CubeSats deployed in orbit. Image: Wikimedia
This is about as technoutopian as it gets: A group of entrepreneurs want to bridge the digital divide and circumvent censorship by beaming the internet from a constellation of nanosatellites in orbit down to every citizen on Earth, free of charge. The project's called Outernet, of course.
In actuality, the plan isn't to provide complete access to the web, but rather broadcast a selection of "high-quality" news and educational content to folks around planet. The communication would be one-way only at first—more like multichannel wireless programming.
The lofty goal is to reach the billions people that don't have access to the wealth of information on the internet. Not to make sure every single citizen on the planet can shop on eBay and stream How I Met Your Mother, but to close the global knowledge gap.
Hence, Outernet is seed-funded by the Digital News Ventures, a subsidy of the nonprofit Media Development Investment Fund that invests in news-related startups particularly focused on "frontier markets." The group is asking for donations and hopes to raise "tens of millions" of dollars to send hundreds of CubeSats into low orbit. The website explains:
Each satellite receives data streams from a network of ground stations and transmits that data in a continuous loop until new content is received. In order to serve the widest possible global audience, the entire constellation utilizes UDP-based multicasting over WiFi. Although still not common, WiFi multicasting is a proven technology, especially when the data requires only one hop to reach the recipient.
MDIF announced they were incubating the Outernet project on Sunday, and later project lead Syed Karem, director of innovation for Digital News Ventures, fielded some questions in a fiery conversation about the venture on Reddit. So far the reaction has been mixed, but the scale’s definitely tipping toward the there's-no-way-in-hell-this-is-possible side.
Outernet’s techno-anarchist bent is winning over some netizens—the website describes it as "BitTorrent for space." So far it's been suggested that the Bitcoin blockchain, Ubuntu, OpenStreetMap, Wikipedia, and Coursera be among the websites beamed down from the sky. But other commenters, both on Reddit and discussion forums hosted by Karem on the project site, are skeptical, and have raised still-unanswered questions about in the plan. There are a lot.
First off, where's the money coming from? Karem said that SpaceX's bulk rate for launching microsatellites is $57 million for 13,000 kg. While this is just a fraction of what traditional communication satellites cost, it's hardly chump change. And that's just to start. Meanwhile, the website's donation page defaults to $10 donations—and is accepting cryptocurrencies of course. It's going to take a lot of Dogecoin to launch hundreds of CubeSats into space.
Second, the Outernet team hasn't worked out how to cherry-pick which websites will broadcast from the constellation. For now, it's asking users to make recommendations. But if the technical phase of the plan ever succeeds, crowdsourcing what's available online is going to get unwieldy fast. You can't include every user suggestion, and suddenly you've got a few internet editors arbitrarily controlling what information the world gets to receive.
Finally, some governments (especially the ones who are trigger-happy with the internet kill switch) and corporations may not take kindly to the rogue alt-internet, and they have the power and money to jam the signal, influence the people in charge of programming, or hack the connection. "There will be a constant security threat," Karem admitted on Reddit. "Outernet will be a prime target for system hacking."
All told, it seems the Outernet team—which includes a former FCC lawyer, a physicist, a graphic designer, and a space expert—has put a fair bit of thought into the project, but it's still incredibly ambitious. "This is a big hairy problem and we're still working through a lot of the issues," Karem wrote.
Nevertheless, they've laid out a very optimistic timeframe for the project: Develop prototypes by June, begin transmission testing on the International Space Station by September (they're requesting time on the spacecraft) and be up and running by summertime next year.
For now, it sounds like the kind of altruistic, pie-in-the-sky technoutopian vision we can file away in the Probably Someday But Not Right Now folder alongside the Hyperloop and Mars colonization. Though, if someone with the resources of Elon Musk wants to throw his weight behind the Outernet, it just might have a shot.