One of the best things about the web is that it's interactive. You communicate with friends and family, publish your own site, and leave comments on other people's work. But a huge part of what we do online is is simply consuming content.
A satellite broadcasting company called Outernet wants to bring all this content many of us take for granted to the estimated 3 billion people without internet access. That catch is that, in order to get content to as many people as possible efficiently and cheaply, Outernet's connection goes only one way.
"We want to solve the information access problem as quickly as possible," Outernet co-founder and CEO Syed Karim says.
Outernet sells a simple gadget called the Lighthouse that can connect to a satellite dish and download—but not upload—information such as Wikipedia entries, public domain texts from Project Gutenberg, news, crop prices and more. The device doubles as a Wi-Fi hub, so that users can connect to it and download or browse text on their own devices. You can also build a Lighthouse-style receiver yourself, using the company's open source software and instructions. The service is free, and anyone with the proper equipment can pick up Outernet's broadcasts.
Outernet is part of a growing crowd of companies and organizations trying to bring some form of digital information service to the approximately 3 billion people who don't yet have internet access. The company joins the Facebook-backed Internet.org initiative, Google's balloon-based Project Loon, and satellite internet companies OneWeb and O3b (and maybe soon SpaceX).
Outernet isn't the best funded or well known of this pack of companies, but Karim, a former broadcasting executive and media investor, thinks it has a leg up on its competitors. Satellite internet services are notoriously expensive to launch and maintain. But Karim believes that by focusing only on broadcasting, not interactivity, Outernet can save an enormous amount of money compared to these other initiatives. Though full internet access would be preferable in the long term, Outernet in the short term could meet an immediate need.
The Idealism of the Crowd
Outernet is equipped to broadcast up to 100 gigabytes of data per day. To determine what content goes out over that narrow bandwidth, Outernet has developed a system that allows anyone to submit content to be included Outernet's broadcasts. The content that people have uploaded actually goes out during those broadcasts is determined by a public vote. In other words, you can upload your Ant Man fan fiction, but it might not ever make it onto anyone's Lighthouse if no one votes for it.
"You can upload content that you think is important," Karim says. "Whatever people tune into and choose to save is what they get."
A bigger challenge may be providing relevant content to a global audience. Users will likely want local news and crop prices presented in local languages. And well-meaning content uploaders in the US won't always be able to guess what information end-users will actually want.