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Hundreds of tiny satellites could soon deliver free internet worldwide

Published time: February 21, 2014 20:33
Edited time: February 23, 2014 11:34
The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, deploys a set of NanoRacks CubeSats.(Reuters / NASA)

The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, deploys a set of NanoRacks CubeSats.(Reuters / NASA)

Developers say they are less than a year away from deploying prototype satellites that could someday soon broadcast free and universal internet all over the globe from high in orbit.

The “Outernet” project being bankrolled by the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) of New York is currently in the midst of conducting technical assessment of the project, but say by June they hope to develop test satellite in order to see how long-range WiFi would work if beamed down by a tiny 10x10x10-centimeter payload called a CubeSat.

If all goes as planned, a test CubeSat will be sent into orbit next January, and within a few years there could be hundreds of similar devices circling the Earth and sending back down internet signals. Once that is accomplished, countries that largely censor the web — like China and North Korea — would be hard-pressed to restrict internet access without also going into orbit.

"We exist to support the flow of independent news, information, and debate that people need to build free, thriving societies," MDIF President Peter Whitehead told the National Journal recently. "It enables fuller participation in public life, holds the powerful to account and protects the rights of the individual."

To accomplish as much, though, MDIF is facing a rather uphill battle, at least with regards to funding. Funny enough, sending hundreds of tiny WiFi ready satellites into orbit isn’t as inexpensive as one might imagine.

Syed Karim, MDIF's director of innovation, told the National Journal’s Alex Brown that it would take only three years and $12 billion to get the project up and running.

But "We don't have $12 billion,” Karim said, “so we'll do as much as we can with CubeSats and broadcast data.”

Broadcasting data,” Outernet says on their website, “allows citizens to reduce their reliance on costly internet data plans in places where monthly fees are too expensive for average citizens. And offering continuously updated web content from space bypasses censorship of the Internet.”

Around 40 percent of the planet currently doesn’t have access to any sort of internet service, the company claims, but basic CubeSats could send one-way signals down to earth to deliver news or content through a “global notification system during emergencies and natural disasters,” their website says.

Access to knowledge and information is a human right and Outernet will guarantee this right by taking a practical approach to information delivery. By transmitting digital content to mobile devices, simple antennae and existing satellite dishes, a basic level of news, information, education and entertainment will be available to all of humanity.” If they can succeed with that, then Outernet hopes to start figuring a way to let customers send data back to the CubeSats, ideally creating free, “two-way internet access for everyone” in a few years’ time.

During a recent question-and-answer session on the website Reddit, Karim explained that the Outernet project is already being more affordable because some of the most expensive aspects of the endeavor, at least with regards to research, have already been considered by other entrepreneurial space experts.

There isn't a lot of raw research that is being done here; much of what is being described has already been proven by other small satellite programs and experiments,” Karim said.

There's really nothing that is technically impossible to this,” he added. “But at the prospect of telecoms operators trying to shut the project down before it gets off the ground,” Karim said, “We will fight... and win.”

Meanwhile, his group is gunning to figure out how to make that dream a reality without going over budget. Getting one of those tiny CubeSats into orbit could cost upwards of $100,000, Brown reported, and slightly larger satellites being considered by Outernet could run three times that.

"We want to stay as small as possible, because size and weight are directly related to dollars," Karim said. "Much of the size is dictated by power requirements and the solar panels needed satisfy those requirements."

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