Outernet’s solar-powered content downloader, Lantern

In the age of the Internet of Things, it is interesting to see a non-Internet device that uses Web technologies in a new way. Outernet is a project started earlier this year by the nonprofit Media Development Investment Fund that buys bandwidth on communications satellites to do one-way broadcast of news, education and other critical content worldwide.

Already available to anyone willing to do a little work with off-the-shelf hardware like Raspbery Pi, Outernet now have an integrated, solar-powered receiver called Lantern that doubles as a charger, theoretically enabling offline, anonymous read-only access to Web content anywhere in the world.

Lantern downloads editor-selected content (slowly, remember this is satellite) and saves it locally, then serves it up locally over HTTP via wifi. Think of it as Voice of America or BBC World Service for the digital age, except administered by MDIF, who have a strong track record investing in innovative media organizations that promote press freedom and independent media in “challenging” environments — places where independent media face censorship and worse.

And it gives you something to read anytime you’re far away from the nearest cellular signal — with complete anonymity, since this is a one-way broadcast, something that’s obviously critical in places where the terrestrial Internet is tracked or censored by governments or ISPs (i.e. everywhere, to varying degrees).

Code has been open-sourced, some interesting content distribution partnerships have been agreed, and Outernet have also begun an initiative to crowd-source editorial function to ensure interesting, comprehensive selection of content is broadcast using limited satellite carrying capacity. I don’t have one so I can’t say much more, it obviously will require healthy ongoing funding and engagement to be viable, which means bootstrapping a user base and community of contributors.

Looks cool, and compared to prototype IoT devices like Chumby and Nabaztag on my shelf, it’s privacy-enabling, not privacy-surrendering. Internet-based media are wonderful, but also a serious regression from a consumer-privacy perspective compared to “old tech” like newspapers and broadcast radio. One-way information flow should have a future, not just a past.

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