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Will Outernet Bring Connectivity to the Unconnected Parts of the World?

By Guest Writer on October 21, 2015

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Nearly 5 billion people today lack basic Internet access due to poor telecom infrastructure or government censorship policies. These people are increasingly becoming a very attractive market for big ICT companies, like Google, and start-ups like O3B. In 2013, Google officially entered this race with the launch of Project Loon, sending high-altitude balloons into the stratosphere to provide Internet connectivity by beaming signals down to base stations. Additionally, Facebook created a consortium of companies called internet.org that are working together toward developing short-term solutions.

One new start-up company, Outernet, is taking a longer-term approach. Outernet is working to find innovative, long term and multi-sectorial solutions to connect the poorest parts of the world to the Internet. According to the founder and CEO, Syed Karim, Outernet is a “universal information system available to all of humanity.”

But what does this actually mean? At its core, Outernet is an ICT solution that provides data services through satellites to anywhere in the world. The obvious advantage is that these services could be available in places that lack telecommunication infrastructure. Rather than providing a two-way Internet connection, Outernet offers a one-way solution, where the customer can receive information from the satellite. For example, individuals can browse Wikipedia but cannot publish on it or participate in social media or chats, like Twitter. (This is why “data services is a more accurate description). This innovative solution works very similar to how radio services work; everyone with a receiver has access to the information.

Mariela

But in Practice, How Does This Really Work?

  • Outernet, or its partner/client organization, decide on the content that will be uploaded to the satellite
  • Content is then uploaded to the satellite
  • Customers buy and install Outernet receivers
  • Customers receive the content/files from the satellite, which are stored automatically in Outernet’s internal or external storage unit
  • Customers can visualize that content on any web browser from any Wi-Fi enabled device, like a personal computer, tablet or smartphone 

Outernet Products

Outernet comes in different modalities, but at its most basic, three devices are required: a satellite dish, tuner/satellite receiver, and a storage/processing unit. All of these items, and myriad other products that build off these basics, can be purchased through Outernet on its website, though the actual Outernet service is free to use. At this moment these are the myriad of products that can be purchased on their website:

  • Outernet receiver kit (consists of a receiver/tuner and a storage unit Rasberry Pi)
  • Outernet Tuner for Rasberry Pi (only the tuner is included; the Rasberry Pi should be assembled or purchased separately)
  • Lighthouse (solution that has the receiver and the storage unit embedded into one portable device).

All of these products require a satellite dish, which they also sell.

The product that has made Outernet well known around the world is called Lantern. Lantern is a small Wi-Fi-enabled, solar-powered device, about the size of a cell phone, which acts as a tuner, storage unit, and satellite dish all in one. The product has had massive media coverage in the last couple of months, especially through their very successful Indiegogo campaign, which has raised over $694k through October 2015. Because Lantern is still in a design and prototyping phase, the estimated delivery date for the product is March 2016. (The delivery date has changed several times, and as explained by Outernet’s CEO, Syed Karim, one of the main reasons for this delay was an unrealistic timeline.) Lantern was only sold through the Indiegogo fundraising campaign for now, but if the product is a success, we can expect to see it for sale on Outernet’s website next year.

The two differentiating aspects of Lantern that have made it stand out from all the other solutions are:

  • Its portability given that it has a built-in antennae and doesn’t require an external satellite dish
  • Its ability to be powered by the sun, which eliminates the energy infrastructure problem present in most rural areas of the world. Yet, Lantern can only receive 10 MB of data per day, which could be solved connecting an external satellite dish that would increase the amount of data per day to 1 GB. However, this would eliminate the portability advantage of this product and probably it would also increase its energy consumption.

Outernet2

So…Does Outernet Work?

Inveneo, an ICT4D NGO based in San Francisco, decided to study the implementation and feasibility of Outernet. As an organization with broad experience implementing ICT solutions across the world, Inveneo sought to assess the potential and impact that this product could have in the field. As an engineer and a graduate intern at Inveneo, I was part of the team that was tasked with this project.

We ordered the Outernet receiver kit with the satellite dish, and given the potential of the product to meet the needs of billions of people, we were excited when it arrived at our headquarters. We meticulousy assembled it, only to find that the hardware was damaged and the receiver/tuner wouldn’t function. This quickly put our research on hold – but during the installation process, we were able to identify recommendations that would be better adapted for rural and unconnected settings. With hope, these recommendations would help Outernet become a more sustainable innovation over time.

  • Improvement of the assembling instructions and tutorial to adapt to the technical level of the target population. The instructions were not easy to follow, even for our team of engineers/technicians who are specialized in this field. We actually needed to connect to the Internet for further instructions—an option not available for most users.
  • Inclusion of offline troubleshooting steps so that when the product is not working it becomes easier for the installer to detect where the problem is coming from. These steps will help individuals determine which of the devices are not working and identify next steps to solve the issue. In remote settings with no connectivity, the troubleshooting steps should be available offline. On our case, we reached out to the Outernet team through their online blog to solve our problem and get further instructions on the troubleshooting steps. The team at Outernet was extremely responsive and helpful, but we had the luxury of (relatively) easy access.
  • Clearer information on the complexity of the satellite dish’s installation before purchase, since its correct alignment to the satellite is key. We experienced various issues trying to align the satellite dish, and all too often customers may lack the technical skill to do this type of specialized satellite dish installation. (This might not be a problem for Lantern, the new product in development, because it has the built-in antenna.)

