Plan ‘W’ from outer space

There’s been a bit of fuss in the press around the Outernet project (https://www.outernet.is/).  Long story short, they are promising free Internet, including wi-fi, to the world from low-earth orbit satellites, using broadcast model.  There is little to none no technical details, but there’s a form to accept donations. 🙂 Now, my feeling is that [at least with the current level of rhetoric vs level of detail provided] the key is in the last item. Let’s examine some of the statements, both on the mission and on the technical side.

Outernet connects everyone around the globe.

Claim:bypass censorship, ensure privacy, and offer a universally-accessible information service .. By transmitting digital content to mobile devices, simple antennae, and existing satellite dishes” via “a constellation of hundreds of low-cost, miniature satellites in Low Earth Orbit. Each satellite receives data streams from a network of ground stations” “Citizens from all over the world, through SMS and feature-phone apps, participate in building the information priority list. Users of Outernet’s website also make suggestions for content to broadcast“. And, of course, it’s free. 🙂 Sounds very good and righteous, doesn’t it?

Well, let’s start taking it apart. I can believe in Wi-Fi from outer space to a tablet, but not in wi-fi from a table to outer space, so it’s downlink only. Thus, it’s not “Internet access” they are talking so much about, it’s “broadcasting service” access, controlled by the owner of “a network of ground stations”. Freedom of speech, censorship, privacy, anyone? SMS, apps and website to choose content? Yes, SMS voting is a very humane and totally free endeavor 🙂 How do I get to their website w/o Internet access? Note that this is exactly why instead of offering “Internet to anyone”, the goal is formulated as “to bridge the global information divide” – allowing each potential investor to find some self-satisfaction 🙂 Thus, the mission is not entirely achievable. At least, not with the current level of information provided.

Then, the technical aspect. Aside from satellite design (cannot comment – don’t know much about it), let’s focus purely on Wi-Fi and RF aspect:

  • All signal receivers from space have nice directional dish antennas – how do you plug one into your iPhone? Over USB? One could argue “GPS”, but GPS throughput is measured in hundreds of bits per second – do we need wi-fi like that? These guys are going to stream “entire Wikipedia”, Ubuntu, OpenStreetMap, learning courses, etc. They are quoting Ubiquiti range record press release, let me also quote it: “The link [mind you, a PTP link!]…is impossible to realize without a high sensitivity card”, sure every phone has it.
  • And what about link quality? I could assume that a small satellite can deliver clear wi-fi signal to earth with 4dB SNR (minimum required to interpret to lowest datarate). What about clouds? Indoors?
  • How are regulatory/coexistence issues handled? For mass coverage Wi-Fi should be available in 2.4GHz, where there are just 3 channels. Who wants another neighbour everywhere? How is this regulated?
  • Then, there’s the 802.11 protocol. Assume standard device – in order to associate to a WLAN, client must send association request and get an association response from AP. Imagine your phone sending signal to a satellite? Of course, one can argue that software can be built to turn the receiver into WLAN sniffer, and if the WLAN is unencrypted, one could get packets w/o associating. I already see it published in AppStore, yeah 🙂
  • Low-orbit satellites != geo-stationary. How does one track this?

That’s a lot of assumptions, but that’s all I can do, given the scarce amount of real technical data provided. Thus, what I see now is nothing more than another satellite radio/TV network with a TeleText service on top, trying to use popular and ‘righteous’ rhetoric to get some funding. Outernet really should either provide better explanation of what their real goal is, how they’re going to achieve it and what their target audience is, if they want to look like a serious business and not just another con.

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