Wireless laser optics bring hope to expand high-speed connectivity in Saudi Arabia

May 25, 2023

THUWAL — Wireless connectivity can bring life-changing benefits to unconnected areas such as rural villages and isolated maritime locations. Fiber optics (FO) is used to satisfy high-speed access in many places, but the technology can be expensive and not sustainable for all locations. Radio Frequency (RF) is another way to transmit signals, but is subject to interference and speed constraints.

A team of researchers led by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Professor Mohamed-Slim Alouini and his PhD candidate, Fahad Al-Qurashi, is testing the viability of a low-cost, laser-based technology known as free space optics (FSO) as an alternative to FO and RF in the Kingdom. FSO is a line-of-sight technology that uses light propagating in free space to wirelessly transmit video, voice and data at high speeds of tens of Gigabits per second (Gbps).

Recently, KAUST and Taara, a moonshot in connectivity at X, successfully established a FSO high-speed connection at 20 Gbps between the KAUST shore and Umm-Misk island two kilometers away. This is the first time that Taara’s FSO has been deployed in the Kingdom for maritime communication. KAUST is packaging the technology and essential devices needed for rapid deployment and signal transmission in a “network-in-a-box” configuration for areas lacking fixed infrastructure, and is providing research to refine the system. This deployment, conducted with the approval and endorsement of the Communications, Space and Technology Commission (CST), is expected to scale through similar maritime locations, bringing affordable high-speed Internet access to many of the unconnected coastal regions, islands, and archipelagos in the Kingdom.

“We’re delighted to collaborate with universities like KAUST that are pioneering research on innovative technologies, and helping bring them to market. Taara’s mission is to expand global access to fast and reliable internet, and we’re proud to be working with KAUST to deploy Taara’s technology in regions where fiber can be hard to deploy, to close the connectivity gap,” said Bhavesh Mistry, Taara’s Regional Lead in Middle East and Africa.

FSO connectivity is useful and needed in many hard-to-connect locations, including the thousands of hamlets across the Kingdom that are currently unconnected or under-connected, and also Red Sea maritime locations, which are a focus of Saudi Arabia’s coastal tourism and development plans. The low-cost technology is also ideal for people in areas where connection is temporarily needed, such as tourists enjoying unique experiences at remote desert or island destinations. Further, FSO will be instrumental to the Kingdom’s environmental monitoring objectives — monitoring coral reefs, ocean currents and other marine phenomena from sensors underwater or on buoys and boats, and transmitting these signals to shore.

“With 71% of the Earth's surface covered by water, the rising presence of oceanic activities has highlighted the importance of dependable maritime communication technologies,” said Alouini. “In this regard, the utilization of free space optics communications holds the potential to achieve remarkable data rates, paving the way for diverse innovative applications that rely on maritime communication."

The deployment is an important achievement and first step toward understanding how the technology could function in Saudi Arabia for maritime communication under a range of potentially harsh and unpredictable conditions. In this light, FSO brings a tradeoff: the lasers deliver the desired high speeds at low cost, but they’re exposed to the atmosphere, unlike fiber optics, which are protected by cables. To address this challenge, the research team will install weather stations at FSO deployment sites to monitor and test the technology throughout the coming year. The equipment will assess how conditions such as temperature variations, wind speeds, and humidity might affect the system’s performance, factoring in variables such as duration, distance and outages. The data will be used to refine the system, with the eventual goal to deploy it broadly to other areas across the Kingdom.

Global internet connectivity will be among the topics for discussion at Professor Alouini’s workshop on 29 May, 2023, titled, “Digitalization to achieve SDGs,” part of the upcoming Global Sustainable Development Congress, hosted by KAUST. — SG

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