From the time Outernet was little more than a loose plan written up and posted to a website, people were clamoring for it to become a reality. Redditors glommed onto the company's idea — a network of satellites orbiting the Earth and delivering information to anyone in the world with the right, cheap device. Dozens of media organizations covered the company when it was little more than a landing page and a big idea. Some 6,000 of Outernet's flagship device, called Lantern, have been preordered on Indiegogo, even though the device isn't even fully operational yet.
And for good reason: In a world where well over half the population doesn't have access to the internet, there's something very compelling about a project that bills itself as "One Device, Free Data From Space Forever." But there are still some kinks to work out. Lantern was supposed to launch this month, but the company — which is funded the Media Development Investment Fund, which supports independent media projects — couldn't meet that deadline. So Outernet is selling a pared-down version called Lighthouse, available for the first time today for $99.
Lighthouse is a receiver, a variation on a standard set-top box that can download and store datacasts from satellites. Outernet COO and Publisher Thane Richard calls it "BitTorrent from space." The device makes it possible for people without internet access to download information that Outernet is constantly pushing out over its network. "Up until this point," Richard told BuzzFeed News, "it's only been do-it-yourself receivers on Raspberry Pi." Strictly speaking, there's nothing new about the technology Outernet produces. Technically, the system isn't that different from satellite TV. "The idea was, there are already satellites in space, millions of set-top box receivers — let's use this existing, one-way broadcast and, instead of sending a video signal, we're going to send a data signal," said Richard.
RIchard believes that the combined power of Outernet's network and devices has the potential to democratize information access across the world. But not only does Outernet faces some very real obstacles to achieving that goal, it's not entirely clear that a one-way stream of media curated largely ad-hoc by strangers is the most useful way to disseminate information. Even if the company could somehow overcome the challenges of building, distributing, and connecting people to the device, the likelihood of it doing so before tech behemoths succeed in their race to bring the internet to a global population seems minimal at best.
Outernet isn't the first media-minded company to hope that existing satellite technology could lead to something more. Many of these attempts were about sharing TV content, but some, like NetFreedom Pioneer's Linked Internet Satellite Project are quite similar. "Look at the history of satellite companies," said Nathan Freitas, who studies information networks as part of his work on The Guardian Project. "They're littered with the carcasses of great ideas."
Through his research, Freitas has learned all about the creative ways that people without Internet access — or whose Internet access is censored — get their hands on data. In Iran, for example, people can download data via satellite cards, allowing them to see YouTube videos and blog posts that are blocked on the regular internet. In Cuba, a service called El Paquete involves illicitly uploading large chunks of data to individual hard drives. "People love it," said Freitas, "but mostly it seems to be used to share TV shows."
But whether it's for political reasons or to watch the latest HBO episodes, the point is that, even in places that may seem unconnected, people have often already found routes to information. "This is a common thing," said Freitas. "Outernet is taking it to a bigger level."
Getting to that bigger level won't be easy, though. For one thing, Lighthouse is a device for people without access to the internet that can only be purchased…on the internet. "Yes, it's so ironic," said Richard. "Alanis Morisette would be very happy."
Whether or not the intended user can buy Lighthouse is one problem; whether or not they'd be able to use it is another. Finding the necessary satellite dishes — which apparently adorn everything from Tibetan tents to Syrian refugee camps — is no problem. But once your Lighthouse is plugged in, pointed at the dish, fired up, and ready to go, you still need a Wi-Fi–enabled device to connect to it — not to mention the ability to read whatever content pops up.
"Smartphones aren't affordable, let alone laptops or proper computers. That's where the disconnect is," said Jenna Burrell, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information. "You are almost inevitably going to have trouble with people getting access to devices, and having the literacy levels to do something with those devices."
Even if you manage to get a Lighthouse, and a satellite dish, and a device to connect to it, and you're literate, there's still the question of what it is you'll be reading. The Outernet content network is navigable 'offline,' in-browser via an interface called Librarian.
