Star Wars for a piece of the pie in the sky Star Wars for a piece of the sky
Countries, big and small, want parking lots in the sky. The stakes are high. Those that get the heavenly slots will be able to put satellites up there and tap a motherlode without parallel – the multi-billion-dollar commercialisation of space. PAUL JANSEN and DERWIN PEREIRA of the Foreign Desk look at how the fight is shaping up.
HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR GEORGE Lucas was wrong. Star Wars is not being fought by Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and the forces of good and evil depicted in his classic science-fiction adventure movie. The conflict is more complex than the Hollywood director could have imagined and more current than he could have predicted.
The struggle is going on right now. And it is pitting businessmen against businessmen, companies against foreign governments and even governments against governments.
What they all want is a piece of real estate 22,235 miles above your head.
Singapore is among those laying claim to a slice of that pie. It has asked the United Nations body regulating use of the heavens to reserve six positions above the equator for the Republic’s future satellites.
Why the excitement?
The “real estate” ringing the Earth 22,235 miles above the equator is an ideal spot to park a satellite through which you can provide and sell a host of much-in-demand services ranging from telephone lines to television channels.
Up there, a satellite will be in an orbit that will enable it to beam signals to a fixed area continuously. This phenomenon is known as a geostationary or geosynchronous orbit (see story above).
For a long time, few countries could take advantage of this. This was because only countries such as the United States and the former Soviet Union had the technology and money to launch and operate such satellites.
But many “have-nots” have since entered the ranks of the “haves”.
A few, like France and China, joined the club by developing their own space programmes and producing their own satellites and launchers. For others, membership became possible thanks to a confluence of events.
* Countries with rocket launchers agreed to let them carry other nations’ satellites into orbit;
* Satellite manufacturers were allowed to sell their products to other countries;
* Launch and satellite costs became cheaper with advances in technology as well as competition among launchers and manufacturers; and
* Rising national wealth enabled more countries to afford the high cost of buying a satellite, sending it into space and keeping it and the associated infrastructure on the ground running.
There are several indications of how things have changed dramatically.
One of them: China, which entered the commercial space race in 1990 with the launch of the Asiasat satellite owned by Hongkong-based Asia Satellite Telecommunications, announced a few days ago that it plans to send 30 satellites aloft for foreign clients by the year 2000.
Customers are flocking to it as its Long March carriers cost about $68 million a launch, compared with up to $152 million in the US.
Another indication of the change: There was just one communications satellite, owned by the US, in geostationary orbit in July 1963, but today there are scores of them, owned by developing as well as developed nations.
And yet another sign of the times:
The UN body regulating the use of satellite frequencies and orbits told Sunday Review that as of last week, under its auspices, 894 geostationary satellites had been activated, were about to be activated, or were in the process of getting permission to be sent up.
Although the UN body – the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – could not say immediately how many of these have been deactivated or removedfrom geostationary orbit, it was able to provide another statistic which reflected on the popularity of the 22,235-mile-high circuit.
Its master register shows only 187 non-geostationary satellites, compared with the 894 geostationary ones, recorded since the ITU’s inception.
But not everyone who wants to place a satellite in geostationary orbit can be accommodated. There is the danger of collisions and frequency interference to consider. Some analysts say there will be no more vacancies by the year 2000.
Right now, the Geneva-based ITU acts as the approving authority. Its 182 members – governments which agreed to comply with the provisions of its Radio Regulations – submit applications when they or their entrepreneurs want to send up a satellite and use particular frequencies.
Explaining how the nod is given, Ms Francine Lambert, chief of the ITU’s Press and Public Information Office, said: “The ITU gives its okay on the basis of non-interference with previously registered uses in the Master International Frequency Register.”
However, this policy has come under fire. Among the critics is telecommunications professional Mr O. P. Khushu, technical department chief of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, a group of about 80 national broadcasters which provides technical information and training to its members.
He told Sunday Review: “In the anxiety to ensure that they do not lose out, many countries have put up applications to reserve particular orbital slots.
“But that does not mean that they have the means to launch satellites. ‘Paper satellites’ may never be put up at all!”
The chief of India’s Space Research Organisation, Professor U. R. Rao, echoed Mr Khushu’s sentiments. Prof Rao said: “It is like real estate in space. The slots are up for grabs to make quick money and ITU has not done anything to prevent it.”
ITU’s Ms Lambert admitted that “there existed a potential saturation problem” with geostationary satellites. But a plan to tackle this, called ORB 88, was drawn up and came into force on March 16, 1990.
“The aim of ORB 88 was to … provide equitable access to geostationary orbit to all countries,” she said. “It provides for one orbital position for each country, easily implementable.
“In a few cases, technical constraints such as the size of the territory, or geographical barriers such as mountains call for adjustments to the plan, including the possibility of a second position.”
However, Mr Khushu took issue too with this system of reserving frequencies and satellite positions for countries with no immediate need for them.
This was clearly not the most efficient use of limited resources, he said.
It can take up to nine years to process an application to launch a satellite. During this time, a country could hog a slot even though it had neither the means nor the intention to use it, he said.
Also, some countries could use the ITU reservation system for speculative purposes, like a property investor paying option money for a house with no intention of moving into it, and hoping to sell it for a profit before having to make any really significant payment.
Mr Khushu pointed to Tonga, with a population of 100,000 and an economy based on fishing, coconuts and foreign aid. Yet its government booked six orbital slots with the ITU. These have been put up for sale to investors.
While the prices for telecommunications satellite systems are high, the profits can be enormous too.
The family of Hongkong tycoon Li Ka Shing showed the enormous gains that can be made in a seeming flash. Mr Li’s younger son, Richard, who set up Star TV – Asia’s first satellite television service – for about $200 million in 1990, sold the Li’s controlling stake in it to media mogul Rupert Murdoch last year.
