The Outernet: "BitTorrent from space". You're having a laugh?

Down Under, telcos and services providers of every stripe are casting around for viable ways economically to bring increased broadband Internet access to stretched and stressed metropolitan networks as well as to vast underserved rural areas.

After the recent General Election and subsequent change of government, Australia's ambitious NBN (National Broadband Network) project is falling further behind schedule and is in a state of flux following the new administration's decision to conduct a "strategic review" of the project.

The new Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has already forced the majority of the NBN board to resign and has appointed a new chairman, Ziggy Switkowski, the sometime CEO of national carrrier, Telstra.

Mr. Turnbull says that although the rollout of FTTP (Fibre to the Premises - the technology utterly central to the NBN plan) will "continue in the short term" most of the infrastructure build-out is now to be downgraded to lesser, cheaper "alternatives" such as fibre to the node.

Originally the FTTP rollout plan called for it to be available to 93 percent of all premises in Australia by June 2021, but under the changes and cutbacks being imposed by the government headed by Tony Abbott, it is now expected to reach a mere 22 percent of the population - and that not until sometime between 2025 and 2030.

Meanwhile, over in New Zealand broadband availability is often patchy, partial and parochial. Back in late 2009, the government announced details of its Ultra-Fast Broadband Initiative and committed NZ$1.5 billion to accelerate the roll-out of ultra-fast broadband via a fibre-to-the-home connection in cities and all townswith a population of over 10,000 with the aim to covering 75 percent of all homes within 10 years.

New Zealand is famous for its challenging geography and the country's many rural areas seem likely to be connected to a broadband service via variants of DSL and mobile broadband. The government's plan is to deliver 100 Mbit/s-capable (capable you'll note, rather than 'achievable') broadband to "over" 70 per cent of New Zealanders by deploying fibre to the home, school, health centres and business by the end of 2019. However, this initiative too is behind schedule.

So, both country's face major challenges in the provision of Internet access and soon there could be an alternative solution available, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Ever heard of the Outernet? Until recently my understanding was that it was a wireless community network in Poland characterised by each individual member of that community owning node hardware configured in a mesh network with participants allowing the free routing of data from other network nodes freely to pass though their routers to facilitate the existence of a large, low-cost and almost maintenance-free network infrastructure which is a personal property of its users. Quite laudable.

However, it transpires that there's another Outernet and it is a company that looks very much like a throwback to the 1990s not least because it claims it will use a constellation of LEO (Low Earth Orbit) satellites to beam FREE wi-fi down to each and everyone on the face of the planet. In your dreams - or more likely, in theirs.

The organisation behind this Grand Plan is the New York-headquartered and not-for-profit Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF). It reckons it can get "hundreds" of "miniature" satellites (well, 150 of them anyway) lofted into orbit by June next year. When they are flying around the place MDIF will then commence to broadcast "the Internet" to mobile handsets and computers thus providing free online access to all of the world's population.

As stated on the company's website, Outernet claims it will employ datacasting technology to stream Web content down to earth. Specifically, DVB, Digital Radio Mondiale, and UDP-based WiFi multicasting will be used to transmit data received from ground stations to other locales in a continuous loop until new data is received.

In the first instance the service will be a "uni-directional broadcast system" in which users can access certain websites "associated" to Outercast's website. A duplex service is planned for some indeterminate time in the future. Outernet won't be any more forthcoming than that but analysts say any bi-directional service is ten years away at the very least.

That's in the science-fiction future, for the present the company has to raise the "tens of millions" of dollars it admits it needs to fund the project. When (or if) such financial backing materialises Outernet plans to petition NASA to allow i to test its datacasting technology on the International Space Station. If NASA permission is forthcoming and the technology works, the first tranche of the Outernet "cubesats"contellation could be put into orbit by June 2015.

It's all a bit vague and, if you'll forgive the pun, pie-in-the -sky. After all, we have been here before in one form or another and having watched and reported on earlier grandiose schemes such as Ellipso, Teledesic, Globalstar, the original and unbelievably costly Iridium system and on and on all the way through to Google's current balloonatic flights of fancy and all the others that have come and gone over the past 20 to 25 years, I wouldn't bet my shirt on Outernet, which has been variously described as "orbital short wave radio" and, heaven help us, "BitTorrent in space." Pur-leeze.

The given their need for cash the leaders of the Outernet organisation are surprisingly reticent about talking to the media but the Project Leader, Syed Karim, speaking to Reddit said, 'We have a very solid understand of the costs involved, as well as experience working on numerous spacecraft. There isn't a lot of raw research that is being done here; much of what is being described has already been proven by other small satellite programs and experiments. There's really nothing that is technically impossible to this". That's OK then - but is it a flyer?

What about competition? What about vested interests amongst current telco organisations and operators? Mr. Karim reckons that provided the investment comes in Outernet will beat off any and all opposition from the world's telcos. "We will fight and we will win", he claims. Well, he would say that wouldn't he? It's a lot more likely that they will fight and lose - and so will investors.

On the Outernet web site visitors can make donations to the cause. I shall not be availing myself of the opportunity preferring instead to wager the family jewels on Shy Talk in the three thirty at Doncaster. At least it stands an outside chance.

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