Outernet, first look

Internet for the Rest of the World

I love disruptive technologies; especially when they are inexpensive, fly in the face of commercialized internet services, and promise to put information in the hands of a large number of people who otherwise lack access to information.

Outernet is just that.  I became aware of Outernet a year ago: a relatively low-bandwidth free satellite internet downlink delivering 20mb of information daily across nearly all the globe.

outernet satellite coverage map
Outernet global satellite coverage.

The first time I read about Outernet, the downlink was on Ku band satellite; users were re-purposing dish-tv antennas.  I was intrigued, but time prohibited me from experimenting.

Fast forward to 2017, and for the sale price of $69.00 US, an L band satellite receiver now sits on my windowsill.

Outernet Receiver System

Comprised of an L-band patch antenna, a tiny low-noise amplifier, a software defined radio dongle and a single board C.H.I.P. computer, it’s an amazing little appropriate-technology system.   Save even a few more dollars and build your own antenna from a soda bottle and aluminum foil.

Downlink Only

This is not internet-as-you-know-it.  At 2 kbps it will need to work at downloading for several hours.  After that, what you have downloaded is what you can read.  A variety of news from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America.  Some satellite weather maps.  Some selected articles on Wikipedia.  Some digital packets uploaded via Amateur Radio APRS digital mode, and community-curated filecasting.  You can read what’s there, and honestly the content is probably deeper and better balanced than anything on television or radio.  It is not graphically rich, but there is quite a bit of  content.

News Screen from outernet.is
Weather screen from outernet.is

There are not really links to click on, you read what’s there, and several hours later, you can see what’s new.  It probably won’t replace internet in most of the 1st world, but knowing that a few tens of dollars of parts gets you a satellite downlink over most of the world’s surface is pretty amazing.

Quick Setup

I am not averse to soldering and programming, but this setup is workable out of the box.  An elastic band to hold the patch antenna to the box, the battery to hold it at an angle–plug the bits together and with a vague sense of what direction south-east is I had a whisper of a wifi connection  indicating I was downloading data from Inmarsat I-4 F3.

Outernet.is receiver screen

The entire rig fits in a container no larger than a box-set of DVD’s.  It boots up within seconds, and real-time interaction via wifi and a browser page allows the antenna to be angled for the lowest signal-to-noise ratio.  3dB should produce a connection, on a clear night through a window I see 10dB plus.  With overcast and condensation on the window the signal comes in at 6dB with no fuss.

What to do with it?

I don’t have a specific usage for this, aside from certain liberal-prepper instincts of disaster preparedness.  The idea of supporting a company which promises delivering low cost information into classrooms and homes around the world, places which currently have no access seems worth supporting.  The C.H.I.P. board, low noise amplifier and SDR dongle are easily enough re-purposed for other experimentation should one choose.

Singe board C.H.I.P. computer

In short, I’m enjoying the service.  As some of you may know, I’ve cut off Facebook, favoring RSS feeds for news and direct interaction with friends.  This little satellite internet downlink in a box feels like it is an appropriate addition in my cable-cutting world.