A venture capital firm
plans to make the World Wide Web
available to anyone
with a WiFi-enabled device
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
Meanwhile, rival and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has made finding a solution a personal crusade.
His internet.org 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.
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:
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.
from FastCompany Website
to free-flowing, 100% up-time web access
for the other 4 billion?
In 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan brought down most of the Philippines' cell and radio towers, bringing information to a standstill at a crucial moment.
The same thing happened again earlier this month in Ukraine, but this time it was men with political motives, not nature, that severed access to the country's largest ISP.
But a fledgling system of Low Earth Orbit satellites known as the Outernet might mean an end to outages like this - making constant up-time a possibility, and with it, true human reliance on the Internet.
The question: Is that a good thing?
Four Billion People Have No Access To The Internet
It may come as a shock to anyone reading this article, online, right now, but as pervasive as the Internet is in 2014, two-thirds of the world still does not - and never has had - access to it.
That's almost 4 billion people who don't enjoy the same access to the open and free information that you and I do.
That 60% doesn't even cover when man or nature steps in to take the infrastructure out. We're just talking about people living in places too remote, too costly, or too poverty stricken to make it worthwhile setting up Internet infrastructure.
But more and more, access to information seems like a basic human right, right up there with access to clean water. And that's exactly the attitude of Syed Karim, creator of the Outernet:
The Short Wave Radio For The Digital Age
The Outernet is an ambitious project.
Using open source hardware and software Karim and his team will launch hundreds of nano satellites into Low Earth Orbit in 2016.
These satellites will encircle the planet delivering packets of information, much the way BitTorrent does now, to anyone on the globe as long as they have a Wi-Fi-enabled device.
But it's only after Karim left graduate school and began working for Chicago Public Radio that his idea fully took shape.
It is data-casting that lies at the heart of Outernet and it's also why Karim's solution is so much less expensive and easier to deploy than other global Internet networks like Facebook's internet.org and Google's Project Loon.
Outernet is a one-way platform. It will broadcast free data to any Wi-Fi device on the planet but will not, at first, allow those receiving the broadcasts to broadcast back.
But that one-way information is nothing to scoff at.
For the first time ever an additional 4 billion people could be able to receive, download, and store data locally on any Wi-Fi device. Users could then share this data with other owners of Wi-Fi devices via ad hoc device-to-device networks - no Internet connection required.
Such a way of receiving one-direction data no doubts lends comparisons of Outernet to short wave radio, but it is much more versatile than that.
While shortwave radio requires active listeners during a live broadcast and offers no way to send that broadcast to other listeners, the Outernet allows people to download large packets of data in the form of any kind of digital content - be it videos or entire websites - and share it with anyone with a Wi-Fi device.
The humanitarian and political implications of this are huge. In a natural disaster scenario, like the Philippine typhoon, Outernet could have easily broadcast entire websites full of medical and rescue advice to victims across the country.
In Ukraine it could have enabled those in the resistance movement to share up-to-date information from one Wi-Fi device to the next, no matter if Russian sympathizers took down all of the country's ISPs.
The Internet Protocol For Outer Space
Of course before Outernet can broadcast web data to any Wi-Fi device on the globe the team leading the ambitious project has several objectives to overcome from both a hardware and software perspective.
The first is getting hundreds of nano-satellites into space.
When I express my amazement over the fact that a small startup is trying to launch satellites - something I presume only large, very rich multinationals or governments have the capability to do - Aaron Rogers, head of Outernet's Mission Engineering, says this task is actually relatively simple.
In other words, there's satellites going up into space all the time and because of it, even smaller companies can often hitch a ride on space shuttles to get their gear up into space along with the Big Boy's stuff. Yes, even you reading this could get a satellite up in the air.
Here's a schedule for the next open rideshares.
But before the satellites go up, Outernet will be testing its data-casting technology on the International Space Station.
That's because, unlike the terrestrial Internet, which sends standardized packets of data consistently and reliably from one point to another over the Internet Protocol (IP) standard, data signals beamed from space are prone to suffering from packet disruption because receivers on Earth are trying to talk to small spacecraft traveling at thousands of miles per hour overhead for five or so minutes at a time before suffering potential data disruptions due to the constantly moving paths of satellites along their orbits.
But Edward Birrane, head of Telecom Protocols at Outernet, says the system will use a new communications technology called Delay/Disruption Tolerant Networking (DTN) that is being researched by the space agencies of the world as a way to standardize packetized data for space links.
The resulting way web data will then be delivered to Outernet users can perhaps best be likened to technology dating back to the 1990s, according to Branko Vukelic, software developer at Outernet.
Indeed it isn't.
The crawling and compiling web data will be done by Outernet's software, with the end result being a downloadable archive that would be served to all devices on a local network. The end user would only filter out content they want to discard, and manage the rest on their local archive.
The more one learns about Outernet it's hard not to appreciate all the ingenuity that went in to hacking a grand-scale humanitarian technological idea into place.
But there's one lingering question that arises:
Open Source, Community-Driven Content
The answer to who chooses content for four billion people when they themselves have no means of browsing and selecting it independently, Vukelic says, is a community driven group of editors, like Wikipedia has, and a community of voters, like Reddit has - only on a much larger scale.
The CSDS voting system will allow anyone with an Internet connection to submit content they think should be shared. The community of voters can then "vote up" content, with the web content with the most votes chosen to be broadcast over Outernet.
Vukelic admits that the system does have its challenges.
After all, how do you create fair and inclusive content selection process? One possibility under consideration is a weighted voting system that gives more weight to votes in a specific geographic area.
For example, if another hurricane hits the Philippines, votes from people who live in the surrounding area may be given more weight for which content to broadcast next.
Outernet's CSDS will be a mix of web app, API, and mashups that will funnel all input into its database and manage the presentation of requests and votes. The company will start with the web app and API components using Google AppEngine as its base, and Python as the language of the choice.
It also plans to provide a full API to allow third-party developers to come up with new ways to vote, and not just rely on its own UI.
Getting Ready to Launch
Once Outernet comes on air it will deliver web data to the two-thirds of the planet that has never accessed the Internet.
The data will not only include a complete copy of some of the greatest collections of human knowledge, like Wikipedia in its entirety, but international and local news, crop prices for farmers, and educational course content from Khan Academy, Open Source Ecology, and Teachers Without Borders.
It will also be used as a global notification system for emergency communications to help coordinate disaster relief and provide the free flow of information in war-torn or dictatorial countries.
That's the plan, anyway.
But while Outernet's launch in 2016 is only a few short years away, founder Syed Karim admits that there are plenty of steps his team still needs to achieve to get Outernet - what he calls "basically a monster-sized version of Flipboard" - into space.
But he's confident his team is up for the challenge - and the goal is worth pursuing.
...to Anyone in
12 March, 2014
Outernet's founder Syed Karim and his team
plan to deploy low-cost mini-satellites
to act like shortwave radios
covering the world as early as
June next year.
Outernet wants to solve two problems - costly internet data plans and freedom of information.
According to the project website, there are more
computing devices on earth than people, yet only 40 per cent of the global
population enjoys internet access - which the team calls a "human right".
Until the team is better able to develop a broadcast service strong enough for large cities, the project will give priority to people who otherwise have no access to the internet.
Outernet is still more conceptual than executional.
But it hopes to get the cost of each mini-satellite down to US$100,000, the launch cost to US$200,000 per satellite and the cost of providing high-speed coverage, preferably on the 802.11 frequency, as low as possible.
Another issue is the cloud of content Outernet plans to provide.