Q&A: As Egypt Shuts Down the Internet, One Group Wants Online Access for All

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When the Egyptian government blocked Internet access and mobile texting capabilities in an attempts to thwart protesters' ability to organize, Kosta Grammatis had new ammunition to pitch his big idea: what if there was a satellite service for Internet and phone — affordable for the average Egyptian — that could not be shut off? Grammatis knows a satellite that might be up for sale, and he and a few others want to raise money to buy it. They formed a non-profit called Buy This Satellite in the hopes of acquiring a dormant communications satellite from a company currently in bankruptcy. Grammatis wants to move the satellite from its current orbit above Earth and park it over Africa, offering online access to some of the world's poorest citizens.

Gizmodo and Boingboing hailed the efforts as noble, if more than a little pie in the sky. Still, the role played by social media in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings has helped the idea gain a sense of urgency. TIME spoke with Grammatis on the night the Egyptian authorities cut off all Internet access in the country.

What exactly is the goal of Buy this Satellite?
The "Buy This Satellite" campaign was launched by ahumanright.org — an organization charged with protecting freedom of digital expression and bridging the digital divide for the 5 billion people who don't yet have Internet access. When the owner of the largest telecommunications satellite declared bankruptcy, we saw it as an opportunity. We could buy it, move it over someplace in need like Africa, and connect millions of people across — Including those in Egypt. Access to information is as vital a resource as water. With information, people can solve their own problems rather than waiting for international aid. And we're seeing now, in Egypt, that Internet access is vital for maintaining freedom of speech where there is little or none of it.

Where are you going to get a satellite from?
Our original intention was to launch our own network of communications satellites to provide access for all, but the costs are exceptional — in the range of billions of dollars. After some looking around we realized that there are plenty of underused telecom satellites already in orbit. We're big fans of recycling, so we thought, why not purchase existing satallite infrastructure and put it to a humanitarian use? We had our sites set on one satellite in particular, called Terrestar-1. It's one of the most advanced telecommunications platforms in space right now. The company that owns it — well it's owned by numerous share holders — is currently going through bankruptcy. We're fundraising to buy it from them.

How exactly do you plan on moving that satellite to a new location?
We've been working with NASA and aerospace engineers to study this and it's pretty simple: Basically, Terrestar is in geosynchronous orbit, meaning it revolves around the earth at the exact speed the earth spins so it it's always over the same place on the ground. You can reposition these kinds of satellite by, essentially, slowing it down a bit, letting the earth move underneath it and then speeding it up again so it's in a new geosynchronous orbit. We would move the satellite over North Africa.

Can your system be blocked or shut down?
In Egypt we've watched as the government, in an unprecedented way, shutoff Internet access for the entire country. We're building a system that can't be shutoff--it's as decentralized as possible. You could jam the signal somewhat, but to do that at the scale of a country is a very very difficult task. The system we envision has two components: One in space and one on the ground. We're building a very decentralized and distributed peer-to-peer mesh network. Because there is no central point you can't turn off connectivity like they did in Egypt. That mesh network will allow people to communicate with each other locally, and if it's needed they can switch to the satellite to connect to the outside world. We think there's a need now to put an end to the Internet kill-switch.

How much will it cost to buy the satellite?
We estimate, including lawyers and all the financial bureaucracy involved, that it would take around $245 million to complete the project.

How much have you raised?
$33,000. (laughs). Obviously, we face a significant funding challenge. I don't think it's completely unrealistic, though. Since we launched our website we've attracted a lot of support from scientists, engineers, and business people from all over the world. What makes us hopeful is the support from people like Noah Semara, the founder of Sirus/XM radio who knows a thing or two about satellites and telecommunications. He along with some others like him are advising us in invaluable ways....not only in pure technical expertise but they're helping us navigate the legal and financial complexities in dealing with industry and government.

TIME spoke with the CTO of TerreStar who says the company is growing and that they have no plans to sell their satellite. How realistic is your plan to buy Terrestar-1?
The company is restructuring, they're not liquidating their assets. So it's not certain this particular satellite will work out. It's not completely out of the question, though. It's one of a few possible satellites available.

What other satellites are available?
Well, we've been talking to some other companies and industry leaders who have given us some leads but I can't disclose specifics yet.

Is your goal realistic at all?
Big ideas, that can improve our society as a whole, are worth doing, and this one will be done. It's the logical next step in communications: a network available to anyone everywhere for minimal cost. The idea is gaining momentum. But right now we're lacking the big financial commitments required to do the job, but we have tentative offers out there for significant support .The process takes time. I have good reason to be optimistic, though. Telecommunications have never been more vital — and the world is realizing that With what's going on in the Arab world it's painfully obvious: Internet access benefits everyone.