What if the internet could be free? What if information could flow freely, be accessible to the entirety of civilization? What if every human was connected? It is a question that has captivated myself for the past several years and has taken Modular Phones Forum halfway across the world.
Today we review the first step in a free, global data network. The device in our hands is the culmination of the 20th century space race, the silicon revolution, and over a hundred years of breakthroughs in science, electronics and mathematics.
Only now, in 2016 is such a project like OUTERNET possible. Today Modular Phones Forum will be using Outernet’s low-cost hardware to communicate with Galaxy-19 Data Satellite, over 30,000 miles above in orbit.
Our story begins not in orbit but in the American Rust Belt, which runs from upstate New York, all the way to Chicago. The name “Rust Belt” comes from the spectacular abandoned buildings that litter the now snowy landscape.
Much of their industry and manufacturing has since moved to China. Embers of art, music, education and high technology glow in the ashes of a landscape once fueled by coal and steel. It isn’t a surprise the urban exploring communities of the Rust Belt are some of the best in the world.
Outernet’s offices lie in Chicago, perhaps a symbol of their city’s creativity and strength amongst urban decay. Outernet’s ideas could change the lives of the estimated 3-5 billion that do not have affordable internet access.
What Outernet proposes is simple: Use an existing constellation of satellites to beam data, one way, down to those who cannot access the Internet. Gigabytes of data each day are transmitted, with 6 satellites in operation. Everything from Wikipedia, to news, to whole libraries of e-books rain down upon the earth via a solar powered radio link.
Anyone who sets up a satellite downlink can amass a gigantic library of information. For example, all of the English Wikipedia can be compressed to around 12gb of text. Outernet is claiming data rates of 1Gb/Day.
The most compelling aspect of Outernet just might be the low-cost, physical hardware itself. Utilising existing TV and smartphone components, the cost of advanced communications equipment is dropping.
For under $50, Ourternet’s prototype lighthouse arrives at Modular Phone’s San Francisco office. What we receive is a key to unlocking Information, education, and knowledge for billions of human beings.
The device also happens to be running Linux.
Let’s take a moment to admire that clear plastic Industrial Design. In most instances, the inner workings of technology are much more interesting than their outer shell.
Outernet seems to take pride in their Lighthouse satellite receiver. To me, electrical engineering and integrated silicon represent the pinnacles of human ingenuity. Why hide that? The hardware is clearly capable of much more, as it was repurposed from existing satellite TV equipment.
Lantern represents much more than a re-purposed satellite receiver, it represents the next shift in wireless computing. Built into their satellite radio is a 2.4 Ghz Wi-Fi Module. This is the defining leap, allowing information to be received and distributed on the ground.
Several years ago we reviewed the Pirate Library Box. It acts much the same as Outernet’s box, as it stores Gigabytes of information in memory and distributes it over a Wi-Fi network. Low cost devices like these allow whole libraries of information to distributed anywhere.
Outernet is the evolution of such “Library” devices. Future data receivers and storage devices will have mesh networking-like capabilities, allowing data to travel far beyond the device itself. Equipment like this will only grow cheaper, smaller, and more advanced as the cycles of manufacturing continue onward…
In developing nations, the vast majority of humanity accesses data through an Android phone (Although most still use “dumb” GSM handsets).
We are going to try to set up Outernet with nothing more than a 12v power supply, and quite possibly the most popular low cost Android phone ever made: the OG Moto G.
Unfortunately our testing was cut short by the adventures of our next article, but we did have time to speak with Outernet’s CEO:
“Right now we’re focusing on educational access” Syed Karim, Outernet’s CEO tells us over video call. The Internet has untold potential to educate the world, as Outernet just partnered with Khan Academy. Education can be stored in a box, and beamed to Earth from outer space.
Micha Benoliel, one of the creators of FireChat, joined our conversation. He explained how information can be distributed once on the ground: “Decentralized networks are the future.” Information will be available to anyone anywhere on Earth.
As technology develops, advanced networking will be even more accessible. Energy harvesting technologies such as solar and Ambient Backscatter Communication will only further these developments in communication, but that is surely for another article.
We are seeing ideas and technologies merge, creating new possibilities and opportunities for billions of human beings.
Karim’s team is working on their production device, Lantern. The Kickstarter funded device will be portable, solar powered, and allow anyone to set up a data downlink.
It took us an hour or so to set up the Lighthouse equipment, and another few hours of fiddling to point the satellite dish.
The new Lantern device would remove the barriers of setting up complicated satellite equipment.
What is so exciting is the technology will only advance and converge from there, it is truly in its infancy.
Benoliel paints a colorful vision of the future, “The Internet will be made of a multitude of proximal networks, connected through p2p mesh,” But these networks may exist far from the financial reaches of the Internet, connected by a sole Outernet receiver. “From time to time [these local networks] will connect to the bigger Internet.”
I surmise that these p2p networks will be so low cost, and so low power, that they will someday be as ubiquitous as sunlight or water.
But for now, Outernet has it’s sights set firmly on what is possible today. Karim and his team are exploring “What happens when we deliver content that can change a community” Because one article, tweet, or one app can change a community forever.
Before we could acquire our satellite signal, more pressing matters sent us to the opposite end of the Earth. Another world awaits, where fantastic technology meets ideas and venture capital. What emerges will change the human race forever.