Outernet are a startup company that hope to revolutionize the way people in regions with no, poor or censored internet connectivity receive information. Their service is downlink only, and runs on C and L-band satellite signals, beaming up to date news as well as other information like books, educational videos and files daily. To receive it you will need one of their official or homemade versions of the Lighthouse or Lantern receivers (the latter of which is still to be released), or an RTL-SDR or similar SDR. Recently they began test broadcasts of their new 5 kHz 1539.8725 MHz L-band signal on Inmarsat I4F3 located at 98W (covers the Americas), and they hope to begin broadcasts in more regions soon too.
The typical RTL-SDR is known to often have poor or failing performance above 1.5 GHz (though this can be fixed to some extent), so Outernet have been working on an L-band downconverter. A downconverter works by receiving signals, and shifting them down to a lower frequency. This is advantageous because the RTL-SDR is more sensitive and does not fail at lower frequencies, and if used close to the antenna, the lower frequency allows longer runs of cheap coax cable to be used without significant signal loss.
Earlier this week we received in the mail a prototype of their downconverter. The downconverter uses a 1.750 GHz LO signal, so any signal input into it will be subtracted from this frequency. For example the STD-C frequency of 1.541450 GHz will be reduced to 1750 MHz – 1541.450 MHz = 208.55 MHz. This also means that the spectrum will appear reversed, but this can be corrected by selecting “Swap I & Q” in SDR#. The downconverter also amplifies the signal with an LNA, and has a filter to remove interfering out of band signals.
We tested the downconverter using their patch antenna which they had sent to us at an earlier date (the patch antenna is used and shown in this Inmarsat STD-C reception tutorial). Our testing found that overall the downconverter works extremely well, giving us much better signal levels. Previously, we had used the patch + LNA4ALL and were able to get reception good enough to decode STD-C and AERO signals, but with the requirement that the patch be carefully pointed at the satellite for maximum signal. With the downconverter the signals come in much stronger, and accurate pointing of the patch is no longer required to get a signal strong enough to decode STD-C or AERO.
The downconverter can be powered by a bias tee connection, and this works well with our bias tee enabled RTL-SDR dongles. We also tested with the bias tee on the Airspy R2 and Mini and had no problems. It can also be powered with a direct 5V connection to a header, and they note that the header will be replaced by a USB connector in the production version.
The release date and exact price that these will be sold at is not confirmed, but we believe that it will be priced similarly to upconverters at around $50 USD or less. A good low cost downconverter should help RTL-SDR and other SDR users receive not only the Outernet signal better, but also other satellite signals such as STD-C and AERO. Although the input is filtered and the RF frequency is specified at 1525 to 1559 MHz, we had no trouble receiving signals up to GPS frequencies of 1575 MHz, and even up to Iridium signals at 1.626 GHz, though reception was much weaker up that high.
Below are some screenshots of reception. Here we used the Outernet patch antenna sitting in a windowsill with the downconverter directly after the antenna, and then 10 meters of RG6 coax cable to the PC and bias tee enabled RTL-SDR. We found that with the downconverted ~200 MHz signal the loss in the RG6 coax was negligible. Better reception could be obtained by putting the patch outdoors. In some screenshots we used Vasilli’s R820T driver with the decimation feature, which allows you to zoom into narrowband signals much more clearly.