Posted April 10, 2015

No internet? You can be on the Outernet!

Outernet is a read-only alternative to the internet, for use in remote or politically sensitive locations. Right now Outernet is broadcast on leased bandwidth from commercial geostationary satellites. Soon Outernet will use its own 'cubesats' in low Earth orbit, with many advantages.

A couple of billion people are on the internet right now, but even more aren't: four and a half billion people have no access. They live in remote places, far from landlines or cell phone coverage. Or they lack money to pay for some kind of connection. Or their government says they can't.

 

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Outernet is a young company, founded by American entrepreneur Syed Karim, that sees an opportunity here. Where companies like Google and Facebook are working on plans to bring full-blown paid internet connections to 'the rest of them' using balloons or drones respectively, Outernet has a free alternative already in place. If you buy a receiver called Lantern you can have parts of the internet broadcast to you, free, without subscriptions. The Lantern is solar powered so it doesn't even need mains power.

It works like this: via satellite Outernet broadcasts a selection of websites. The satellites are currently communications satellites in geostationary orbit. Outernet has picked a couple regions to broadcast to, because initially it couldn't afford aiming for the whole world.

 

The Lanterns store the data on a hard drive, and make them available via wifi. Users can login if they are within range, using any wifi-enabled device, such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop. Since the sites are available only locally, there is little or no interactivity. Links to websites that haven't been broadcast to the Lantern, won't work. Web forms can't be sent. There is no Google Docs or Dropbox. No e-mail.

So what is there? Since Outernet contains a selection of the internet's content, somebody has to make choices. Outernet's editors make them. They have selected well-known and important sites such as Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg and respected news sources like The Economist, Bloomberg and Al-Jazeera. On Outernets website everybody can propose websites or pages to be included and people can vote on the proposed sites too. Part of Outernets business model is giving companies and institutions the opportunity to pay for being selected, so they don't depend on the nomination and voting process. Dutch space company ATG-Europe is involved with Outernet and functions as its European headquarters. Robbert Mica, ATG's 'entrepreneur in residence' says: 'Many organizations are willing to pay to have their information broadcast, such as the World Bank, the World Health Organization and Harvard University.'

This gives users in internet-deprived places access to important sources of information that are taken for granted in rich countries. Education and business stand to gain from this. What's more, no government can control or even know what information a particular user downloads. The satellite (which is not controlled and can't be blocked by any government) sends the whole outernet to the Lantern. People request files from said Lantern but it is private property and its workings are open source, so there are no secrets in there. You can even build (and then sell) your own Lantern. So privacy will profit, too, and from it, democracy.

Starting in 2016 Outernet will reach the whole world. The company has made arrangements with the UK Space Agency and Scottish satellite equipment manufacturer, Clyde Space. The agreement says in 2016 three nanosatellites will be launched which Outernet can use. Nanosatellites are very small, cheap satellites that fly in low orbits. They have higher orbital speeds than geostationary satellites, and don't look down on the same spot on Earth all the time. Also they are closer to the Earth's surface so they need less power to send their data. This means all of the world can now be reached, at less cost. (More on nanosatellites or cubesats in a future posting.)

So whether you are a desert dweller, an inhabitant of a primeval forest or a resident of some Chinese or North Korean city: you can have access to hundredes of gigabytes of free information, no spy strings attached. Now. Let's see how soon Google or Facebook can match that.


About Herbert Blankesteijn

Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.