem is how expensive it is to build broadband infrastructure in rural areas, especially with sketchy terrain. In rural America, it can cost up to $22,000, and this can be magnitudes higher in developing nations.

And even if governments build out sufficient infrastructure, unrealistic data plans for the end-user leaves the consumers with an empty bag. Assuming that 500MB/month is considered “internet usage”, only 17 percent of people in South Asia and 11 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa can afford to use the Internet. This factor ends up also influencing ISP's decisions in developing infrastructure, since if there is no market, let alone demand, the service providers will be at a loss.

So how can we tackle such a complex, multifaceted problem, with a silver bullet? One of Google X’s moonshot projects, Taara, hits the bullseye. These guys are providing fibre broadband speeds with virtually no overhead costs, other than the hardware. How? With *pew* *pew* Lasers.

Who are these guys?

If you’ve never heard of X, it’s basically the Godfather of some of the greatest Moonshots to date. If you ever have a crazy idea that doesn’t abide by the status quo, you go to X. They are the Moonshot Factory. Now, Project Taara was first conceptualized when the team at Loon, another X moonshot, was able to broadcast a movie between balloons 100km away from each other using lasers. In the fricking stratosphere! A few engineers in that project thought, “Hey, maybe this could be useful a little closer to earth, too!”, and BOOM, you got Taara.

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.” — Mahesh Krishnaswamy, General Manager of Taara

Project Taara’s mission is to bring affordable and fast internet connections to underserved communities where deploying wired connections is too expensive. They plan on doing so using free-space optical communication(FSOC).

Invisible Rave to bring people internet

Wireless Optical Communication Box Design

Think of FSOC as fibre optic connections without the need for glass fibre wiring. For FSOC, the air is the wiring. Taara used extremely narrow, IR beams(invisible lasers) to transfer data between transceiver boxes shown above. This means that with a clear line of sight, these boxes can be placed anywhere, removing the need for stable infrastructure.

Though the exact specs of Taara’s design have not been revealed, conventional FSOC boxes are composed of 2 components: a laser diode transmitter, and a photodetector receiver.

In fibre optics, free space would be replaced with a glass fibre cable, that's the only difference.

In our case, the laser diode would be in the IR wavelength range, and depending on the atmospheric conditions, the specific wavelength can be tweaked. A driver circuit in the transmitter would convert the electrical input signal into an optical field, modulating the IR beam based on the binary sequences of the electrical input. So basically, based on the frequency of the pulses of IR, someone on the other end can decode these pulses back into binary.

The IR beam would be pointed towards the receiver some distance away. The receiver would then capture the optical signal via its photodetector, and convert the signal back to an electrical signal. Just like that, a stream of light turns into a youtube video stream.

Since this technology can be built on top of current fibre infrastructure, Taara is easily implementable between metropolitan area networks and rural regions. All you need are two high vantage points to attach these boxes to, since you don't want anything obstructing the laser, and just like that, you got a high-speed broadband connection.

Using this technology, Taara is boasting connection bandwidths of more than 20GBps over a span of 20km with a single link, which's supposedly enough for thousands of people to be watching youtube at the same time.

The Laser Vision

After successful pilots in both India and Mexico, Taara is finally being commercially deployed in underserved Kenyan communities. This is a HUGE milestone for the project.

One of Taara’s optical connection links in Kenya

In collaboration with Econet Group and its subsidiaries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Taara is getting its big chance to connect millions of people to the *sometimes* wonderful thing called the internet. Taara is providing cost-effective and easily deployable solutions to a decade-long problem, and if this sustainably pans out, we can see a significant portion of the internet backbone in developing nations supported by FSOC and its unreal lasers.

Since 2016, access to the internet has been recognized as a human right by the United Nations and the global community, yet many live in conditions where purchasing sufficient broadband is a luxury. This not only halts economic growth but also diminishes the quality of life for many.

Many ISPs focus on providing the 10% improvement, maybe improving connection speeds for current users, or reducing prices, but Taara is focusing on the 10x. They are focusing on the problem that many attempt and give up on, but through resilience and perseverance, these guys have been able to make huge leaps in the last few years. Taara is textbook moonshot, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll achieve next.

Further Reading

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