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Alphabet’s X will use light beams to bring the internet to millions of rural Indian households

By Sushma U N

The “moonshot factory” of Alphabet, the tech giant that owns Google, is bringing a wireless internet technology it tested in the stratosphere to connect rural areas in India’s Andhra Pradesh state.

X, as the company is known, is using Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) to connect far-flung regions of the state. It involves using beams of light to deliver high-speed, high-capacity connectivity over long distances. X has set up some 2,000 FSOC links in partnership with Andhra Pradesh’s telecom company, AP State FiberNet, as part of the state’s plan to bring broadband connectivity to 12 million households and thousands of government offices and private enterprises.

“These FSOC links will form part of the high-bandwidth backbone of their network, giving them a cost effective way to connect rural and remote areas across the state,” Baris Erkmen, the FSOC Lead at X, wrote in a blog post on Thursday, Dec. 14. A small group of Google engineers and experts will work out of Andhra Pradesh to help roll out the project in 2018.

Google fine-tuned this FSOC technology while working on Project Loon, X’s ambitious plan to place a network of balloons at the edge of space to bring the internet to out-of-the-way areas. After the company’s scientists used FSOC to send data—a copy of the 1985 film, Real Genius, to be specific—across some 100 km between two balloons, they reckoned that a similar system could work on land, too. As Erkmen explained in his post:

FSOC links use beams of light to deliver high-speed, high-capacity connectivity over long distances — just like fiber optic cable, but without the cable. And because there’s no cable, this means there’s none of the time, cost, and hassle involved in digging trenches or stringing cable along poles. FSOC boxes can simply be placed kilometres apart on roofs or towers, with the signal beamed directly between the boxes to easily traverse common obstacles like rivers, roads and railways.

Google has been trying hard to woo users in the world’s second-largest internet market by launching India-first initiatives and also localising its offerings for the country. The company has launched lighter versions of its Android operating system and flagship apps so they can work on India’s slow internet speeds. Google is also in the process of setting up free wi-fi at 400 railway stations in India.