NASA deploys Wi-Fi network on the Moon to address digital access inequality on Earth

Inequality in internet access, or digital divides, is a global problem. More than 40% of the world’s population does not have access to the network. In Brazil, despite the advance in the number of internet users in recent years, 47 million Brazilians remain disconnected. Most of them, 45 million (or 95%), are in classes C and D/E, according to numbers from TIC Households 2019.

The problem was accentuated by the pandemic, which added new bottlenecks. According to the study   Students’ Residential Internet Access  , by the Consumer Defense Institute (Idec), about 6 million students do not have access to the Internet in their homes. Internet access, especially wireless networks are as difficult as on the Moon in some regions of the world. Therefore, the American space agency, NASA, is committed to solving both challenges.

A survey by   National Digital Inclusion Alliance   – NDIA found that 33% of homes in Cleveland, Ohio, do not have access to broadband. The city is home to the Glenn Research Center, one of NASA’s research centers. Thus, the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP), an economic development organization, turned to the agency to help find solutions to technical barriers capable of reducing digital inequality by using the Moon to solve a terrestrial problem.

NASA’s Compass Lab then moved to using lunar networking approaches to address the technical challenges of Wi-Fi connectivity in the local community. Interesting data was obtained by comparing an area of the lunar surface to an area around the city of Cleveland.

Collaborative solution

The study found that connecting Wi-Fi routers to around 20,000 light poles or other utility services was one way to solve the city’s connectivity problem. Routers installed at one hundred meters maximum would be enough to provide a download speed of about 7.5 megabits per second (Mbps) in homes: a connection speed sufficient to carry out school activities, and necessary day-to-day virtual calls, although not enough to allow 4K streaming, which would require installation at a shorter distance.

It is a collaborative alternative that can be replicated in other regions to address the issue of digital exclusion. The next step was to ask local providers for proposals to put the model into practice. Their analysis will serve to determine the most effective plan for connecting residents.

Internet on the Moon

In the lunar setting, the project focuses on a base camp located in the Malapert Massif, a large crater near the South Pole of the Moon. The area, which meets NASA requirements regarding the incidence of sunlight and line of sight (LoS) communication with the Deep Space Network, is a privileged place for the use of local resources, or In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). Surface exploration will require high-quality communication between astronauts and equipment such as landing modules, accommodations, rovers, and others.

There are some incognitos about Wi-Fi connectivity on the moon. While the moon doesn’t have the level of interference found in a neighborhood with buildings and trees, it also doesn’t have the advantage of energy infrastructure, for example. Using the same pole-based approach, NASA recommends mounting routers connected to barracks, landing modules or other hardware related to space exploration.

The lunar Wi-Fi framework is still very conceptual, but NASA believes it will be crucial to the  Artemis Project, which aims to create the first permanent human colony on lunar soil.