Startup Beams the Web’s Most Important Content from Space, Free

The world’s poor could benefit from a system that is blanketing half Earth’s surface with a signal that provides free access to Wikipedia and other useful websites.

Giving people who aren’t online a way to access certain information from the Web could help improve their quality of life.

What do you get if you cross a satellite TV receiver with the Internet? According to startup Outernet, a way to bring billions more people the benefit of online information.

When hooked up to a cheap TV satellite dish, this device can tap into a free signal that transmits content including Wikipedia, international news sources, and weather forecasts.

By renting communications satellites, Outernet is currently blanketing about half Earth’s surface with a signal that transmits data including much of Wikipedia, open-source software, health resources from the Centers for Disease Control, and international news coverage. Cheap devices based on regular satellite TV receivers store the data that the signal gradually transfers and create a local Wi-Fi network to let nearby computers, phones, or tablets access the downloaded content.

Outernet is putting together the first 100 prototypes of those devices, code-named “Pillars,” and starting to test them in the field. One is up and running in a village in western Kenya. Another is in the Dominican Republic, and a third will soon be installed at a Detroit anarchist community attempting to live off the grid. Outernet’s current signal broadcasts about 200 megabytes of data over the course of a day, making it possible to update content such as daily news and weather forecasts periodically. It covers North and Central America, all of sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and parts of Asia and the Middle East.

Syed Karim, Outernet’s founder and CEO, says his company is aimed at improving the quality of life and economic prospects of the world’s poorest people. “What are the elements anyone needs to be able to advance? Energy is probably the primary thing, and the next is information, whether for education or communications,” he says.

The UN estimates that 4.3 billion people do not use the Internet, mostly because the cost is prohibitive or their area lacks the infrastructure. Outernet’s free broadcast could give many of those people a way to access useful online information relatively quickly, says Karim. The World Bank has agreed to help roll out Pillar devices in South Sudan as a way to distribute educational material to schools. Teachers and pupils will still need to have devices or printers to make use of that information, though.

The designs and software for Outernet’s Pillar devices are freely available so people or companies can make their own versions. They currently cost around $150 to make, but that should fall below $100 once they are being made in larger numbers, says Karim.

Outernet is also working on a portable solar-powered receiver called Lantern. It can be hooked up to a dish to pick up Outernet’s existing signal and also has a built-in antenna designed to pick up a different kind of satellite signal that Outernet aims to switch on this summer. The company has taken orders for more than 5,000 Lantern devices. It has a grant from the U.K. Space Agency to have three small satellites made dedicated to broadcasting the Lantern signal. The first satellites and portable Lantern receiver devices are expected to be ready late this year.

Outernet, so far funded primarily by a crowdsourcing campaign that raised $600,000, is a minnow compared with other companies building new technologies to widen Internet access. Google is close to the first worldwide test of its stratospheric “Loon” balloons that can provide high-speed Internet to existing mobile devices (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2015: Project Loon”). Google and Facebook are both testing high-altitude drones for use in a similar way, and SpaceX and some other companies are planning fleets of low-orbit satellites for Internet access.

Karim counters that those projects are so far aimed at integrating into existing telecommunications networks and won’t offer free access to information. Outernet is already beaming down its signal and should be able to actually start helping people in large numbers more quickly, he says. Facebook’s project does make some parts of the Web free to use, including Wikipedia and news sites, but it can only reach places with existing mobile data coverage.

Outernet plans to support itself over the long term by acting like a traditional broadcaster. Any media outlet with a large enough audience can make money by charging companies to access it, and Outernet can reach billions of people, says Karim. “We’re going to climb up the economic chain along with our customers,” he says.

Karim says it is too early to say what kinds of deals Outernet will make. But he would prefer to use a sponsorship model rather than show ads on Outernet content. For example, a company might pay for its website to be included in the broadcast to a particular area. One distribution deal has already been struck: Dutch international public broadcaster Radio Netherlands Worldwide is paying for its content to be included in the Outernet broadcast.

Kurtis Heimerl, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who works on improving rural communications access, says that Outernet’s unusual approach could help many people. “Clearly there are communities throughout the world that could use this model of access,” he says.

Satellite TV is an important information source in many remote and poor parts of the world, and Outernet could provide a richer resource if it broadcasts the right content, says Heimerl. However, a one-way service like Outernet can only do so much, he says: “It’s unlikely to be a big, game-changing solution for rural access.” Karim says Outernet does have plans to use text messaging to add a degree of interactivity—for example, by letting people request certain content.

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