Much like the solar roadway, and Mars One, this is yet another pie in the sky fundraising effort that will yield zero useful results.
This is not the internet. This is satellite-based one-way data transmission. The funny thing is that by using shortwave radio, data transmission at bitrates likely much higher than this system could ever achieve is already possible. So an effort to implement a one-way information distribution system could be funded, designed, and implemented today no need for $12 billion, using existing technologies.
Two-way communications with satellites in low earth orbit is very difficult. The satellites are only overhead for about 2 to 6 minutes. Amateur radio operators who work satellites have to plot out when they will be overhead, and using a high-gain antenna track them. A cellphone doesn’t have a high gain antenna capable of tracking a fast-moving satellite.
Cubesats. Cubesats are great, and dozens of them have been launched. They have a decay date of about 3-4 years after launch at most. Typically they have a much shorter lifespan. That’s IF they deploy successfully. The thing about Cubesats is that they’re cheap. Some use small solar panels, others use batteries, and that greatly limits the transmit power available to the transceiver on board so that they typically only carry small beacons or data burst transmitters. Adding larger batteries or solar panels will increase the size of the vehicle to non-Cubesat sizes.
They will need hundreds of Cubesats just to build a “global” system. Then they will need hundreds more to replace the failed deployments and serve as spares for the cubesats that will only last a couple of years.
Then you have to “mesh” them together. Like the hopeful souls in /r/darknetplan the organizers of this project don’t take seriously the fundamental problems of mesh networking, bandwidth restrictions, routing inefficiencies, and it is doubly bad with Outernet because all of their nodes are moving, and will have changing lines of sight.
Timelines. “Technical evaluation is already underway”. Okay. So you’re going to go from “technical evaluation” to “January 2015” date of first possible launch? As a follower of AMSAT, if you don’t already have a physical device that has been certified TODAY there is no way in hell you are getting on a schedule for 6 months from now. And they want to go from “first launch” to “system deployment” in another six months? That is actually insulting. They have no uplink infrastructure, no mesh plan, no radios, no system busses, no schedule.
Already achievable goals. “Free of Charge”, “no censorship”, and “global notification system”. All three of these things can be achieved today with terrestrial-based radio communications. And a dongle for a low-cost laptop or wifi-enabled hotspot capable of receiving terrestrial is a hell of a lot easier to design and distribute than a satellite network. Hell, you could build transmitting facilities, thousands of receivers, and a distribution network for a whole lot less than $12 billion. (But Cryptovariable, what about jamming? It is a hell of a lot easier to jam the comparatively minuscule signal coming from these satellites than it is a shortwave radio broadcast.)
They want to transmit data to handheld-devices using LEO satellites. That’s crazy. That is actually the craziest part of all of this. They show “mobile devices” as the potential receivers. Any handheld device will have to be custom built. An android phone or tablet isn’t going to have the antenna, radio, or software stack to do this. Are they going to build a multi-billion dollar network of satellites with no potential users and then hope that manufacturers will come up with compatible devices or are they going to develop it and then ask for another couple billion dollars to build the devices themselves? And then how will they fund the distribution of devices to end-users?
What they are proposing is like a crappy version of Iridium, except they don’t have a plan for any of the back-end stuff that makes Iridium work. And Iridium doesn’t work because the company, even with the charging out the ass of its customers, can’t stay out of bankruptcy unless the DoD bankrolls about a quarter of its bottom line. Oh and Iridium satellites are gargantuan compared to a Cubesat.
Better alternatives to this include:
One Way option A: Data transmission using leased space aboard already-existing communications satellites over Free-to-Air satellite receivers. You could lease the transponders, build a custom receiver with built in wireless LAN, and then you can write apps to access the data stored on the receiver, which could cache it over time, on recycled low end android devices, for much less than what they are asking for and it would accomplish the same thing.
One Way option B: Data transmission using a fleet of ships in international waters equipped with shortwave radio transmitters. If you really, really, want this to be web-like you could switch from voice to data and build low-cost receivers capable of caching the data and distribute them around the world. End users could connect their PCs or mobile devices to them and “browse” the data stored on them just like in option A.
Two Way option A: For non-realtime two-way, use a low power, low bandwidth protocol (like a more capable version of WSPR) to send messages back and forth over HF using the equipment from One Way option B that has “upgraded” for bi-directional communications.
Two Way option B (medium bandwidth): Use the $12 billion to buy one of the satellite internet service providers that is near bankruptcy, and upgrade the constellation to offer worldwide coverage.
Two Way option C (low bandwidth): Just copy what INMARSAT does, but with slightly less capable satellites and free or low-cost hardware.
I would go for “Two Way option B”. You could probably buy ViaSat and launch three or more ViaSat-1’s for about $12 billion, and then you could use regular subscribers to subsidize free users. Hell, ViaSat-1 only cost $400 million, you could start up your own company and launch enough of them to cover the world in 5mbps bi-directional for about $12 billion (maintaining the system is another story).
**Addendum 1:**There are two main reasons that cubesats are cheap. One is that they don’t have the high-gain, high-bandwidth radio bits that are heavy and expensive. The other is that they piggyback on already-planned multi-million dollar launches in unused “empty” space inside the payload shroud. They also don’t really get to pick their orbits. They are just kind of “pooped” out when the paying customer’s satellite is deployed and what their orbit is, it is.
Amateur groups and universities don’t really care about the orbit so long as it is overhead enough for long enough to get data from the cubesat. Then the batteries go kaput and it eventually falls back to earth.
A network of satellites like this would, one, require the heavy and expensive high-gain and high-bandwidth radio bits and two, the sheer volume of them means that there aren’t enough paying customers to piggyback on. They would need their own flights.
And you would need to launch them to put them into specific orbits so that there are always “x” number overhead at all times, with more coming overhead in predictable orbits. If you just send up a single shot with 100s of cubesats, all you’re going to get is a cloud of clustered cubesats orbiting the earth in a big blob.
That is the opposite of what the AMSAT/cubesat program is.
**Addendum 2:**Employees, or people going on about being employees, keep saying this is an LEO system. On the main page they say it will be a geostationary orbit. GEO orbits are, by definition, not LEO. GEO is 35,000 km away from LEO. It is odd that they interchange the terms.
And apparently this is going to be a Ku band system. A Ku band system is, putting it politely, very difficult to implement on a cubesat. There was a cubesat launched with a Ku transponder and I think it was one of the big ones (3U) and I think it got 9600 Kbps in LEO.
Ku band is impossible to implement on a handheld device. Tracphone sells a self-targeting Ku band setup. It weighs 30 lbs and costs $10,000. That’s what’s needed for bi-directional mobile Ku communication.
They’re also taking about testing open source DVB software/dongles and commercial free-to-air gear (my one way option A) and you don’t need 12 god damned billion dollars to do that.
I don’t think this system is going to use cubesats in LEO at all.