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More than four years after first unveiling ambitious plans to deliver internet access to remote locations using balloons, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has announced the next phase in its initiative to open up web access — and, by extension, Google’s services — to millions.

Balloons positioned high in the sky proved an effective way of transporting data large distances, using an optical communication technology called Free Space Optical Communications (FSOC) to deliver high-speed connectivity through beams of light. However, keeping stratospheric balloons going permanently is a tricky task, which is why Alphabet’s R&D arm, X, has been working on a ground-based solution following the technological ethos of the balloons.

Alphabet’s X is working with AP State Fibernet, a telecommunications body owned by India’s Andhra Pradesh state government, to introduce thousands of FSOC boxes across the state.

Broadband rollout

Andhra Pradesh, a state situated in the south eastern part of India, has a population of around 50 million people, less than a fifth of whom have access to broadband. The government officially launched the AP State Fibernet project back in 2015, with the aim of bringing affordable, fast internet to most households and businesses by 2019.

Now, rather than having to worry about digging trenches and laying cables, the government has procured 2000 FSOC boxes from Alphabet’s X arm and will position them in high line-of-sight locations, such as rooftops and towers, that are miles apart.

“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,” said Baris Erkmen, FSOC lead at X, in a blog post. “The links will plug critical gaps to major access points, like cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots, that support thousands of people.”

The FSOC program is the latest in a long line of initiatives by Alphabet to target the “next billion” internet users in India. The internet giant unveiled its Google Station initiative back in September 2015, revealing plans to install high-speed public Wi-Fi in 400 train stations across India. The company recently expanded the program to Indonesia. Elsewhere, Google recently launched Tez, a mobile payments app built for India, while Google Cloud garnered its first region in India.

For Indians to use Google’s services, however, they need access to the internet. And that is what this latest tie-up with Andhra Pradesh is all about.

Starting in 2018, Alphabet’s X will house a “small team of engineers and experts” in Andhra Pradesh to support the FSOC rollout, Erkmen added.


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