A project that aims to provide the wealth of information on the web to remote areas where internet access is limited or unavailable just teamed up with the UK Space Agency to launch a constellation of 24 satellites by the end of 2016.
Outernet is an independently-financed project that provides a one-way broadcast of information cultivated from the web—think of it like a radio signal, you can pick up the information with a receiver, but you can't communicate back and forth to "surf" the web. Today Outernet announced it has received a grant from the UK Space Agency and is teaming up with Clyde Space, a Scottish technology company, to launch CubeSats: low-cost, low-Earth-orbit satellites that broadcast over ultra high frequency, making it easier and cheaper to capture the signal on Earth. The team isn't releasing the exact figure of the deal, but Outernet told me it is a multi-million dollar grant.
"Currently in the industry, shopping around for CubeSats to do the sort of things that we want to do, it was really hard to find anything for less than about $250,000," Thane Richard, Outernet's COO, told me. "Through this partnership, we plan to be able to make CubeSats for about $50,000 a piece. There's a huge cost savings."
Outernet is starting out with three CubeSats from Clyde Space, which they will be testing out on the ground and then launching into orbit. Once they get the process down, they plan to fire up a bunch more until they have a whole collection of 24 satellites beaming information down into the world's most remote and underserved areas.
"A common misconception is that we're providing internet to the world for free. We're working on that plan, but it's probably four to five years out," Richard explained. "In the meantime, there is this much lower-hanging fruit of providing a one-way broadcast of data, which we've already started doing in August and we're just continuing to add locations and capacity."
It helps to think of Outernet as analogous to listening to the radio. If you have a radio, you can pick up the signal of local radio stations, but you can't communicate back to them via that radio. Perhaps more importantly, nobody can track whether or not you picked up that signal.
Users will soon be able to buy a solar-powered receive that Outernet crowdsourced funding to manufacture, but they also have open-source instructions for how to build a receiver on your own.
"We're selling our receivers to seed the market and get it started but we really want people to take it in their own direction," Richard said.
Aside from being a more affordable option, the new partnership gives Outernet ownership over its properties, so the team doesn't have to worry about governments potentially going over their heads to try to throttle their project if it doesn't like the information they're sharing. Adding UHF will also mean they can broadcast in multiple frequencies: they're currently equipped to broadcast over Ku-band, but they'll be adding L-band soon and then UHF with the new CubeSats.
"A multi-frequency approach makes it a lot harder for somebody to block the signal or scramble the signal or something like that," Richard said.
There are plenty of big name companies aiming to bring information to the masses, from Google to Facebook. This week SpaceX issued a filing with the Federal Communication Commission detailing the difficulty it's had trying to wade through the regulations surrounding satellite communication.
But since Outernet hasn't hit the same roadblocks—at least not yet. Its still in the process of applying for a commercial license from the FCC, according Syed Karim, Outernet's CEO and founder.
"We're pursuing an FCC Part 25 commercial satellite license for its NGSO (non-geostationary satellite orbit) mobile satellite service," Karim wrote to me. "This license is similar to the ones obtained by other LEO (low Earth orbit) constellation operators. We have targeted spectrum that has already been allocated for a mobile satellite service and will not interfere with existing satellite operators."
But given Outernet's speedy timeline we should know pretty soon whether its dream of access to information for all is about to grow on a massive scale.