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?
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: a free, universally accessible information service that beams Internet information—be it entire websites like Wikipedia, emergency broadcast messages, or video classes from the Khan academy—to any Wi-Fi-enabled device across the globe.
"We fundamentally believe that in order for our species to advance—for humanity to get to the next step in development—that no one can be denied a certain level of education and information. If there is a curiosity it should be satiated," says Karim.
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.
"I've been thinking about this problem for almost seven years," Karim says. "I started actively working on it about four years ago. I originally enrolled in graduate school with the desire to pursue a PhD in the economic impact of information access. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had just brought a satellite Internet link to the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe. I was fascinated by the idea of measuring the positive social and economic impact that increased access to digital information had on a society."
But it’s only after Karim left graduate school and began working for Chicago Public Radio that his idea fully took shape.
"I was asked to head product development at Chicago Public Radio (now Chicago Public Media), which is where I began exploring data-casting in more detail."
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.
"Our initial focus is on solving a very specific problem: lack of access to a basic level of information and education for all of humanity," Karim says. "Outernet is not the Internet. 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."
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.
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 nanosatellites 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.
"We’re going to fully exercise a global resource network of secondary and tertiary opportunistic rideshare opportunities that are being offered through third-party integration service providers," he says.
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.
"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-travelling spacecraft."
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.
"Sometime around the turn of the century I used to have an Internet connection through a regular modem that could run at speeds of around 30-something kbps," Vukelic says. "I used a web crawler, I think it was HTTrack but I could be mistaken, to download entire sites during the night, and create offline archives that could run on a local server without Internet connection. That was necessary in order to keep the phone line free during the day. It's hard to claim 'those were the days,' but at that time, it worked pretty well for me. Outernet isn't so different from this."
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: If Outernet only broadcasts web data to users, who chooses which data is made available?
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 first piece that we will build is the content selection and discovery system (CSDS for short). The system has two purposes," Vukelic says. "One is content selection, which is facilitated through weighted voting systems, and another is content discovery. Since end users don't necessarily have access to search engines, the system would have to present a request, and have the community find and suggest adequate content."
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.
"We want to give more strength to the voices of actual Outernet end users, but we also don't want to leave out people who want to help them. While end users should have more say in what they want to see/read/hear, people who are not necessarily end users might know more about the content end users don’t," Vukelic says.
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.
"The entire system should be usable, within its technical constraints, by as many people as possible, and especially the users that otherwise have no alternative," Vukelic says. "Missing an uplink capability, we need to find alternative ways for end users on the ground to give us meaningful feedback. We will look into everything and anything that lets us do this, including accepting community-transcribed voice messages or scanned handwritten mail, and anything else we can think of. Carrier pigeons? No method of requesting content should be too crazy for Outernet."
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.
"Imagine if everyone in the world had access to the latest resources for learning, constantly updated," Karim says. "And now imagine that this is available for free. What does the future of humanity look like when a basic level of information and education is available to everyone? I don't know what it looks like, but I really want to find out."