The Outernet Lantern: a portable wireless library

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The Outernet Lantern.

One project I have been following very closely since its debut is Outernet: a satellite-based information retrieval system that promotes free–and anonymous–access to information. In a sense, it’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to shortwave radio in the digital realm, in terms of information access.

I first mentioned Outernet nine months ago; since then, it appears to have met or exceeded all of its development goals.

Yesterday, I received an email from the Outernet campaign regarding a product they have in development called “Lantern.” Outernet describes Lantern thus:

Lantern is an anonymous portable library that constantly receives free data from space.

[…]Lantern continuously receives radio waves broadcast by Outernet from space. Lantern turns the signal into digital files, like webpages, news articles, ebooks, videos, and music. Lantern can receive and store any type of digital file on its internal drive. To view the content stored in Lantern, turn on the Wi-Fi hotspot and connect to Lantern with any Wi-Fi enabled device. All you need is a browser…Here is a quick overview of how the system works:

1. Outernet continuously broadcasts data from space. Most of what we broadcast is decided by you. The rest is either part of our Core Archive (critical content, like educational material or disaster updates) or Sponsored Content. In every case, we tell you how the content got there. If it’s sponsored, we tell you who paid for it.

2. Lantern connects to the satellite signal. A receiver, such as Lantern, can be bought from Outernet, or we’ll show you how to build one yourself. Lantern can receive numerous types of signals from various satellites and frequencies. Lantern can be plugged into a satellite dish to receive data at an even faster rate (200 MB/day and up).

3. Connect your Wi-Fi enabled device to Lantern. Lantern’s Wi-Fi hotspot allows anyone with a computer, tablet, or phone to interact with Lantern’s content. Everything can be viewed in a browser, just like the Internet, except this is an “offline” version.”

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With ETOW in mind, I’ve already pre-ordered a Lantern, supporting the project via IndieGoGo.  During the first 24 hours of the campaign, which started yesterday, the cost of a Lantern is $89 US.

If this interests you, too, watch the following video about Lantern and consider supporting the project at IndieGoGo:

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29 thoughts on “The Outernet Lantern: a portable wireless library

  1. Jerry Melancholy

    I agree the this is one of the greatest things ever invented. Are there plans for recruiting additional sales force ? I am retired, but I believe I could have great success selling these.Could you send any information on this ? Thanks JM.

    Reply
  2. satman

    I do not agree that Outernet has “met or exceeded all of its development goals”:

    1. They missed the previous June 2015 deployment commitment for their dishless ‘Lantern’ receiver and cubesat

    2. They have abandoned their intentions to emulate digital shortwave radio. Every mention of DRM appears to have been scrubbed from their web site.

    Even if Outernet met its development goals, the service will not be successful because it has the WRONG goals:

    People with internet access have no need for a painfully slow, streaming text service with virtually random content. And you need those people to purchase receivers, so you can reduce the cost through mass production. If Outernet cannot deliver a practical device which supports live audio services, I dont think they will remain in business. And 2 kbps for a dishless mobile service is basically useless. Can you increase the gain with a flat fractal antenna which sticks on the roof of a vehicle? If you can boost the data rate of the mobile platform enough to support a single audio channel, you will find a sponsor to lease that channel. Then you will actually have an audience to sell receivers to, and you dont have to worry about programming. You can always add more channels later, once the system is up and running.

    Reply
    1. Thomas Post author

      Keep in mind, this post was originally published in November 2014. At that point, they had met their goals.

      I never knew Outernet planned to emulate digital shortwave radio. I always thought their mission was to provide a simple way to receive some Internet data–a virtual text library–via satellite. I always thought it to be pretty much receive only (at least for now) and never realized they had planned to broadcast a DRM-like signal.

      Reply
      1. satman

        In the first article, you wrote:

        SPECIFICALLY, Outernet states that they WILL be using “globally-accepted, standards-based protocols, such as DVB, Digital Radio Mondiale, and UDP-based WiFi multicasting.” (What? Did they say Digital Radio Mondiale? They did indeed.)

        https://swling.com/blog/2014/02/outernet-shortwave-radio-for-the-smartphone-enabled/

        ==========

        I thought you knew that Digital Radio Mondiale is a live streaming audio broadcast service. So let me explain:

        DVB is Digital Video Broadcasting. DRM is for digital audio broadcasting. UDP WiFi multicasting replicates digital audio & video streams from a receiver base station (or router) to multiple wireless clients (such as a tablet, phone or PC.)

        If you claim to support DVB, DRM, and UDP multicasting, you are by definition claiming to support live audio & video streaming. But the Outernet system does none of these things. So you can add those things to the list of “development goals” which they failed to meet. The previous article title is also misleading because “shortwave radio for the smartphone enabled” likewise implies that some kind of free audio service would be delivered to smartphones.

        I know that was published a long time ago. But the details are important, because Outernet is still collecting money and not shipping receivers. It should be clarified in no uncertain terms that this is NOT an audio or video service.

        Reply
  3. Syed Karim

    @Luan Do: You are correct, line of sight with the sky is important. It’s a low-gain antenna, so fine-pointing is not necessary, but the link is nowhere near as strong as local FM radio. The calculated receive sensitivity is -99dBm.

