Stumbling about through various tech and radio forums one night, I happened across a thread about the “Outernet”, egotistically thinking what is this Outernet and why did it take two years for me to discover it?
Seems I am in good company, while a quick Google search will return plenty of information, there is seemingly very little press promoting this enchanting technology.
Outernet calls itself “Radio for the digital age” which while technically correct, leads to a bit of confusion, Outernet is not about audio transmission, but “filecasting” . From the Outernet website; “Outernet’s filecast is a groundbreaking innovation in broadcasting, marrying radio broadcasting with file delivery, transcending the format and time limitations of traditional radio or TV broadcasting.”
Still confused? That’s Okay, Outernet is about transmitting files over radio transmissions VIA satellite to receivers which receive data and display the “filecasted” information on any web browser in a style reminiscent to the bulletin boards of the 80’s. Radio in contrary, the online experience holds with a traditional file hierarchy themed as a public library. With Librarian as the home page title, content is accessed using a simple, traditional, intuitive interface.
Curiosity piqued, I ordered Outernet’s DIY components to receive their L-Band service to experience this alternative method of data sharing firsthand. This is not a how-to or DIY article so briefly, the components arrived within a few days (they only traveled 30 miles VIA post) and went together within minutes. I found a suitable spot that coincides with one of the Inmarsat Geostationary Satellite locations, fiddled around with the small L-Band receiving antenna to get the signal to noise ratio down and that was it, data packets were being received and cached. As depicted, the installation is not pretty, not in an ideal location, nor permanent. That was purposeful if this technology was deployed in the most rural areas, the poorest areas, likely with little technical prowess it not always going to be pretty. It had to function, as well it did. After my successful “installation” I remembered all the websites and YouTube videos I watched while I awaited the hardware, so I knew best thing was to come back the next day and see what I had captured.
Sure enough the next day there were news stories, comprehensive world weather, and other bits of content some interesting, some seemingly specifically uploaded for a particular audience, very cool stuff. The bitrate was very close to the 2kbps that Outernet mentions in spec, equal to about 20MB of content daily. Okay, I see your faces, I know, the question is naturally Why? 20MB in a day? This is 2017 not 1984! Yes I understand, if you are reading this, It’s NOT ABOUT YOU! You have access to more content than consumable. This is about the majority of the world population that does not have access to data. It’s wonderful that the hobbyists among us are curious enough to try it out, to understand and through that curiosity help keep Outernet running and developing and transmitting data, but understand, this experience is not about You.
Those without…. Most of us
From the website http://www.internetlivestats.com/internet-users/ who provide yearly statistics of internet users to world population, in 2016 we had not reached 50% penetration of population. Think of that the next time you complain about your WiFi.
(% of Pop)
|2016*||3,424,971,237||46.1 %||7,432,663,275||4,007,692,038||7.5 %||238,975,082||1.13 %|
Outernet has the potential to deliver content into areas where for the nearly 5 billion people today who lack basic internet access either because they live in remote rural areas or due to restrictive censorship on the part of the local government. That’s what excites me! Other than the hardware cost it is free, the technology can be solar powered, has a self-contained Wi-Fi hotspot for easy connection, suffers from few security concerns (and let’s face it, this is certainly not a hacker target) and most importantly can get critical information including weather, health and safety to those who don’t have and have never had access!
Reasons why 4 billion don’t have internet access!
Where are these people? Of course, they are everywhere, but this map illustrates the neediest in the world.
Keep it Simple
Quoting the Outernet website, their content goals. (https://outernet.is/content-guidelines)
We do not have strict rules about what content topics belong on Outernet, but we encourage users to submit content that satisfies one of the following principles. That said, we also enjoy funny cat videos.
EDUCATION – A work that enables a user to be a more informed participant in society or aids in moving them towards a higher plane of knowledge or skill.
TRUTH – A work should be true and support the right of the public to truth.
TRANSPARENCY – A work should allow a user to have greater understanding of the institutions that affect their daily life.
EMPOWERMENT – A work that gives a user an enhanced ability to manipulate the course of their life towards their intended goal.
HEALTH AND SAFETY – A work that provides the information to lead a healthier, safer, and ultimately more enjoyable life.
QUALITY OF LIFE – A work that either directly or indirectly provides a means for a user to improve their quality of life.
Wonderful stuff for those without, sharing downloadable PDF books for children in remote areas to study, weather information, simple things that most of us take for granted available to those who have never had. It’s what our “information age” should be all about.
Some of the recent content downloaded includes: interactive weather data, BBC News, Medline, World Health Organization files, Ham Radio files, Offline Wikipedia pages, every time you look there is something new as someone has uploaded content (that is proctored, monitored for acceptable content, yes it is censored)
Reminding you that our normal unfiltered American internet experience is not the intent, this is about education and access to vital, helpful data. Since this data is available to locations who have stricter laws, different customs and government bans, Outernet’s premise is, if it doesn’t belong in the public library, it doesn’t belong on Outernet. Remember that library theme? Agreed, I am all about free speech and an open internet but when you have a very small bucket of content, an audience who has very little and focusing towards useful data (ok you can make your judgment on useful) relevant streamline content is paramount.
Who are they?
“Outernet Inc is a global broadcast data company which received its initial investment from the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), a United States-based impact investment fund and non-profit organization established in 1995 Outernet’s goal is to provide free access to content from the web through geostationary and Low Earth Orbit satellites, made available effectively to all parts of the world.”
The company’s co-founder, Syed Karim, told the BBC “When you talk about the internet, you talk about two main functions: communication and information access,”. “It’s the communication part that makes it so expensive.”
A single receiver in an African village, according to Karim’s Ted Talk, could provide reams of valuable information to as many as 300 local residents—everything from school texts, agricultural texts to health, and human services. “If you were in the vicinity of a hotspot receiving the data from the satellite, you would be able to connect with Outernet on your phone and see Librarian—our index software—as if it was just an offline website,” he said. “There you would find the data, stored in files.”
What we can do?
If you see the value of placing human services, educational and health data in the hands of those without, the single best action is to promote, build awareness, and spread the word. Secondly if your curious and a hobbyist sort, buy a lantern or the DIY bits and assemble your own, you will garner a great experience, understand and appreciate what you already have, while supporting future development and refinement of the platform. Spread the word, it may not be for you, but it’s not all about you is it??