For sale: a bus-sized satellite?

Internet activists rally to buy a multi-million dollar orbiting satellite to provide web access to the world’s poor.

internet access
The group hopes to use the satellite to provide internet access to developing countries [EPA]

Want to buy your very own state-of-the-art satellite?

The idea sounds outlandish, but an international group of internet activists are trying to raise $150,000 in the hope of eventually purchasing the Terrestar-1 satellite to provide free internet connections to people in the developing world.

“The satellite is as big as a school bus,” said Kosta Grammatis, a visiting researcher at MIT Media Labs and a founder of the internet accessibility programme “We want to raise $150,000 then we can bring in experts, finalise the business plan and start chasing after the big bucks,” which will amount to millions of dollars, he added.

It may seem like they are reaching for the stars, but Grammatis says every project needs to start somewhere. He believes internet access is a crucial tool for human development and poverty alleviation. 
“If people have access to the internet, they can learn, educate themselves and solve their own problems,” he said.

Getting connected

A country like Papua New Guinea, with six million people and an internet penetration rate of just 2.1 per cent, would be an ideal candidate for the project because there is a desire for increased connectivity and an orbital slot above the island where a satellite could be parked, Grammatis said.

The group hopes to buy the satellite, move it over the country where they think it would be most useful, and then partner with local service providers that already operate in the area.

Their business model revolves around selling high speed connections to users who want the service and using the revenue generated to provide slower speed broadband that will be free to everyone. 

But if a country cannot afford widespread broadband internet connections, how will the average person be able to buy a computer to surf the web?

“India is building a laptop that will cost about $12,” Grammatis said. “The cost of computers is falling, but the price of internet access has actually gone up in some places.”

The owners of Terrestar-1, an American communications satellite blasted into space in 2009, are facing bankruptcy. Terre Star Mobile Communications did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment. “These big companies have giant debt to pay back. If we buy it, we don’t owe any debt,” Grammatis said.

Expensive plan

But it is not that simple. “Building, funding and launching that satellite was incredibly difficult and expensive,” said Jason Bates, the editor of Satellite Today magazine in the US, a trade publication which has covered the development of Terrestar-1.

Bates says the Buy This Satellite campaign is “a very cool, grassroots, help the world kind of idea, but the funding aspect of this makes it very difficult”.

Bates agrees with Grammatis that the “best way to close the digital divide will be through existing satellites,” rather than laying down traditional lines on the ground. And, he likes the idea of partnering with local companies because “a hybrid network makes sense”.

The Buy This Satellite campaign has raised more than $19,000 in just a few days by campaigning online. But Bates believes that “there would be a better way to provide this service [accessible internet] with that cash than buying this satellite”.

“You can move the satellite, but you need to find a way to get the reception equipment to actually access the system, to distribute it over a wide area.”

Activists say the reception equipment and long-term maintenance are not insurmountable problems.

“It actually isn’t that expensive to run the satellite,” said Grammatis, who came up with the plan to buy the device during a meeting of 30 people under the age of 30 who were trying to address global problems. “The satellite just sits in space, it is solar-powered, and it adjusts itself with thrusters.”

Broader implications

The internet brings information and inter-personal connectivity to the furthest reaches of the planet. “It is seed infrastructure. You build a road in a city before you build the city,” Grammatis said.

Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist, once wrote that “thanks to satellite dishes, the internet and television … we can now see through, hear through and look through almost every conceivable wall”.

However, the internet is not a boundless flow of free information. Walls, in the real world and online, are still separating people and ideas.

China’s government has used internet technology to create the great fire wall, blocking sites that the ruling elite deem problematic. And the Chinese are not alone in their ability to control activities on the net.

Omar Bongo, the former dictator of Gabon in West Africa, once remarked that: “Information on the internet must be as free as in the newspapers.” The irony, of course, being that Gabon did not have a free press.

The net may be a crucial tool for social betterment; however technology alone cannot bring freedom, democracy, poverty alleviation or new ideas. But the people behind Buy This Satellite are trying to do their bit and Bates says: “If the whole world thought like these people, it would be a great place.”

Source: Al Jazeera