The Outernet
June 5, 2016 1:08 PM   Subscribe

For 60% of humanity, the Internet as we know it does not exist, so we built a new way to share information.

"Through working with the UK Space Agency on the Astro Pi project we’ve learnt about something called Outernet...Anyone receiving the broadcast then has access to all that stuff for free! The idea is that you can receive it in locations around the world where there is little or no internet infrastructure; or perhaps where the regime in power curtails access to information." A thorough explanation of the key concepts and technology.

Founder: Saša_Vučinić
"In 1995, with seed money from George Soros's Open Society Institute, Vučinić and the late Washington Post journalist Stuart Auerbach formed the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), an international non-profit organization based in New York City, Prague, Hong Kong, and Singapore with the goal of establishing a fund to provide loans to independent press organizations in new democracies with histories of government oppression of the media...By 2012, MDLF had made over $100 million in loans to newspapers, magazines, radio stations and websites around the world, funding over 200 projects in 30 countries; by the same year, over 36 million people in the developing world were getting their news from media financed by MDLF."
posted by Michael Tellurian (27 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Really hard to find anyone who's been hands-on, but someone made a YouTube review.

AFAICT this is downlink-only, so more like an Innernette delivered to you once a day. Still would be interesting if combined with a low-bitrate uplink or sidelink and something like Fidonet delivery.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:39 PM on June 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

This is awesome. Hopefully they can keep it clean, and not infected with [advertisements/marketing/brand management/etc.]. Oppressive governments aren't the only bad actors.
posted by yesster at 1:47 PM on June 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Bummer. The "support us" link is down.
posted by nevercalm at 1:49 PM on June 5, 2016

As usual, stay away from the comments section?

posted by Chuffy at 1:51 PM on June 5, 2016

Well, time to join the land rush and start up the Left Join Net.
posted by pwnguin at 2:06 PM on June 5, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is actually pretty cool. I have a Raspberry Pi sitting in a box here that I might just turn into a receiver as a side project. Thanks for the link!
posted by some loser at 2:07 PM on June 5, 2016

My first response: I lul'd. This looks like a parody of itself. There are so many attempts to bring people technology without really asking them what they can use, and leading with "hey, get Khan Academy FROM SPACE" and "$99 plus free global shipping" just feels like the same old song. See OLPC as the founding example of this kind of tech hubris (not to mention everything Negroponte did before that).

Mesh projects seem to be sort of perpetually hobbled along these lines. I've worked with a few of these projects, and they are full of very kind wonderful people. But even the ones which have been listened to potential users (see: Commotion) are struggling to keep these projects sustainable. I am bummed to find my friends at Serval have a website which is now defunct.

Then I realized it's probably not actually a parody. I really wish it was, because it's depressing to want to see the return of the distributed Internet and find yourself going to so many times in making one comment. Guess I have to wait for the Decentralized Web conference next week.

On second review of Outernet, though, a broadcast system probably will be of some use to places like Cuba and Iran, if they can get through the way they say they will. The sneakernets/paquetes systems you see in countries like Cuba will probably make a one-GB-blast-a-day system feel familiar to users there. But this team is really going to need to focus hard on what is working and what people in their target markets really want.

/me goes to apply to Outernet as a user researcher
posted by gusandrews at 2:11 PM on June 5, 2016 [18 favorites]

Well, I guess this is an interesting idea but I wonder a little about who it is targeting. I mean, people who are able to set up, operate, maintain, and power a mini-computer and satellite dish but don't have access to cell phone towers or a telephone line? It sounds a lot like other projects people start with the intention of "helping the third world" using first-world technology which is not a good match for the problem.

It did lead me to the wikipedia page on internet usage in africa, which discusses many of the other ways people are trying to get more widespread internet access throughout the continent. Ways which include full 2-way internet, which frankly seems to be exponentially more beneficial for everyone.
posted by ianhattwick at 2:12 PM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

After not previewing,
+1 for what guasandrews said.
posted by ianhattwick at 2:14 PM on June 5, 2016

It can't be monitored, except, of course, by noticing who has a 2 foot satellite dish stuck to their roof.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:22 PM on June 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

Good news: this sort of this already exists in Iran. It's called Toosheh.

