February 20, 2014
If all goes according to plan, North Koreans will soon have free, uncensored Internet provided by satellites the size of toaster ovens.
That’s part of a project called Outernet, which hopes to launch hundreds of tiny satellites—known as CubeSats—to provide Internet to every person on Earth. Forty percent of the world’s people currently don’t have access to the Web. In a little more than a year, Outernet plans to have a fleet of 24 satellites operational and testing to pave the way for a globe-spanning network.
The satellites won’t be providing conventional Internet right away. They’ll initially be used for one-way communication to provide services like emergency updates, news, crop prices, and educational programs. Users will help determine what content is offered.
The project’s backers say knowledge is a human right—one they intend to provide even in countries where dictators have thus far limited access. “We exist to support the flow of independent news, information, and debate that people need to build free, thriving societies,” said Peter Whitehead, president of the Media Development Investment Fund, Outernet’s backer. “It enables fuller participation in public life, holds the powerful to account and protects the rights of the individual.”
It will be at least five years before Outernet can offer the more interactive Web as we know it, which allows users to both access information and upload it, said Syed Karim, MDIF’s director of innovation.
Worldwide Internet could be available sooner, Karim said, if telecom giants invested in a few mega-capacity satellites like North America’s ViaSat-1. Three years and $12 billion is all it would take to get the job done, he estimated. “We don’t have $12 billion, so we’ll do as much as we can with CubeSats and broadcast data,” Karim said.
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