Satellite for Sale: Buy It, Bring Web to Developing World

Help buy a satellite from a bankrupt firm and bring the Web to the world's poor.

December 2, 2010, 4:18 PM

Dec. 3, 2010— -- A school bus-sized satellite parked over North America is up for grabs – and a group of philanthropically-minded futurists want you to help buy it.

The satellite, Terrestar-1 is the largest commercial communications satellite ever launched into space. But its owner, the TerreStar Corp., has gone bankrupt, leaving the fate of the giant transmitter in doubt.

Instead of letting it stay in corporate hands, a nonprofit group wants to share it with the developing world.

On Friday,, which is charged with bringing the Internet to the digitally disconnected, launched the website Buy This Satellite, hoping to raise $150,000.

In a week, they've raised more than $21,000 from nearly 300 people.

If they make it all the way to their goal, they plan to make a bid for the massive satellite so that they can take it over have it hover over Africa or Southeast Asia, where it could bring Internet access to those who need it. The satellite is in geosynchronous orbit, 23,000 miles high, where it circles the Earth once every 24 hours -- precisely the same rate at which the Earth turns. That way, the satellite remains constantly over one part of the planet.

"We want to connect millions of people to the Web. And we want to be satellite pirates," founder Kostas Grammatis said with a wink.

Grammatis, 25, a visiting researcher at MIT's Media Lab, is no stranger to ambitious, out-of-the-box projects.

He was part of the "eyeborg" team that won a spot on Time magazine's "50 Best Inventions of 2009" list, for developing a video camera-enabled prosthetic eye. Before that, he was an engineer for Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which aspires to launch inexpensive commercial rockets into space.

He said this latest project grew out of a "do tank" of thirty people under the age of 30, who convened last year in Germany to discuss the world's future and devise creative solutions.

"Internet access is a human right," Grammatis said. But nearly 5 billion people, out of the planet's nearly 6.9 billion, don't have a way to connect to the Web.

And, he said, information is the key to unlocking so many of the other problems persistent in the developing world, like hunger, the shortage of potable water and healthcare.

Information Access Can Lead to Solutions for Other Problems, Group Says

"People are ingenious," he said. "If you give people access to information, they can solve their own problems."

Grammatis said Papua New Guinea, for example, could make a great partner for the project.

They have an orbital slot (like a "parking spot in space," the group says), political will and a painfully low Internet penetration rate of just above 2 percent.

Africa presents a whole continent of possibilities, he said.

But thought the project is full of potential, it still has some practical details to iron out.

When asked how much they'd need to raise beyond the initial $150,000 to actually take control of the satellite, Grammatis said, "there's no price tag on the treasure."

But, as you can imagine, satellites don't come cheap.

On the group's website they say the Iridium satellite constellation, a network of communications satellites, cost $5 billion to build and launch, and were sold for $23 million after the company went bankrupt in 2000.

Who knows, Grammatis said, maybe the satellite could be given to the group as a giant tax write-off or donated by benefactors interested in leaving a legacy in space.

But assuming they do become the new owners of the satellite, Grammatis said, they plan to pay their own way with a "freemium" business model that would charge nothing (or very little) for a lower-quality connection, while allowing telecoms to purchase and re-sell high-speed bandwidth.

The group also said they are building their own open-source modem that would make connecting to the Internet easy and cheap, especially with the proliferation of low-cost devices, like the "One Laptop Per Child" computers.

Grammatis, who said that "turning ideas into reality" is his specialty, isn't fazed by future hurdles. Getting to the initial $150,000 is the first challenge.

The money would go towards finalizing a business plan and getting legal consultation. But, he said that most importanly, raising the money would show that there's momentum and support behind the idea.

"[It would] prove that there's public interest in this idea," he said. "It's symbolic."

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