If you've been following our blog over the years, you'll know that we've mentioned the "Outernet" (now known as "Othernet") service a few times. Othernet is a satellite service that wants to provide one way data such as news, weather, audio, books and Wikipedia articles to those in areas with poor, censored or no internet connection. Previous iterations made use of home satellite TV equipment, then L-band (with RTL-SDR receivers) and now the Ku-band with LoRa receivers. Currently it's only available in North America and Europe.
However, thanks to a reader we were recently informed about an interesting and long running Othernet-like service for the Middle East called "Toosheh" (aka Knapsack) which makes use of satellite TV dishes and receivers that are very common in the Middle East. While not specifically related to SDRs, this is an interesting RF related project and situation that we wanted to post about.
After two rough weeks of no internet access at all, finally, we're gaining access again and getting back online slowly. As you may know (if you are following the news) a complete internet shutdown conducted by the I.R. of Iran due to some intense protests across the whole country against the government because of a 200% sudden and unannounced gas price increment. The internet is censored in my country anyhow but this time it was a big one. We only had access to a few domestic websites and NOT even Google services! That was tough!
I know it may be irrelevant to the subject of your blog but it's good for your audience to understand and know the people who have worked hard way before the OUTERNET project to develop a satellite offline broadcast with almost no special devices to receive and use and bring free and uncensored information to the people in Iran.
The major role of the Toosheh project occurred in the Iran 2012 presidential election protests which there were no major broadband internet services all over the country and it a lot to bring daily updates of news and TV programs. The Toosheh is a one-way receive only from the satellite but the tricky part is that Toosheh is not just like a simple satellite data link but it appears as a TV channel in all satellite TV receivers which are very common in Iran, so the blockage of it is hard for the government. However, some trials were arranged by the government back in that time to collect the satellite dishes or jam the signals or mass destruction (!) of the satellite receivers which they currently no longer common in most parts of the country. (at least without unnecessary violence. check out this link: بجستان نیوز » معدوم سازی تجهیزات ماهوارهای در بجستان+عکس(Admin note: Article is in Perisian, use Google Translate to translate Persian to English)
The procedure to use this service is freaking simple. Set your dish to Yahsat and search for the channels on 11766 Mhz. Select the Toosheh channel, plug a flash drive to your receiver and record the blank screen in.TS format using the PVR capability. After several hours of recording unplug your flash drive and connect it to your phone, tablet or laptop. Then open the Toosheh app and you are good to go. Now you have access to dozens of free podcasts, music, books, movies, news, webpages, TV shows and much more that will be updated every single day and if you need something specifically just send them an email. Exactly as same as the OUTERNET but without any special equipment and only with ordinary receivers that are available in almost every home nowadays.
Also if you see their website at toosheh.org and search some other press blogs about Toosheh you can gain more info about the topic.
We also note that this appears to be the English language version of Toosheh project which provides some more information about coverage and the technology used: https://knapsackforhope.org. Coverage is only available in the middle east.
Othernet (formerly known as Outernet) are a providers of a free data service broadcast from satellites. They hope to build a system and low cost satellite receiver products where people can easily stream free daily data such as news, videos, books, and live audio down to a computer or phone from anywhere in the world via a device called a Lantern. It is a one way download only service, but may be useful for those in areas with limited internet, disaster preppers, or people in countries with internet censorship. The describe their mission as:
Othernet's mission is to build a universal information service; a truly pervasive multi-media service that operates in the most remote places and functions even when nothing else does.
In the past they ran a trial service on L-band satellite frequencies and used RTL-SDR dongles as the receiver. They have since discontinued that service in favor of a new Ku-band LoRa based service which can provide much more data - up to 200MB a day. The update released today was sent to Lantern backers, which was the receiver they crowdfunded for in their Kickstarter back in 2014. The update notes that the final iteration of the Lantern is close to being ready.
