Bringing internet access to the world
Where the internet has so far failed in reaching as many as five billion people around the globe, there are a number of forward-looking companies hoping to fill the void by replacing cables, telephones and power lines with satellite-based communications. They include high-powered outfits such as business magnate Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Google’s Project Loon and work on the internet.org project driven by Facebook. Another in the mix is New York-based Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), the financial muscle behind the free Outernet content distribution system aiming to bring basic web access to every corner of the world.
It works through a combination of geostationary and low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites, as well as the miniaturised cube satellites or ‘CubeSats’ produced by companies such as Glasgow-based Clyde Space. The Scottish firm has just completed construction of four CubeSats due for a pilot launch out of New Zealand early in 2017; if successful, up to 200 would be required for full-scale deployment.
“It would be great if this goes ahead,” says Craig Clark, founder and chief executive of Clyde Space. “The idea behind it is that we could provide a very vital service to large parts of the world that have no access or limited internet access. It is certainly an interesting mission from that point of view.”
Outernet’s goal is to provide free, anonymous educational information to those cut off from the wealth of data available online. Its target markets are those regions around the world facing government censorship, and those without the infrastructure needed to access the web. The catch is that in order to get Outernet’s content to as many people as possible efficiently and cheaply, the connection only goes one way.
The system uses a combination of datacasting and user datagram protocols (UDP), one of the most basic forms of internet protocol, invented back in the 1980s. UDP is very similar to conventional over-the-air radio or television broadcasts in that data is beamed from its source to any device that’s within range, with no guarantee that it will be received.
Datacasting, meanwhile, is exactly what it sounds like: a wide area broadcast using radio waves rather than physical media such as cables or power lines.
This new-age version of conventional radio is sent from Outernet’s headquarters across a variety of wavelengths until it hits a suitable receiver. But rather than relying on terrestrial radio stations, the Outernet bounces its signal up to a series of satellites, then back down to one of its receivers, which doubles as a wi-fi hotspot. It connects to a computer or mobile device and transfers the received data as a digital file.
Since there is no two-way communication, the system requires much lower bandwidth and is therefore much cheaper to operate. Clark believes this was a crucial element in winning the contract to supply Outernet with CubeSats, as Clyde Space has been focusing for the past few years on improving its production methods to bring down costs.
“I think it would be fair to say that we were more forward-thinking than our competitors on that front,” Clark says.
Syed Karim, chief executive of Outernet, says the company wants to solve the ‘information access problem’ as quickly as possible, and one of the ways to do that is by cutting costs.
While those who enjoy speedy internet connections expect to communicate with friends, publish their own sites and comment on the work of others, the fact remains that a huge part of the online experience is simply consuming content. Outernet aims to make a selection of the most useful content available to those lacking that basic capability.
Billed as ‘humanity’s public library’, the company is building a core archive of knowledge based on information from more than 5,000 Wikipedia entries and initiatives such as Project Gutenberg, the voluntary effort to digitise and archive cultural works to encourage the creation and distribution of ebooks. Meanwhile, the service’s ‘queue’ provides international and local news, crop prices, disaster relief and similar emergency communications. To help provide relevant regional news in local languages, Outernet is working with indigenous radio stations, newspapers and other media companies to source suitable content.
The service is free, and anyone with the proper equipment can pick up Outernet broadcasts. The company will soon begin shipping Lantern, its ready-made portable receiver, while its do-it-yourself kit retailing at as little as £63 has been available for some time.
Outernet and others such as internet.org have faced criticism for offering selective access to the web, which in the case of Outernet includes the opportunity for organisations to pay to prioritise their content in the queue. For example, Dutch broadcaster RNW has paid for delivery of its news briefs into Syrian refugee camps, while groups such as the United Nations and UNICEF have explored options for distributing their material over the network.
Such initiatives are aimed at helping listeners by giving them access to useful information that promotes health and trade, but raises questions about the neutrality of the material they are presented with.
But with estimates putting the global reach of the traditional internet a minimum of 15 years out, Karim argues that selective access is better than no access at all. At any rate, he adds that Outernet does not represent itself as an internet provider, but rather as a broadcaster – and the option of selecting one piece of content over another has always been a basic function of broadcasting. Outernet could therefore prove to be a valuable stop-gap service until conventional internet access is viable in these remote or censored regions. And like Ceefax in the UK or Minitel in France, this first glimpse into a global information network will likely spark demand for full internet access.
Clyde Space, which designed and manufactured Scotland’s first spacecraft, could therefore be in on the outset of another historic development in the new era of satellite-driven development.
“It’s very exciting to be part of something with such significant social ramifications,” Clark says. “This will make a huge difference in the lives of many people around the world.”
Published: 01 February 2017