Yes, satellite receivers are banned there, but in practice it's barely enforced. Toosheh doesn't need any fancy hardware- you just need to be able to record off your receiver and load the recording onto your computer. Software decodes the video into usable data.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:32 PM on June 5, 2016 [6 favorites]

Adding to what BungaDunga observed -- if Toosheh already has a foothold in the market (and there are a number of excellent projects led by or working with expat Iranians which do), Outernet is going to need to make a case for why it understands and serves Iranians better than expat Iranians do. (The Rakhsh and Rostam VPNs are named for Persian mythical heroes.)
posted by gusandrews at 2:39 PM on June 5, 2016

Mind you the article suggests that the funding for Toosheh is pretty murky so there's good odds it's being funded by the State Department or similar, so having competing providers is probably a good thing.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:40 PM on June 5, 2016

How do I go about joining this 60%?
posted by goHermGO at 3:26 PM on June 5, 2016

From a Wired article: In order to offer its services for free, Outernet allows organizations to pay to prioritize their content in queue... [snip] ...this type of paid prioritization is the exact opposite of network neutrality, a move that will surely raise red flags amongst internet freedom advocates.

Indeed, red flag raised for me. I always like these ideas in theory, but the fine print most often reveals a troubling pay-for-play content curation plan. I understand funding is difficult for these projects, but I just have too much reservation because of this. It's an uncomfortable slippery slope when the 'information' chosen for dissemination is influenced by money.
posted by bologna on wry at 4:31 PM on June 5, 2016 [7 favorites]

. I mean, people who are able to set up, operate, maintain, and power a mini-computer and satellite dish but don't have access to cell phone towers or a telephone line?

I'm not saying this project is good, but there are definitely people like that in rural Australia and America, and presumably in other countries that are big enough.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 4:37 PM on June 5, 2016

What a strange project. I have to think if someone can get the parts necessary to build / install a receiver, they'd be better off just getting a terabyte hard drive preloaded with data. As they say, "If you could give every human on Earth a 1GB USB drive filled with content, what would you put on it?". Um, why not just give them a 1000GB USB drive? Space broadcast does allow frequent updates, which is neat, but for stuff like teaching materials or Wikipedia isn't one bulk transfer better than a satellite dribble?

I was curious what they were using for transmitters in space, here's the Wiki page describing it.

There is something magic about decoding signals from space though. The first time I saw my friend get a weather map from a Raspberry Pi and a cheap SDR tuner was pretty amazing.
posted by Nelson at 7:30 PM on June 5, 2016

There are stories from Hungary and Romania of modems appearing, without any letters or numbers on the circuit boards at all. Only 300 baud, as that's all you really need to interface with a text-based BBS. Sprinkled freely wherever there was good or even adequate phone service.

In the Year of Our Lord 2016, if you cannot get 2400 baud from satellite or meshed land systems, we are really aiming far too high. All of Facebook and Twitter that involves language and people talking to one another can be condensed into plaintext, or even unicode, and served up over a 300 baud modem if you're patient - bidirectional.

Maybe more BBS satellites, accessible with cheap and anonymous hardware sprinkled wherever there is good, or even adequate sunlight for the solar charging. Maybe fewer whatever the hell this one-way thing is.

Or maybe Google or Facebook or Amazon should get off their fucking ass and make usenet usable again, so farmers from similar climates can trade notes and access papers from noted scientists who know their crop and climate over a 2400 baud satellite link. No, they're trying to shove a gig's worth of javascript down your browser's throat to spy on you instead. Thanks. Great.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:26 PM on June 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

That's unfair. GNU, Mozilla, Linux Foundation, all of the fucking BSDs, looking especially sharply at Open, make usenet usable again for plaintext (or unicode) interaction between people. Please.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:33 PM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

Having worked in network engineering for two-way satellite Internet for years: This is a really, really stupid idea. Nobody wants one way data. They want a two way interactive link. I don't think these people have crunched the numbers on how much it costs to launch even a few 200 to 500 kilogram sized satellites into orbit, and the full cost of running earth stations/teleports to support it.

