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Outernet: “Humanity’s Public Library”

by on September 25, 2015

Librarians work hard to get information and materials to everyone in their communities, especially those who don’t have the means to get that information anywhere else. In the age of the Internet, it can seem like everyone has access to information at all times, but what about those places that librarians and the Internet can’t reach? Enter Outernet.

Outernet is a satellite-based alternative to the Internet, a service common in the first world but virtually nonexistent in many places. According to Thane Richard, publisher and COO at Outernet, up to 80% of the world’s population is without access to unfettered internet. This includes people in China whose Internet is highly censored, people who live in areas with access to mobile Internet but who cannot afford the data plan to receive it, and people who live in remote areas that the Internet has not yet reached.

On the other hand, the Outernet broadcast can be accessed by anyone with a satellite dish and an Outernet receiver. The signal is sent to seven satellites, providing global coverage. Outernet can broadcast up to 1 GB of data per day globally, and up to 100 GB per day over Africa and Europe.

What users receive from Outernet is more like a radio broadcast than like the Internet you’re reading this post on right now. Instead of being able to access everything ever written at any time, Outernet sends out bins of data on a regular basis, like a song on the radio. These bins are full of files including documents, songs, podcasts, photos, and videos. The files can be accessed as they are received via a user’s device, queued up to access later, or permanently stored to the receiver. An example of the feed you would see on your device is available here.

Outernet receivers can be built at home with a Raspberry Pi or purchased from Outernet. Outernet is currently selling a basic receiver called Lighthouse as well as a do-it-yourself kit. To access the information broadcast and stored on the devices, which act as Wi-Fi hotspots, a user must also have a Wi-Fi-enabled device with a browser to view the feed.

A recent Indiegogo campaign raised funds for a receiver called Lantern, which will have a built-in antenna for limited mobile data access in addition to satellite access. It will then charge the mobile devices needed to access the data.

Outernet has its roots in the library world. It was founded in early 2014 by CEO Syed Karim, who holds an MS in Information Science, and the operating system the receivers run on is called Librarian. Outernet even bills itself as “Humanity’s Public Library”, offering information to users exactly at their point of need.

With that billing, Outernet takes its collection development seriously. Outernet employees work to develop a core collection of files, including news in multiple languages, textbooks, high-quality Wikipedia articles, and videos from creators like Khan Academy. The majority of the rest of the broadcast content is decided on by the public, who can request certain types of information and also vote on the best files that fit that request. A recent edit-a-thon held live in Uganda and Guatemala and remotely online added thirty bins of content in four different languages.

Some of the content is sponsored by various companies or by individuals to provide funding for Outernet’s work. This sponsored content is currently less than and will not exceed 25% of the broadcast, according to Richard.

Anyone who wants to sponsor content can upload files, including Twitter feeds, at uplink.outernet.is. To add content for free, check out the submission rules at https://wiki.outernet.is/wiki/Edit_Outernet. To donate to the Outernet project, visit donate.outernet.is.

Sources

Outernet Blog. Accessed August 14, 2015.

Outernet Wiki. Accessed August 14, 2015.

Richard, Thane. E-mail interview by author. August 6, 2015.

 


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