Coming Soon: Free Internet From Space

Outernet wants to use tiny satellites to take the whole world online — even in countries where dictators wish they wouldn’t.

CubeSats are tiny, but they could one day be used to bring Internet to millions.
National Journal
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Alex Brown
Feb. 20, 2014, midnight

If all goes ac­cord­ing to plan, North Koreans will soon have free, un­censored In­ter­net provided by satel­lites the size of toast­er ovens.

That’s part of a pro­ject called Out­er­net, which hopes to launch hun­dreds of tiny satel­lites — known as Cube­Sats — to provide In­ter­net to every per­son on Earth. Forty per­cent of the world’s people cur­rently don’t have ac­cess to the Web. In a little more than a year, Out­er­net plans to have a fleet of 24 satel­lites op­er­a­tion­al and test­ing to pave the way for a globe-span­ning net­work.

The satel­lites won’t be provid­ing con­ven­tion­al In­ter­net right away. They’ll ini­tially be used for one-way com­mu­nic­a­tion to provide ser­vices like emer­gency up­dates, news, crop prices, and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams. Users will help de­term­ine what con­tent is offered.

The pro­ject’s back­ers say know­ledge is a hu­man right — one they in­tend to provide even in coun­tries where dic­tat­ors have thus far lim­ited ac­cess. “We ex­ist to sup­port the flow of in­de­pend­ent news, in­form­a­tion, and de­bate that people need to build free, thriv­ing so­ci­et­ies,” said  Peter White­head, pres­id­ent of the Me­dia De­vel­op­ment In­vest­ment Fund, Out­er­net’s back­er. “It en­ables fuller par­ti­cip­a­tion in pub­lic life, holds the power­ful to ac­count and pro­tects the rights of the in­di­vidu­al.”

It will be at least five years be­fore Out­er­net can of­fer the more in­ter­act­ive Web as we know it, which al­lows users to both ac­cess in­form­a­tion and up­load it, said Syed Karim, MDIF’s dir­ect­or of in­nov­a­tion.

World­wide In­ter­net could be avail­able soon­er, Karim said, if tele­com gi­ants in­ves­ted in a few mega-ca­pa­city satel­lites like North Amer­ica’s Vi­aSat-1. Three years and $12 bil­lion is all it would take to get the job done, he es­tim­ated. “We don’t have $12 bil­lion, so we’ll do as much as we can with Cube­Sats and broad­cast data,” Karim said.

How much will it cost? Put­ting a 10x10x10-cen­ti­meter pay­load in­to or­bit runs more than $100,000. A 34x10x10 satel­lite — the biggest unit Out­er­net is con­sid­er­ing — costs more than $300,000 to launch. Now, mul­tiply that by hun­dreds of satel­lites. “We want to stay as small as pos­sible, be­cause size and weight are dir­ectly re­lated to dol­lars,” Karim said. “Much of the size is dic­tated by power re­quire­ments and the sol­ar pan­els needed sat­is­fy those re­quire­ments.”

To de­term­ine the range and size of its glob­al fleet, Out­er­net will have to de­term­ine the gain on its sig­nal. A high­er gain would lower the satel­lite’s reach but provide faster speeds. The first fleet’s test­ing will help de­term­ine the right bal­ance.

While Out­er­net’s en­gin­eers test and pre­pare for launch, they’re seek­ing sup­port from those who be­lieve in their cause. In ad­di­tion to tra­di­tion­al dona­tion sources like Payp­al, they’re also ac­cept­ing on­line cur­ren­cies like bit­coin and Doge­coin (bit­coin block­chains are among the ini­tial ser­vices the one-way sig­nals will of­fer). They’re also ask­ing NASA to let them test their tech­no­logy on the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion.


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