Providing Information Equality with Satellites

Outernet’s prototype portable satellite receiver dish terminal. Image from Outernet.

Outernet is proposing to broadcast information, via satellite, to portable base stations that are also wireless networks.  The wireless networks would be free and open to the very poor around the world.  Outernet wants to provide information equality to those poor people.

They mean well, I suppose.  And it’s a very interesting idea they’re pursuing with some simple but well-made hardware.  The hardware and idea, both developed by Outernet, seem to address a problem that maybe we in the “first” world see, but maybe someone who is just looking for a non-lethal drink of water or fighting for a meal may not even want.  It’s that whole “heirarchy of needs” thing that Outernet might be pushing against.

The idea and devices were developed by Outernet, who have designed a very portable satellite receiver dish.  Using existing terminals, Outernet would initially uplink their data to existing geosynchronous (GEO) communication satellites.  Eventually, Outernet proposes they’ll have their own ground system that will send data to cheaper low earth orbiting (LEO) cubesats that will then send information down to the receiver dish.

The dish would receive signals from a satellite.  The signal loops, sending the same data over and over.  The data within those signals has already been prepackaged in a way to be efficiently transmitted.  The satellite receiver dish would receive the transmitted data, and save it.  The data itself would be a “collection of the greatest works of humanity, as decided by humanity.” The collection resides on a storage drive in the receive dish, on a local wireless network, to be accessed by locals whenever they are in range.  The core of the collection would be all of Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, open courseware, and works Outernet dubs as critical–all broadcast in various languages.  The information would always be updated, but it wouldn’t be a “real” internet connection, since no signal is generated from the satellite dish to the satellite.  And the presentation to the viewer wouldn’t be quite like what you or I are used to on the internet, due to data bandwidth constraints.

But, according to this Wired post, Outernet say they aren’t trying to solve an internet connectivity problem.  Rather, they are trying to resolve an information deficit/equality problem, and resolving that problem doesn’t necessarily require a two-way data connection, at least to the satellite.  This might work, but I do wonder if their identified customers will really appreciate this.

The internet is a good thing.  It’s helped to make things cheaper, provides access to knowledge, allows ideas to mingle, etc.  We recognize this in the US.  But here in the US even the poor have cable TV, access to cheap food, etc.  (although, I see a lot of homeless out there–and if my job situation keeps deteriorating, I may be joining them).  Access to banks, social and health nets, employment portals, have a network component to them now.  We all see the necessary as something useful, fun, interesting, and more.  So something like this might make sense to us.

But in areas where there are more fundamental survival issues, this may not be viewed as necessary at all.  Would a concept like information equality even make sense in that kind of scenario?  I guess we will find out by watching Outernet.  You can follow them by going to their site and reading their blog.  And people don’t have to buy their equipment.  They actually show some DIY instructions, based on a Raspberry Pi.

I wish them luck and I hope they do succeed in this endeavor.  If they’re right, maybe there is a thirst for more than the basics out there.  If you’re interested in following them, just go to their blog, here.

Image from Outernet.

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