There are three types of content that a user might encounter via Librarian. The first is content curated by Outernet, an effort that Richard leads as publisher. But leaving content selection up to a bunch of Americans who work in technology severely limits the likelihood of someone in, say, Uganda getting information that is both legible and useful to them. To that end, Lighthouse will also stream information curated by its community of maker-types and Indiegogo users. In fact, in tandem with the release of Lighthouse, Outernet is hosting an editathon à la Wikipedia that will focus on selecting, tagging, and translating appropriate media.
Again, Outernet is far from the first company that has created a decent information distribution infrastructure, only to be faced the challenge of what to do with it. When Sam Klein was director of outreach at One Laptop Per Child, he worked on a similar problem; the company was figuring out what kind of information to put on the free laptops it distributed. Klein told BuzzFeed News, at editathons like the one being held this week, projects might look like, "Let's compile a dictionary that's at least in these six languages and roughly 10 MB in size." While that's certainly useful, it makes delivering on promises like providing local news in local languages seem a long way off. The idea of a group of well-meaning people from around the world gathering together online to create a corpus of universally valuable knowledge is a romantic one — but not a scenario that tends to inspire efficiency.
The third Outernet offering is sponsored content, for now funded by organizations like The World Bank and Radio Netherlands Worldwide. But one day, said RIchard, sponsors could include companies like GE or Coca-Cola, a suggestion which takes another chip out of the romanticized vision for democratized information.
Richard compares the way information is spread through Outernet to traditional media formats like newspapers or the radio; information flows one way, from creator to consumer, with no opportunity for feedback. But part of what's so exciting about the Internet is that it not only allows people to to consume content, but to create it, and to connect with one another; that, at least, is what media theorists will tell you. From their perspective, the idea of devoting time and resources to building a device that doesn't allow for that seems illogical. "Top down unidirectional information services have limited value," said Burrell. "It's being able to communicate with people that's terribly empowering."
In parts of the world where there is no internet, people communicate with cell phones. Even where smartphones might be prohibitively expensive, regular old cell phones can be used for a lot more than just calling. In some African countries, for example, it's possible to send money with just a text. So Burrell believes Outernet may have overestimated how many people are so disconnected that their product would seem appealing.
And, of course, while they're not cheap, smartphones are becoming increasingly common, even in developing countries. Access to data is limited — usually not more than a gigabyte — but more and more information becomes available to people this way every day. And as usage grows, coverage improves; if cellular data networks continue to grow this quickly, they could penetrate what would otherwise be Outernet's ideal markets before the company gets there. "It's a window of time where they are relevant," said Freitas. "People underestimate the spread of affordable mobile internet."
But the biggest threat to Outernet's relevance — bigger than cell networks or smartphones or satellite cards — is the internet itself. The desire to bring information to the farthest reaches of the globe isn't limited to the DIY hardware Wikipedia editors of the world. Facebook has Internet.org, its initiative to connect the world to the internet, which includes, among other things, drones with 95-foot wingspans. Google has Project Loon, which involves using high altitude balloons to connect people to the 'net. Even Elon Musk has expressed interest in getting in on the connectivity game; his idea is, of course, space-based, which in a way makes it not entirely dissimilar to Outernet.
All of these corporations are focused on providing access to the regular internet, which is still liable to be censored or, in some cases, removed altogether. So satellite-based workarounds to these commercial options — such as Outernet — could still be useful in certain contexts. But by and large, it's unlikely that adoption of Lighthouse — or Lantern, if it ever ships — would ever be wide enough to make the project as impactful as it wants to be. With so many other options for getting data, and the possibility of nearly global internet access relatively close at hand, the use cases for Outernet, despite its lofty goals, seem few and far between.
There is something very attractive about the possibility of downloading constantly streaming free information from satellites as they float through space. In fact, according to Freitas, that's what originally made the idea of satellite phones so popular. But mobile networks spread much faster than proponents of sat phones expected and, "by the time they got the satellites launched and hardware there, people were like, I don't need this."
"Satellite phones are great for warzones or ships in the Arctic, the middle of nowhere," said Freitas. "But there's very few middle of nowheres anymore."