    This version of Lantern is not ruggedized, so we can’t recommend that it’s permanently placed outside without additional protection. You should treat it no differently than you would treat a Kindle or 3G hotspot.

    We’re working on coordination with disaster relief agencies, but it’s difficult to have formal relationships until the system is up and running. This uncertainty will be eliminated once our mobile system is operational (our fixed satellite service is already operational).

    This is a broadcast system, so there isn’t a guarantee that your content request will be filled; similar to calling into a radio station and requesting a song. But most of the content that is selected for delivery will be based on feedback from both online and offline users–the latter over SMS of free messaging apps.

    Reply
  4. Luan Do

    I notice videos of the Lantern showing it being placed indoor or inside a vehicle near a window. It appears that being able to have a direct receiving line with a satellite is important. Am I correct? How weatherproof is the Lantern, if it were to be placed outdoors for better reception? Also, how well coordinated is the system supporting Lantern integrated with local governments or federal government? Let’s say that there is an incident in my town, how can I be sure that it would be covered? How can one request certain books or materials to be made available for download?

    Reply
  5. Syed Karim

    Lots of great questions here. I’ll try to answer all of them.

    Lantern is a wideband multimode satellite data receiver. You are all correct in that it is not that different from what Worldspace (which was L-band) did about a decade ago. The main–and key difference–is that we are not borrowing a billion dollars to build and launch our own geostationary satellites. We may build and launch a constellation of cubesats, but that’s orders of magnitude less than getting to geo. By the way, a Chinese private equity firm recently purchased the old Worldspace satellites.

    Over Ku-band, and with an external antenna (our target is a 60cm dish, though some places will require larger ones), the download speed is at least 100 kbps. We can go up to 10 mbps; it’s all a matter of how much bandwidth we lease. For our mobile service, which will use Inmarsat’s L-band, we’ll have bitrates of about 2.4 kbps. That’s about 10 MB of primarily textual content per day, all over the world.

    Yes, we will include HF reception on Lantern. HF will be used to receive our beacon and program guide. Since I’m sure we will be kicked off various satellites from time to time, it’s important to have a single place that we have more control over. We’re working with one of the high-power international broadcasters in the US to send even lower bitrate data.

    Happy to answer any additional questions.

    Reply
  6. Richard_W

    From the article: “Lantern can be plugged into a satellite dish to receive data at an even faster rate (200 MB/day and up).” I’m sure that’s an error. I wonder what the actual rate is.

    Reply
    1. Thomas Post author

      Very good question, Rich. There must be a limit to its internal storage–something between say, 16-64 GB. I know some of the initial info I read about Outernet implied that devices like the Lantern could purge memory once a laptop or smart phone had downloaded the data locally. I’m very curious what sort of download speeds could be achieved and if the data stream would have robust error correction. Fascinating stuff. I have a hunch it will come to fruition. They certainly have the expertise.

      Reply
  7. Cap

    This is right up my street, I have been looking for something like this for a while, although this really needs to be delivered via s-band for it to really take off, like similar antennas that were used for Worldspace et al (although any satellite feed will work assuming the content is being delivered through it).
    I really like the terrestrial off grid scenario and mesh it up you have a semi-autonomous network capable delivering free information to the masses.

    Reply
  8. Ayar

    I ordered one too. Great idea! What is interesting about Lantern is that its reception starts at 2MHz all the way up to 1900MHz. covering the whole shortwave spectrum and more!
    I am trying to push my employer (a former shortwave broadcaster) to support this project as well (including content).
    Thanks for bringing the project to our attention.

    Reply
  9. Mark Fahey

    This is very cool and I have ordered at Lantern as well. At the moment Australia is not in the coverage area, but all going well it very soon will be. While it’s not excatly the same the project reminds me of many aspects and orginal aims of Worldspace Radio which was designed to deliver news, entertainment and information to unconnected people in Africa and Asia.

    Worldspace fascinated me and when in India and friend gifted me a receiver and antenna puck. Australia was well outside the Worldspace coverage area, but I received solid signals and used the service for many years at my home in Sydney. You can read about my Worldspace experiments here:

    http://www.satdirectory.com/–worldspace.html

    Reply
  10. Mike

    Thanks for making us aware of this funding campaign, Thomas. The Lantern looks to be a really exciting project (I pre-ordered one, too).

    Reply
    1. mitch

      From what I understand, no. It’s not a connected network of computers like the internet is. Think of it more like a modern day global radio system which sends out pictures, text, sounds, videos, and various file types, instead of just audio, and in a format more similar to a stored virtual library than a steady stream of information. Having a lantern is like having a wireless USB drive that constantly updates itself with the most valuable information on the internet for free.

      Reply
      1. Michael

        I’m with Adrian… I’d love to purchase one. They seem to have fell off the face of the earth though.

        Reply
        1. Thomas Post author

          I’ve been following Outernet pretty closely and have employed one of the CHIP-based kits from their website.

          In their latest update, it appears it’s the CHIP cpu that’s holding up production of the Lantern. The CHIP has been so popular, supplies ran out.

          Reply

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