How the ‘Outernet’ Plans to Broadcast Free Internet from Space

Like a modern-day shortwave radio.

Apr 15 2014, 4:22pm
Outernet wants to launch hundreds of microsatellites into orbit. Image: Wikimedia

When the Outernet project was first announced in February, some commenters on the web figured it was a scam. The plan does have a certain pie-in-the-sky utopian ring to it: thwarting censorship and ensuring information as a human right throughout the globe by beaming crowdsourced content from nanosatellites in outer space, funded by VC seed money and user donations.


But the plan, while ambitious, is quite serious, and the many moving pieces are progressing along, Outernet founder Syed Karim told me over the phone yesterday. He dismissed the naysayers: "I mean, why does it matter if someone thinks it's not feasible. Why not just wait and see? Why get into a debate on something that will eventually prove itself out?"

To be clear, the idea here isn't another Facebook/Google-style effort to carry internet access through the sky to the last mile on drones and balloons. Not exactly. Karim describes it as mix between modern-day shortwave radio and BitTorrent from space. It's a media company, seeded by the Digital News Ventures investment firm, and the goal is to provide access to content, information, apps, and tools—free—to every global citizen.

The shortwave radio comparison is apt. Shortwave frequencies helped localize radio so you could tune in from anywhere, even in rural areas in the middle of nowhere. Now take that concept and add multicast web content, and replace radio towers with a satellite constellation in low orbit, and you start to get a sense for how the Outernet would work.

It would start as a one-way broadcast; users could interact with websites sent on Outernet's channels, but not access the whole web. Karim has a vague plan to let the users dictate the content that's provided, not a team of editors acting like gate-keepers. Users could request the information they want to see—say a farmer in Bangladesh wants to learn more about the weather conditions and crop prices for the rice he's growing—through the Outernet Facebook page, and the team will look for trends and common topics to help decide what channels to broadcast.

Seem a little half-baked? That's because it is. At this point, the team is thinking less about content curation and more about how to build the space satellite-based broadcast distribution system in the first place.

"The goal for the alpha constellation, something that could theoretically be deployed in two years, is for 24 satellites across 4 orbital planes," said Karim. That's a Roomba-style satellite constellation, with six satellites per plane, enough "to offer more or less continuous global coverage, with some hiccups in here and there," he said.

Image: Outernet

He's talking to SpaceX to negotiate a price for launching the microsats into orbit, which will be the most expensive chunk of the Outernet pie in the sky. In a Reddit forum in February, Karim 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. He declined to get into pricing details over the phone, only to estimate it would cost less than $10 million for the entire Outernet project to become fully operational.

Karim has also reached out to the International Space Station to request time onboard to test the system, and expects an answer by June.

In the meantime, the team is working on building their own microsatellites to send into orbit, and receivers to spread throughout the ground—they're currently crowdsourcing design ideas on CrowdSPRING.

Sixty percent of the planet still lives outside the internet infrastructure, and this is where the Outernet equipment comes in. The receivers will sell for about $100 each, which Karim hopes will create a network of thousands of beam spots. Outernet content would also be transmitted from ground stations to wi-fi routers or smartphones.

Those transmissions would be open and beamed globally, which Karim argues would help secure the connection against jamming or other censoring attacks, though "security is a tough nut,” he admitted. “I can't say this is a bulletproof solution. If someone is hell bent on taking something down, be it a hacker or government agency, I can't assure that they won't succeed."

You can think of Outernet transmissions like open-source code, he explained. "There's no malware in Ubuntu because you have thousands of developers constantly reviewing the codebase," he said. "Censorship is something a little different. A bad actor could jam the signals, but this would have a localized effect. I am not aware of anyone being able to jam multiple spot beams all over the world."

Karim, who described himself as a "failed economist and a failed librarian," has been studying the social and economic impact of internet access for years, and believes he’s finally arrived at a workable solution that can be pulled off at a relatively low cost. He said the seed funding from Digital News Ventures would be enough to test the first broadcast, and if the company grows the way he's hoping—to tens or hundreds of millions of users—it would try to turn a profit the same way any other media company does—namely, by selling ads.

That's a long way off. According to the timeline on the Outernet website, the plan is to develop prototypes by June, start the first data broadcasts by July, begin transmission testing on the space station by September, and be up and running by summertime next year. "This means that by July, you can stick any Ku-band satellite dish—the kind you see all over Asia and Africa—and receive broadcast data from Outernet," said Karim.

Outernet still has a lot of hurdles to clear to prove it’s possible: getting bandwidth, building its proprietary microsats, striking a deal with SpaceX to launch its payload, getting approval from the ISS, cherry-picking from millions of webpages to program content, and finding a way to pay for it all.