Broadcasting Khan Academy 24/7
Yes, we are still here. It’s been a long while since the last update, but that does not mean we have stopped–or even slowed–working on Lantern. We have been making progress, though it has been much, much slower than what everyone wants. Fortunately, we are in the final stage of development.
The last update described the new network technology we had developed. Our original goal was to broadcast 20 MB of content per day, which is what we were doing with our previous network. The new system is operating at 10-times that speed, which is a little over 20kbps and 200 MB of content per day. Some of the work we’ve been doing over the past few months is related to tripling our current download speeds. Our target is 60kbps, which results in over 600 MB per day. The size of the device will be similar to a standard flashlight.
At our current download speed of 20kbps, we are broadcasting both data and a 24/7 audio stream. I know many of you were interested in the educational applications that were highlighted during the campaign, which is why I’m very pleased to share that we are currently broadcasting the entirety of Khan Academy as a 24/7 audio stream. The Khan Academy library consists of over 900 separate lectures, which we’ve turned into a giant audio playlist. Now we just need to get Lanterns into everyone’s hands.
The next update will include a picture of our final antenna design. The antenna that is currently included in our DIY kit is 2-inches/5-cm across and the shape of a cone. We are trying to flatten the cone and also increase the size to about 4-inches/10-cm, which is what allows for greater download speeds. Since we are operating at microwave frequencies (12 GHz), both the design of the antenna and the parts to convert the high frequency to a lower one are pretty tricky. Microwave engineering is widely considered black magic, which is the main reason for the long break since the last update. We are close to turning the corner and are targeting the end of the year for our initial production run.
Unrelated to our technical work is our recent name change. We had been fighting a trademark issue for the past four years. We recently decided that it made more financial sense to change our name, rather than continue spending legal fees to defend our position. We are now Othernet (http://othernet.is). This name change does not mean we are going away, nor does it mean we are not delivering Lanterns. It’s just a legal hiccup.
Thanks for your patience and support while we get through the final stage of building what you all backed several years ago. I know it’s been a long time and we are making every possible effort to deliver something that exceeds everyone’s original expectations. Although it’s taking three times longer to develop and ship the product, what we now have will be ten-times more useful.
In this post we'll highlight the Outernet data service which can be received in the Continental USA with the Dreamcatcher 3 hardware.
Outernet is a free download only satellite based information service that aims to be a sort of 'library in the sky'. Their aim to to have satellites constantly broadcasting down weather, news, books, radio, web pages, and files to everyone in the world. As it's satellite based, the service is censorship resistant, and useful for remote/marine areas without or with slow/capped internet access.
Currently the Outernet data service is considered to be beta, and is only available for those in the Continental United States.
The New Outernet Data Service
Originally a few years ago Outernet started with a 12 GHz DVB-S satellite service that gave 1GB of content a day, but that service required a large dish antenna which severely hampered user adoption. Their second attempt was with an L-band service that only needed a small patch antenna. This service used RTL-SDR dongles as the receiver, so it was very cheap to set up. Unfortunately the L-band service had a very slow data rates (less than 20MB of content a day), and leasing an L-band transmitter on a satellite proved to be far too expensive for Outernet to continue with. Both these services have now been discontinued.
Outernet 3.0 aims to fix their previous issues by giving us a service that provides over 300MB of data a day, with a relatively cheap receiver, computer and antenna combination that is small and easy to set up. The new receiver uses a standard Ku-Band LNB as the antenna, which is very cheaply available as they are often used for satellite TV reception. The receiver is called 'Dreamcatcher 3', and is a custom PCB containing a hardware receiver (non-SDR based) with a LoRa decoder, as well as an embedded ARM computer capable of running Linux.
LoRa is an RF protocol that is most often associated with small Internet of Things (IoT) devices, but Outernet have chosen it as their satellite protocol for Outernet 3.0 because it is very tolerant to interference. In Outernet 3.0 the LNB is pointed directly at the satellite without any directive satellite dish, meaning that interference from other satellites can be a problem. But LoRa solves that problem by being tolerant to interference.
The Data Service
Currently, Dreamcatcher 3 users are receiving data such as hundreds of daily news articles, global weather information and the top 100 most searched Wikipedia articles of the day. A new satellite radio broadcast service is also being tested (kind of similar to Sirius XM, but only one channel at the moment). Compared to the older L-band Outernet service, the larger data rates allow for a lot more data and thus articles to come down.
Like previous iterations, the Dreamcatcher 3 board runs remotely on a WiFi connection. You then connect to the Dreamcatcher 'Skylark' web interface via a PC or mobile browser. On this web interface you can browse all your downloaded files. The user guide is a good read for understanding the set up procedure.
Some screenshots of example received data are shown below.
Outernet have been working hard to perfect their service over the years, and the current offering is the best compromise between ease of use and data rates that we've seen so far. Unfortunately the service is only available in the Continental USA at the moment, but we're looking forward to future expansion.
Currently we'd only recommend purchasing the Dreamcatcher 3 receiver for the Outernet data service if you understand that the service is in beta, requires a little bit of technical know-how, and like previous Outernet iterations is subject to possible change. Support is only available via their forums.
We can see the service being popular with those who live and work in remote areas without or with expensive internet. Censorship resistance is also another big plus, but satellites would need to be rented for these areas first.
There are also more creative uses. 'Unplugged' getaways are becoming popular in the modern world. Perhaps you want an internet free holiday, but don't want to miss out on important breaking news and weather updates for safety. In the future Outernet could also be used for Bitcoin or other Cryptocurrency blockchain transmission. In past Outernet iterations it was also possible to send a tweet that would be re-transmitted by Outernet. A similar messaging service could be used to control remote devices.
The Dreamcatcher v3.0 is Outernet's latest revision of their satellite receiver hardware. The freely available Outernet ku-band satellite service aims to keep us up to date with the latest news, provide books, videos, a daily selection of Wikipedia articles and satellite radio. Compared to the internet, Outernet is download only, and is received via their Dreamcatcher 3 hardware with an an antenna pointed to a satellite. At the moment their Ku-band service is in beta testing and so is only available in the continental United States, but they hope to eventually expand to cover more areas of the world.
Starting from today Outernet are holding a 33% off sale. This means that their Dreamcatcher 3 is only US$99 each. To get the discount use the coupon "33%OFFJULY4SALE" on their store. The sale lasts until Midnight Central Time on Wednesday 4 July. The code is valid site wide, so applies to the moRFeus product as well.
Previous Dreamcatcher implementations utilized an RTL-SDR to receive their L-Band network, however that network has now been discontinued. Dreamcatcher 3 utilizes a hardware based LoRa radio to receive their new ku-band satellite LoRa data stream. However, Dreamcatcher 3 has alternative applications, and doesn't need to be used only for the Outernet data service. Dreamcatcher 3.0 is a full LoRa radio that can transmit and receive, and in this post we'll focus on testing that out.
LoRa is a popular wireless protocol that has been designed for Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It is robust against interference and can be used in low power devices.
Dreamcatcher 3 LoRa Chat
Outernet have provided a LoRa two way open source text chat application that runs on the Dreamcatcher 3. To use it you'll need two Dreamcatcher 3 boards. With the application you'll be able to chat with short text messages in real time between the boards. Amateur radio enthusiasts may be interested in the boards as an easy way to set up LoRa experiments.
We note that Outernet are not advertising the transmit features specifically as the board is not FCC approved as an intentional radiator, so it cannot legally be used as an ISM band LoRa device for transmitting and listening to LoRa IoT sensors. But as a ham you are able to transmit with it if you can ensure that the output is clean and legal and on the ham bands.
A brief demo of the chat running below is shown. In the video we're using the default 'spreading factor' setting which results in robust communications, but results in a latency of about 2 seconds. Later we'll show how to change the spreading factor to reduce latency.
The Dreamcatcher v3.0
Outernet kindly provided us with two Dreamcatcher 3 boards to test the chat application with.
Like the previous versions, the Dreamcatcher is a full computing board with radio built into it. Except this time instead of an RTL-SDR, the radio is a hardware LoRa module. Another difference is that now there is a built in LCD screen.
On the board there are two SMA ports, one labelled "Direct" and the other labelled "LNB". The direct port is what we'll need to use for the chat application as this is the port that can transmit. There are also two SD Card slots, one for the OS and one for storage, a microphone and headphone jack, a USB-A slot with a supplied WiFi adapter, and two USB micro slots, one for USB OTG and one for power.
The package also comes with an LNB that is designed to be used with the Outernet satellite service. The LNB is receive only, so cannot be used with the chat application, so you'll need to use your own antenna if experimenting with the LoRa transmitter.
Chat Setup and Usage
First we burnt the latest version of Dreamcatcher Armbian OS to two SD cards and inserted one into each board. Since Dreamcatcher 3 has a built in LCD screen, you can login and access the terminal through the screen. But as there is only one USB port available, you'll need a USB hub to be able to plug in a mouse and keyboard, and the included USB WiFi adapter. Alternatively, if you connect the USB OTG port to a PC, you can connect to it via a USB serial connection. Instructions for connecting via serial, and for setting up a WiFi connection are the same as in our previous Dreamcatcher 2.0 tutorial.
Upon running the program you'll be asked to enter a MIXER frequency. This frequency doesn't really seem to matter and we're not sure why we're asked for it. But you can enter any frequency such as 300000000 Hz (300 MHz).
Once you've opened the chat program on both Dreamcatchers you should be able to type in text on the console, and have it show up on the other Dreamcatcher after pressing enter. Remember to plug an antenna in to the DIRECT port of both Dreamcatchers, or run of attenuated coax between them. The provided LNB cannot be used for the chat application.
Playing with LoRa Settings
The actual RF output frequency is by default hard coded in at 2.4 GHz. If you want to change it you can edit the main.cpp file with a terminal based text editor like nano, and look for the #define RF_FREQUENCY entry. Then you will need to recompile by running 'make' again. However note that at the time of this post, according to Outernet the software only works properly at around 2.4 GHz. Apparently this is simply a software limitation and once this is fixed you should be able to transmit at any frequency between 85 MHz to 5400 MHz.
Also by default, the LoRa 'Spreading Factor' is set to the maximum of 12. This means that there is roughly a latency of about 1 second between sending a message, and receiving it on the other unit.
The spreading factor can also be adjusted in the code by editing the "modulationParams.Params.LoRa.SpreadingFactor" variable. This determines how spread out in time the packet it. Larger spreading factors result in more robust error free communications, whereas smaller factors result in lower latency. Below are some valid spreading factor entries for the code.
Note that if you reduce the spreading factor you'll also want to reduce the RX_TIMEOUT_VALUE and TX_TIMEOUT_VALUE #defines (you'll need to search for these lines in the code. Hint: In Nano CTRL+W is search.). For a spreading factor of 7 a timeout of 100 ms works well.
You can also adjust the TX output power by adjusting the value specified by #define TX_OUTPUT_POWER. By default it is set to the maximum output power of 13 dBm. The lowest value available is -18 dBm.
Remember that after making a change in the main.cpp file, you'll have to recompile the chat program by running 'make'.
Below we visualized the different LoRa spreading factors with a HackRF. It's interesting to see how the spreading factor changes the packet transmit time.
Overall the Dreamcatcher 3 LoRa chat software works, but is still very much in early development. Regardless it is an interesting tool for experimenting with LoRa. The hardware is ready, and software now just needs to be developed to make use of the LoRa protocol. We also note that the Dreamcatcher is not a plug and play device, and that it's mostly suited to people who enjoy tinkering with new beta products.
We'd also just like to remind that in order to legally transmit you'll need a ham licence. The board is not FCC approved for regular ISM band LoRa use. While the output power of the Dreamcatcher isn't too strong at a maximum of 13 dBm, we still recommend that you make sure to reduce the output TX power, or run a direct attenuated coax connection when testing. There are also weak signal images present at some harmonics, so any ham using this with an amplifier would be of course expected to provide sufficient filtering.
In a post uploaded last month we noted that Outernet was selling off some of their old L-Band satellite antennas cheaply. Nils Schiffhauser (DK8OK) decided to take advantage of the sale and bought one. Now Nils has created a blog post that shows how he's been able able to decode 12 L-Band AERO channels simultaneously with the Outernet L-band antenna, an Airspy R2 and SDR-Console V3. AERO is the satellite based version of aircraft ACARS, and it's L-band signals contain short ground to air messages like weather reports and flight plans. Multiple channels are often in use at any one time.
To achieve this Nils uses the multi-channel tuning capabilities of SDR-Console V3, which allows him to open up 12-channels, each tuned to a different AERO frequency. He then opens up 12 instances of the AERO decoder known as JAERO, and then uses VB-Cable to pipe the audio from each channel into a JAERO instance. Nils writes that the key to making JAERO run with multiple instances is to install JAERO into different folders on your PC, and give each JAERO.exe a unique file name like JAERO_1.exe.
He collects all the data into a program called Display Launcher and Nils notes that the whole set up has been stable digesting 54,000 messages over the last 24 hours.
In the past the Outernet project operated on L-band frequencies, and for the service they manufactured a number of active L-band active ceramic patch antennas for use with RTL-SDR dongles. Outernet has since moved on to faster Ku-band delivery, and hence their old L-band antennas can no longer be used for their service. There are a few of these patch antennas left over in Outernet's stock and they are currently selling them on eBay for US $29 + shipping.
Although no longer useful for Outernet, these antennas are still very useful for receiving other L-band services such as STD-C SafetyNET and AERO. SafetyNET is a text broadcast intended for sailors at sea, but contains many interesting and potentially useful messages for others too. Often they transmit data like military sea live firing warnings, reports of marine pirate activity, search and rescue reports, scientific vessel reports as well as weather reports. AERO is the satellite version of ACARS, and is used by aircraft to communicate with text messages to and from ground stations. L-Band AERO signals only contain information from the ground station up to the aircraft. For air to ground you'll need a C-band receiver set up. AERO is the satellite communications protocol that was so heavily centered on during the MH370 flight disappearance investigation.
In the past we've reviewed the Outernet L-band ceramic patch and found it to work very well. Certainly STD-C and AERO signals are easy to receive with the antenna if you point it at the satellite. The antenna requires bias tee power and can easily be used in combination with the bias tee on our RTL-SDR V3 dongles. The onboard filter helps reduce problems from interfering signals, but restricts reception to 1525 - 1559 MHz, so Iridium signals cannot be received with this antenna.
Back in March we posted about the release of Outernet's moRFeus device which is a low cost wideband RF signal generator. Since then we've received a few emails from two readers who've received their units and have found some interesting hacks and have developed software for it.
First we have a submission from Ohan Smit who discovered a hack that allows moRFeus to work as a wideband noise generator by setting the LO to 5 GHz and the Mixer current to 3. Together with an Airspy and the Spectrum Spy software he was able to measure the response of a bandstop FM filter. Over on the forums he also shows screenshots of Python based control software that he's developed for controlling moRFeus.
Next we have a moRFeus Linux GUI created by "Lama Bleu". It can be used to access the same functions as via the moRFeus LCD screen, but is also has a few very useful features such as a step generator which allows a generated tone to sweep across the frequency spectrum. The moRFeus GUI can also connect to GQRX and sync with the LO frequency specified in the GQRX GUI for easy control. It should also be possible to implement a CW morse code generator with some scripts.
Over on the forums Zoltan, one of moRFeus' designers also notes that it might even be possible to use moRFeus for WSPR modulation, although this isn't confirmed yet. It seems that moRFeus is shaping up to be a very useful tool for RF testing and experimentation. The device is currently still available on Crowd Supply for $149US with over 136 units sold so far.