I tried to buy a satellite and all I got was this lousy $67,000

Web-for-all chief tells El Reg of life after doomed space grab

Yesterday's launch of the TerreStar 1 satellite. Pic: ESA

Back in 2010 a hugely optimistic plan to buy a satellite raised $67,000 in donations, way short of the needed $1.3bn, but as media interest faded the founder has kept himself busy spending the cash.

The plan was to buy US comms satellite TerraStar-1, which bankrupted its owner TerreStar Corp after it tried to offer satellite telephony across the US when everyone had a cellphone. After TerreStar sunk, non-profit group A Human Right cooked up a mad-as-a-box-of-frogs "BuyThisSatellite" plan to acquire the bird, relocate it to Africa or similar, then develop cheap Earth stations and provide bandwidth to the deserving poor.

But the plan was foiled when Dish Networks bought the satellite for $1.375bn, leaving the BuyThisSatellite project with a pile of donated cash and no cause on which to spend it.

"No one ever asked about the money," project founder Kosta Grammatis told The Reg. "Yours is the first call I've had."

Apparently the last of the donated cash was spent last month, but for the last two years it has been used to fund Grammatis' campaign for broader access to the internet, a campaign that has seen him talking to business leaders around the globe and reaching the conclusion that big business really isn't interested in little people.

Grammatis identifies himself as "Chief Optimist" with his own organisation A Human Right - named for Article 19 of the UN Declaration which covers the free sharing of ideas across boundaries - but the title is something of an understatement.

Take BuyThisSatellite, the scheme to buy TerraStar-1. The idea is clearly wild to anyone versed in the industry; satellites cost billions to buy and launch, and tens of millions to run, and can't just be shifted around the world by well-meaning nerds.

"It got quite mad," San-Francisco-based Grammatis admitted. "Suddenly I was getting calls from Finnish radio stations and all sorts, and then we discovered they were going to want billions of dollars [for the satellite] and we tried to scale things back."

Reality hit hard, and the scheme was scaled back to a more sensible business plan, but donations were rolling in from all over the world and there was $67,000 in the bank when BuyThisSatellite finally stopped accepting handouts.

In August 2011 Dish Networks paid $1.375bn for TerraStar-1, mostly for the radio spectrum it came with - which Dish has now successfully lobbied to have refarmed into mobile-phone bandwidth, increasing its value significantly - but the deal left BuyThisSatellite without a satellite to buy.

"We had a plan," Grammatis assured us. "An honest gentleman had offered us capacity on two of his FM satellites, it's not internet access but it's something."

Relays could be added and internet protocol (IP) packets were designed to run over all sorts of dodgy links so there seemed potential there, but sadly it turned into nothing.

Finding jobs for unused satellite capacity

Grammatis then started wandering the world, even attending the World Economic Forum as a guest of Dish Chair Charlie Ergen, begging satellite companies for bandwidth contributions to his new scheme - the Bandwidth Bank. "30 per cent of satellite capacity is unused," he explained. "The Bandwidth Bank was a plan to share that out".

But the satellite industry is necessarily conservative. As one of the few industries willing to throw billions into investments which won't pay off for 20 years, its core business is so enormously risky that all other risk must be minimised. Satellite people still wear suits, and tread carefully, to the frustration of the mufti-clad internet crowd who are used to faster feedback.

So 18 months of begging achieved nothing, beyond spending a good proportion of that cash contributed for the purchase of a satellite, and proving that free bandwidth is hard to come by.

The rest of the money has been spent trying to get a fibre-optic cable moved, and helping fund a documentary about the impact a pallet of laptops can have on a Peruvian village, but to sustain his campaigning, Grammatis is going to need a new plan.

He has one, but he's asked us not to talk about it yet so we won't, suffice to say that it is nearly - but not quite - as optimistic as the others.

The real question is if Kosta Grammatis had the right to spend the original donations in this way, spending money which was intended for purchasing a satellite on two years of lobbying and international travel.

One might argue that those donating were backing an idea - greater internet access for the disconnected - rather than a specific plan, and that the money has been spent in the pursuit of that idea. In this case, it's all more or less square, but as more crowd-funded projects fail there will inevitably be more questions about what happened to the cash.

Grammatis certainly isn't planning to ask the internet for money ever again - "You only get one shot at that," he told us, "and I had mine" - so there is a dawning sense of reality.

It's is a shame in some ways: there are times when the world needs optimistic dreamers imagining they can change the world just because no one has told them they can't. Grammatis didn't buy a satellite, but it's hard to imagine that those who contributed to the fund would object to how the cash was spent - if they did then surely someone would have made the call before we did. ®

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