There are a lot of interesting and amazing things going on with satellite Internet to reach extremely remote areas of the world (o3b, new geostationary technology, etc) without confusing people by the ramblings of dilettantes.
posted by thewalrus at 9:12 PM on June 5, 2016 [3 favorites]

1. Find out how people are getting pirated movies / pr0n
2. Use that
posted by benzenedream at 10:03 PM on June 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yup, BungaDunga, most of these projects get at least some State Department money (as have I for the past 3 years on related projects, AMA). And yes, bologna on wry, this smacks of zero-rating, which more fans of net neutrality should get angry about, because in India, much of Africa, etc it adds up to unequal Internet for poorer populations.
posted by gusandrews at 10:05 PM on June 5, 2016

I kinda think mesh networking should focus on allowing neighbors to share the overpriced internet connections ubiquitous in the U.S. If it reaches the point that some Americans would use it to cut their Comcast bill then it'd already be ready for deployment in Africa.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:38 AM on June 6, 2016

Hrm. I'm with the detractors I'm afraid. Definitely reminds me of the Negroponte projects, in that it sounds appealing and is pretty easy to summarize. But a cursory inspection didn't turn up any white papers, evidence of actual impact studies, or news coverage beyond the usual techboosters, BBC and CNN.

Also it's not like the Outernet funding model is much more transparent than Toosheh's at first rub, so I see no reason to suspect the USDS isn't involved in this as well. Super-curious; deserves further investigation.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:09 AM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

While this sort of technology seems an imperfect solution for the so-called "third world," I wonder if it could be useful in U.S. prisons, where Internet use is banned. It would enable prisoners to consume and learn without granting them carte blanche communication and downloading. Of course, there are probably easier ways to accomplish the same goal.
posted by Hot Pastrami! at 12:36 PM on June 6, 2016

That plate of beans? You're over thinking it. It would be more useful to provide two-way satellite Internet, but it would also be exponentially more expensive, and it's not like Outernet themselves are doing anything in space, they're just renting time on existing satellite TV, erm, satellites.

As thewalrus notes, two-way Internet via satellite is kinda hard, which makes it expensive. Not too expensive for rich tourists on a Caribbean cruise to check Facebook (and for whom there's basically a dedicated satellite), but it's still not affordable by the majority of people on the rest of the world.

Smartphones might be relatively cheap and ubiquitous, but it doesn't mean the data plan is at all affordable.

I'm not sure why Outernet has to compete with Toosheh, either, once the hardware is there, assuming they're on the same bands, it wouldn't be too hard to point the software on an open Outernet box at the Toosheh stream instead.
posted by fragmede at 5:22 PM on June 6, 2016

"not affordable by the majority of people on the rest of the world"

That's part of the thing; this particular piece of hardware isn't particularly affordable, especially compared to a lot of stuff that's already on the market.

I'm sure there are people here who know a lot more than I about micro telecom things, and I hope they'll weigh in. To me, $99 is the kind of price point that sounds totally doable to VC and ridiculous to anyone who's ever seen a 100RMB android phone. Wasn't $99 the exact price point OLPC debuted for? Why would someone in e.g. Ghana with a cool hundred bux to burn buy this instead of one of these, which they could also use for a bunch of other stuff? And these are US prices, SK and PRC are dumping phones all over the globe.

Additionally, outernet seems to be aimed at places where a data plan is not just expensive, but nonexistent. And yet the receiver kit (from the 2015 article) has a nice big AC power brick (along with some cute branding). So . . . providing gear for a situation where alternating current is reliable, but mobile towers are not. Aside from parts of the rural western US, where is this actually the case? Not intended as snark, I'm genuinely curious to see some numbers.

And where the know-how (basic literacy; vague familiarity with computing/networking; vague familiarity with radio/satellite frequencies; access to cheap low-power ARM boards) exists, why wouldn't someone build one of these themselves for the price of the board and a hacked wide-band receiver, or make it down to the internet cafe in the big village every once in a while to download your reading material for the month? If you already have access to the oversize dish and the DVB-S2 dongle, along with the expertise to set up aforementioned dish correctly--which the article actually refers to as a "dark art"--why do you need the outernet?

There are interesting ideas here, especially all the stuff about mini cube satellites. But without some more evidence that this isn't a solution looking for a problem, it seems a lot like the techbro equivalent of air-dropping bibles in the jungle.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:14 PM on June 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

« Older Party like a Nederlander   |   Relieve yourself triumphantly Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments