Anybody want to help buy a comsat?

26 November 2010

There are some forward-thinking countries in the world who have decided that net.access is a basic human right and are taking steps to provide it to everyone who needs it. When you think about it a little, for many people life without the Net is a difficult one, indeed: it's difficult to apply for jobs if you can't get online. It's indeed difficult to be gainfully employed if you can't get online in some fashion these days. The Net is also, in a very real sense, the repository of a fantastic amount of knowledge and wisdom accumulated by the human raced. How else could you learn how to tear down the engine of a lawnmower, build a windmill and generator, splint a bone, and find high resolution maps and instructions for navigation without a GPS receiver in a hurry? It's easy to forget, amidst the asshattery, trolling, and overly easy to find lack of compassion on the parts of some people who think that not having a face gives them license to make everyone else's day generally miserable how much information that can help improve the lives of people.

We need to remember that there are areas on the globe which really don't have access to the global Net. There are people who could open schools for children, build water filtration systems, and teach themselves basic medicine if they could get online. Unfortunately, these are often the countries where people live on the equivalent of an American dollar or two every day. Insofar as Maslow's hierarchy of needs is concerned, getting online is of far lower priority than having enough food to eat, clean water to drink, and a roof over your head. But, what if there was a cheap, philanthropic way to bring connectivity to those regions? What if we could make those things possible?

About a year ago, a communications satellite called the Terrestar-1 was launched into geosynchronous orbit by the Terrestar Corporation. The size of a bus and massing slightly over 6900 kilograms, the comsat is dripping with transponders and sports an 18 meter dish and is capable of handling mobile communications for an area the size of North America. Unfortunately, in October of 2010 the company filed chapter 11 bankruptcy protection so it can reorganize its operations and not go out of business. During that time, Terrestar-1 has barely seen any traffic, meaning that no one is contracting with the Terrestar Corporation. Toward the end of making it possible for developing countries to connect to the global Net, a consortium is crowdfunding the purchase of the comsat. They are trying to raise $150kus to develop a viable business plan that they can present to prospective corporate investors, develop the corporate structure necessary to purchase such an orbital installation, and hire a few engineers to turn hypothesis into a working plan. Once they've got all of that in place (and it's going to be a big job) they're going to develop an inexpensive astromodem (probably using a reprogrammable software defined radio (which are far from cheap, unfortunately)) that could be used to communicate through the Terrestar-1. They are also going to have to engineer the means to alter the orbit of the satellite (difficult but by no means impossible).

Everyone with a suitable astromdem living in the satellite's footprint will be able to make use of the Terrestar-1 once it's been moved into position. The consortium will also be reselling bandwith to telecom companies to generate a stream of revenue which will be used to maintain the Terrestar-1; one supposes that running a comsat is far from cheap.

Now I have to be honest with you, I'm a little skeptical of this plan. I don't really know who is; I don't know anyone who works for or with them and I'm not involved with them, I've only heard a little about them prior to today. They say that they've got the backing of some highly visible organizations, including NASA, the National Space Society, TEDxAthens, and Deutsche Telekom Laboratories. Their listed advisory team also contains some very well known names. What I fail to see at this time, however, are missives from those organizations that say "Yes, we're helping with this major undertaking. We'll vouch for them." So what I'm calling for is this: a little crowdsourced intelligence gathering and analysis. I'm going to do some nosing around to see how much of their background I can verify, and I'm asking all of you who read this to do your own investigating and we'll pool our information and discuss it. Post links to this post everywhere you hang out and let's spread the word.

If this project is on the up-and-up we can help it take off and bring the project to life. If it's a scam we can determine that, too, and get the word out if it is.

This scheme could either do an awesome amount of good in the world, or it could be an awesomely audacious rip off. Either way, its scale needs to be determined. Let's get to it.