In addition to these findings, our team developed some broad recommendations to improve adaptability:

  • Content diversification according to regions: At this time, Outernet features only one stream of content for downloading. But when the product scales up, the content should be adapted to each region, since the information that a small school in rural Tanzania needs won’t be the same as that of a political activist in Ukraine.
  • Information sharing on transmission times and content: More information regarding specific times and detailed information on the data that will be transmitted by the satellite is necessary. In low-income settings where energy supply is frequently interrupted or completely lacking, users can use this information to avoid large files requiring long download times. A feature allowing Outernet to be programmed to turn on and off when needed would also help.
  • Transparent information about sponsored content: In order to maintain the company’s independence as a data provider, the organization should develop a transparent way of publicly announcing sponsors and identifying sponsored content. This will be key to maintaining the customers’ trust in this solution.

Another concern about this product is that it only offers one-way communication, which In the future could become a problem, since one of the most powerful features of the Internet has been the exchange of data and the increasing capability of the world’s population to generate content that adapts to their specific culture and societal needs.

In general, it is our recommendation for technological solutions that are finding new ways to reduce the digital gap to use a human-centered design scheme. This would ensure that products and services can adapt to the specific conditions and needs of rural, unconnected, or often low-income settings.

The Hope

At this time, Inveneo is testing out a new unit, called Lighthouse, which was sent by Outernet to compensate for the damaged unit. An article on the testing of that unit will be published soon.

In the meantime, there is an urgent need for connectivity all over the world. New ways of bringing the Internet and data services to the rest of the world is a requirement to achieve sustainable development and the UN’s recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals.

My hope is that the type of innovative solutions that Outernet offers will lead to a more connected global society, one that grants all people equal opportunities to access the online world. This will enable technological tools that have the potential to increase access to and quality of health services, education, financial inclusion, energy access and governance, and much more.

Outernet’s mission has been to connect the 80% of unconnected people in the world. Hopefully, in the near future, this will become a reality.

Written by Mariela Machado, a graduate student studying Public Administration in Development Practice at Columbia University.

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4 Comments to “Will Outernet Bring Connectivity to the Unconnected Parts of the World?”

  1. T Gillett says:

    The basic Outernet concept of ‘trickle feeding’ content to a local e-library via a free and ubiquitous broadcast mechanism is potentially very powerful.
    The big hurdles to overcome are:
    1. Making the device low cost and “appliance” like rather than an assembly project
    2. Making the content relevant and useful.
    The second is likely to be a far greater problem to solve.
    The concept may also be applied to other distribution mechanisms eg low bandwidth Cellular / TV White Space based Internet services that are available in some locations.
    If successful, Outernet’s greatest contribution may be solving the content problem.

  2. Aaron says:

    Me being nice: really curious to see the business plan behind Outernet and have a productive conversation. Me being mean: this sounds like a waste.

    I’m assuming very few *individuals* living in places without web access will be installing satellites. Very few. The Lantern piece, again on individual level, sounds a little more tenable depending on cost and with the caveats noted by the author (Also – really? that difficult to put together? This sounds like a “Last Mile” issue.)

    Pushing content, as noted by by T. Gillett in his point 2, will require curation and therefore user surveys – is this providing mostly pop culture or are we going for social enterprise-type information about how to (in burkina faso) grow better cowpeas? So I hope this isn’t only about technology for access but instead technology for engagement.

    In places where wifi already has penetration and people don’t have regular electricity but still access Facebook, what is Outernets niche or improvement? How does it run and/or compete alongside cell networks and USB plugins that provide internet?

    I’m sorry. I’m clearly becoming Jaded (Ha! Go JadedAid!) but this sounds like a tricky space. If I saw a full business plan and some vision then yes, I could change my tone. But starting from the idea of “oh my god, 5B people can’t access the internet” hits the wrong way. This tech isn’t about individuals the way it’s described – it appears assembly and probably cost prohibitive. It could be a nice addition on to other approaches, such as an e-library (thanks to commenter above) that has some community involvement and a bit of dialogue around pushed content. Or they decide to link up with other programs (NGO-world?) trying to increase reach of particular information.

    Very glad for someone to provide counterpoints below. And seriously, maybe I haven’t had enough coffee but how is there a sustainable business plan behind this? Who FUNDS these things?

  3. Sam Lanfranco says:

    Getting the unconnected of the earth connected boils down three challenges: technology, costs and political will, and of course making access a win for the end users. This strategy focuses on technology and costs, almost treats the existing technology constraints as a given, and proposes a work around. What is missing is the dialogue with the government where political will driving a blend of public and private initiatives.

    Let me use current events in Myanmar. Thirty months ago less than two-thousandths of one percent of the population had internet access. Earlier this year Myanmar internet access exceeded 50% of the population. This is a result of government policy and private initiative. The details are not important here but there are lessons to be learned and one suggested lesson is that had this technology been deployed previously in Myanmar it would have become almost immediately obsolete with this rapid role out of smart phone based access to the internet. Another suggested lesson learned is that technologies that build greater last mile access built out from a cell phone/cell tower infrastructure. The average smart cell phone has greater bandwidth capacity that the typical telecentre or cyber café in a developing country had 5 years ago.

  4. Rohan says:

    Mariela,
    Could you please talk a bit about the kind content available from Outernet and the user experience managing received content? Their website was pretty vague and seemed to treat individual wikipedia articles as updates, in which case there would be a LOT of them. How much time do you estimate would a Lantern admin need each week to configure the downloads he/she wants? Is there anything like a channel or topic concept?
    Thanks.