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
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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