Could Mini Satellites Provide Free Internet to All?

A venture capital firm plans to make the World Wide Web available to anyone with a WiFi-enabled device

Mini Satellite
A venture capital firm plans to launch hundreds of miniature satellites—capable of beaming websites to the world's most remote areas for free—into space by 2015. NASA

Since you're reading this, chances are you're one of many around the globe for whom "surfing the web," as it was once called, has become a way of life. But at last count, more than 5 billion people—roughly three quarters of the world's population—have yet to benefit from what is arguably one of the most important advancements of the last quarter century.

Only within the last few years has there been a real concerted effort to bridge the widening "digital divide." In New Zealand, Google is currently testing high-altitude balloons that could function as versatile, floating cellular towers. Meanwhile, rival and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has made finding a solution a personal crusade. His project, announced last year, is a collaboration between the world's largest social network and mobile phone companies to explore ways to expand affordable Internet access to poor and remote areas. The company is even reportedly in talks to enlist drones to distribute wireless Internet to under-served communities.     

And then there's Syed Karim, a lesser-known entrepreneur who has something with an even larger scope in mind. The former head of product development at Chicago Public Radio has laid out plans for a network of miniature satellites that could beam information from the World Wide Web to virtually anyone with a WiFi-enabled device—for free. It can, for instance, serve as an emergency information lifeline for victims of natural disasters, or allow those living under oppressive regimes to explore a marketplace of ideas and knowledge without the threat of censorship.

To explain, let's begin with a brief lesson in how the web is set up. The Internet, and in particular high-speed broadband, is made possible through a sprawling web of infrastructure that involves a host of network centers and service providers strung together by fiber optic cables. In developed regions, cellular towers further extend the web's reach wirelessly to phones and other mobile devices. Outside of this, only satellite systems can relay packets of data to the world's remaining blind spots.

The Outernet, as Karim envisions it, will be comprised of hundreds of toaster-sized satellites that, once in orbit, take data transmitted from ground stations and deliver it around the world for free as up-to-date web content.

The initiative, subsidized by venture capital firm Digital News Ventures, is seeking to raise “tens of millions” through donations on its website. The short-term goal is to secure enough funding to test the technology aboard the International Space Station, launching the first wave of satellites in June 2015.

In essence, the technology is—at least initially—actually a form of broadcasting, as users will only be able to freely download information from a limited number of non-commercial websites chosen by the community. Potential candidates include websites like Wikipedia, Khan Academy and Bitcoin. Users would be able to access anything on and within the sites that are chosen for the project—and in pages like Wikipedia, for instance, move between topics—but wouldn't be able to type in a web address at random, as many of us who use the Internet now do. Karim reasons that narrowing the project's scope not only makes it more feasible, but will also show how the ability to simply download a few basic websites can potentially have a huge impact. The company doesn't mention putting a data cap on the service.

“Outernet is not the Internet," Karim tells Fast Company. "It is simply the fastest and least expensive way to deliver rich content to the large fraction of humanity who cannot afford the information that many take for granted. Once that is addressed, then we'll work on the more complicated—and significantly more expensive—task of providing low-cost two-way Internet access.”

Karim and his team already have their work cut out for them. While land-based networks are designed to work as smooth and efficient information pipelines, packet data being sent out from moving satellites often runs into interference from space debris that can cause significant transmission latency. Anyone who's ever signed onto the Internet aboard a cruise ship, which relies on satellite signals, can attest to how painstakingly slow just downloading a file can be.

The project developers say they'll get around this problem by utilizing what's called Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN), an experimental protocol technology developed by space agencies to transfer data more efficiently across long distances.

Edward Birrane, head of Telecom Protocols, explained to Fast Company how this works:  

“These protocols and techniques give an Internet-like data exchange to spacecraft, allowing Outernet ground systems to patiently accumulate data over multiple passes, over multiple days, or over multiple weeks without fear of timeouts, expired networking sessions, or powering on-and-off the ground terminal,” Birrane says. “For the Outernet datacasting solution, telecommunications protocols such as DTN give the needed ability to stitch together large files—such as Wikipedia entries—as they are received bit-by-bit from those fast-traveling spacecraft.”

It's not clear how much funding the project has managed to raise so far, nor how much it would take to sustain something like this beyond the initial launch. For now, the biggest obstacle facing the researchers is simply getting the free-floating transponders into space. Though the cube-shaped micro-satellites are quite remarkable, packing an impressive array of communication instruments into a portable device that weighs less than three pounds, the costs of space freight service remains astronomical. For instance, Karim says a price quote from space transport firm SpaceX runs about $57 million for a 28,660 pound payload. 

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