Outernet and O3b: Making internet access available to all using satellite technology

Those who would most benefit from using the internet are unable to access it. Read about two companies that are working hard to change that using satellite technology.

internet users in 2012 as a percentage of a country's population

Over three billion people do not have access to the internet, according to estimates. In a recent TechRepublic article, Lyndsey Gilpin states the people of Africa are a large percentage of the three billion missing the benefits afforded by the internet. The image above (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons via Wikipedia) illustrates the massive areas of Africa with less than 20% internet coverage.

Getting internet to everyone in Africa is a complex technical challenge. With many areas of Africa still underdeveloped, internet providers have little incentive to build the required infrastructure. Fortunately, there are resourceful people and organizations coming up with alternative solutions.



For example, Outernet is a Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) project designed to provide "Unrestricted, globally-accessible, broadcast data and quality Internet content for free."

As proposed, Outernet is a constellation of cube satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) similar to the Iridium satellite constellation. In order to serve the widest audience possible, Outernet intends to use Wi-Fi technology and standard international protocols such as DVB, Digital Radio Mondiale, and UDP-based Wi-Fi multicasting.

Unlike Iridium's system and due to lack of capital, Outernet will initially only broadcast data back to Earth-based Wi-Fi devices. As soon as funds become available, MDIF intends to enable two-way internet capabilities.

The plan is to provide: international and local news, crop prices for farmers, Ubuntu and OpenStreetMap, Wikipedia in its entirety, movies, music, games, Khan Academy and Coursera, Teachers Without Borders, and Open Source Ecology. Outernet will also help with emergency communications, disaster-relief coordination, and global notification systems.

What's interesting is the MDIF focus on using existing Wi-Fi technology, realizing that forcing users to buy expensive satellite-communications equipment would defeat the whole purpose of Outernet. But that lofty goal is creating obstacles, as noted by Outernet founder and project lead, Syed Karim:

"We want to stay within the 802.11-spec so that we can natively work with the Wi-Fi ecosystem. It makes the spacecraft and constellation design significantly more difficult, but we think the benefit is worth it."

Hopefully, the team at MDIF will figure it out.



Another satellite-based internet-access project in the works is O3b. The "Other 3 Billion" (or O3b) is the creation of Greg Wyler, who understands the difficulties of building out infrastructure in Africa from his time running Terracom, a telecommunications company in Rwanda.

O3b had a recent management change, but the goal is the same: provide low-cost internet access in areas currently lacking access by avoiding costly, hard to implement, long-haul ground-based infrastructure. To accomplish its goal, O3b is deploying a constellation of satellites circling the equator at Medium Earth Orbit (MEO), a higher altitude than what Outernet is planning.

Placing satellites at MEO (8,000 kilometers above the Earth) was an important choice for O3b. Its hope is to reduce costs. Using MEO to cover the entire equatorial region at that elevation requires fewer satellites than at LEO (2,000 kilometers above the Earth). But the increased altitude adds latency, which could affect time-delay sensitive applications such as video or voice communications.

Unlike Outernet, a "last-mile provider," O3b is a "middle-mile provider," meaning O3b is the bridge between the internet backbone and the Earth-based last-mile providers who then offer connectivity (2G, 3G, WiMAX, LTE, or Wi-Fi) to customers.

O3b has a four-satellite constellation in operation at this time. The goal is to increase the number to eight-satellites orbiting the Earth in the near future. At that time, the O3b satellite constellation should achieve the following specifications:

  • Optimal coverage between 45° north/south latitude
  • Up to 1.5 Gb/sec connectivity speeds
  • Round-trip delay times of approximately 120m/s

Differences between Outernet and O3b

  • Technical differences: Outernet expects its satellites to communicate directly with ground-based customer Wi-Fi devices -- initially receive-only and two-way communications added later. O3b is using proven ground to satellite technology. O3b will partner with ground-based service providers and not supply internet access to customers directly. O3b already is two-way access.
  • Cost: Outernet says its services will be free. O3b did not provide cost information, as a customer would make arrangements with the ground-based provider.
  • Venture capital: Outernet is looking for funds. Some of O3b's investors include Allen & Company, Google, North Bridge Venture Partners, Satya Capital, and Liberty Global.

Why these projects are important

Greg Wyler, founder of O3b, provides a good argument as to why projects like Outernet and O3b are important:

"Only when emerging markets achieve affordable and ubiquitous access to the rest of the world will we observe locally generated content, widespread e-learning, telemedicine and many more enablers to social and economic growth, which reflect the true value of the Internet."

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