If you watch our social media streams (of course you do!), you saw mention the other day of a new outfit called Outernet. Their mission is to broadcast open information from space at no cost to the end user; in their words, the program is “the modern version of shortwave radio, or BitTorrent from space.”
The concept is intriguing. Like the plans from Facebook and Google to deliver information connectivity via drone and balloon, respectively, Outernet’s mission tastes a bit like science fiction but the components are all well inside the realm of what is feasible.
This is not the Internet, nor even really the Web, though Outernet depends on both to source its content. This is a new spin on good, old-fashioned broadcasting. Users can influence content through online communities, but the data stream, for all intents and purposes, moves one way.
What, then, is the potential value of Outernet? Connecting to the Web is still difficult for many, many people for reasons of infrastructure and cost. Facebook and Google, as well as others, are taking bold steps toward Web connectivity for all, but hurdles remain, including the scope of delivering the whole Web.
With Outernet’s model, the unidirectional broadcast reduces complexity and overhead; low-cost receiving equipment taps into the broadcast without the need for an intermediary ISP (or the cable/phone/mobile infrastructure that goes along with it) — a one-time investment in fairly low-end equipment grants you ongoing, unfettered access to the data stream. Users can presumably cache this data locally and even distribute it on storage media, making it available on local servers and small area networks. In this respect, Outernet has much in common with projects to distribute open information (e.g. Wikipedia content) offline through network-capable servers (see the end of our post Is the Next Direction of Online Education…Offline? for several examples).
Why are we sharing this? The missions of Outernet and the Saylor Academy are not identical, but they are well within the same universe. In addition to news, software applications, and emergency information, Outernet proposes to broadcast courseware to all the learners and teachers among us. Perhaps, one day, our own efforts will be represented in the stream; regardless, this is a project to watch.