The $798-million price tag put on Star TV earned the former owner a tidy $600-million profit.
With the slots looking more profitable increasingly, it was inevitable that there should be clashes between countries joining the satellite-owning ranks.
Even allies in Asean were not immune. Malaysia told Sunday Review that it had been given the short end of the stick in a dispute with Thailand and complained about ITU’s lack of punitive powers to enforce decisions.
Malaysia wanted to have its own Measat 1 satellite operating at 91.5 degrees East using Very High Frequency. But Thailand had taken this slot.
The Malaysians’ frustration was so great that they went public on the issue. Information Minister Datuk Mohamed Rahmat, told journalists last year: “Thailand has violated the regulations of the International Telecommunication Union by adopting the same frequency as Malaysia.”
The dispute has been resolved, but Sunday Review was not told how. But this and other recent battles have drawn attention to the role and powers of the ITU.
Explaining how the ITU works, Ms Lambert said that there was a “coordination procedure” where newcomers and existing satellite operators meet to ensure that there is no harmful overlap in orbits or frequencies to be used by them.
The possibility of any country conducting a “rogue” launch – placing a satellite into an orbit not approved by ITU – was small as frequency interference would harm its own satellite’s operations, she said.
Newcomers have to give way as “the principle of first come, first served applies”, she said. Where there was disagreement, the disputants could negotiate a settlement bilaterally or request the mediation of the ITU, she added.
Malaysia’s Post and Telecommunications Minister, Datuk Samy Vellu, is not pleased with this. He told Sunday Review: “The ITU has no mandatory authority or mechanism to resolve disputes. Its regulations are based on consensus building. That is why it is not a very effective system.”
Mr Gary Brooks, a member of the ITU’s Radio Regulations Board, which receives applications for satellite slots, disagreed. He felt that there was no alternative to the current system of coordinating frequencies through consensus.
Given the difficulty the world had coming to an agreement on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade’s Uruguay Round of talks, anyone hoping for a new treaty which will give the ITU a different complexion will have a long wait ahead.
However, ITU was not standing still. Mr Brooks said that it was looking at reducing the nine-year period to file an application for a satellite to four or five years. This would shorten the period that countries could hog orbital slots.
Boomtime in Asia
ASIA has jumped on the satellite bandwagon in a big way.
More than 40 satellites now beam signals to various parts of the region.
Said Mr Lim Choon Sai, director (radio) of the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore: “The gap between developed and developing countries has been reduced considerably. Many countries that own satellites now are from the developing world.”
The chief factor in the Asian revolution is geography.
Mountainous countries like China and island nations like Japan are separated by expanses that make laying of communication cables expensive or impossible.
Communication satellites could overcome this problem.
A case in point: Indonesia, where satellite television allows the government to reach the country’s 13,670 islands stretching over 5,472 km in one swoop.
Mr S. K. Ishadi, head of research and development of media information at Indonesia’s Information Ministry told Sunday Review: “We launched the Palapa satellite system because we realised it would take 25 years for television to reach all of Indonesia if we used the terrestrial system.
“Using satellites, we took five years to achieve that goal.”
Indonesia is also earning money by leasing channels to others.
Malaysia, whose telecommunications firms and three television stations are a major user of Palapa, expects to save a bundle with its own Measat system, set for launch next year.
Officials estimate that the country’s fledgling telecommunications industry could save close to $20 million a year by using Measat 1 rather than relying on other satellite operators.
The satellite is owned by Binariang, a Malaysian firm controlled by reclusive Malaysian tycoon Ananda Krishnan, who has interests in property and gaming. Binariang has also ordered another satellite to be called Measat 2. Both are from Hughes Aircraft Company and cost $640 million each, along with satellite control equipment.
Datuk Samy Vellu said that the Measats would also help integrate Sabah and Sarawak with the peninsula and meet the country’s growing telecommunication needs.
He added: “At the moment, all of us have to rush for transponders in existing satellites. That will never happen if we have our own satellite.
“We also cannot discount the possibility of a misunderstanding with the operating country and, as a result, they might deny us a right to use their satellites. If that happens, we might be cut off from the rest of the world.”
Ownership also gave nations, particularly in the developing world, control over broadcast programmes, he said.
Fault’s not in the stars
DATUK SAMY VELLU suggested that one way to reduce misunderstanding in the rush to space, at least at the regional level, would be to get Asean communication ministers to meet yearly to discuss how best to coordinate frequencies among member countries.
“Malaysia is thinking of forwarding this proposal to the next Asean leaders meeting. We need to determine our boundaries of operation and work towards such things as a fibre-optic highway,” he said.
There is another answer.
This lies in the rapid advances in technology.
ITU’s Mr Brooks said the geostationary orbit was a finite arc, but its “capacity” was not fixed.
He predicted that the physical limitations of the 22,235-mile band above the equator would be overcome by new discoveries which would enable more satellites or more powerful ones to fill the space available.
His colleague, Ms Lambert, shared his optimism. She told Sunday Review that technological breakthroughs were “constantly improving” the efficiency in which geostationary orbits and frequencies of the satellites were used.
For example, she said:
* Better performing receiving stations and satellite antennaes allowed an increasing number of satellites to be placed in orbit without interfering with each other, and,
* Multi-purpose and larger capacity satellites made it possible to meet an entire country’s requirements with fewer satellites.
But new reasons for more satellites keep popping up.
Mr Lim Choon Sai of TAS, commenting on the clamour for orbital slots, said: “The trend will continue. Not only do satellite communications provide cost-effective services and wide coverage, but it is now also a matter of national prestige for countries to own a satellite.”
With prestige joining power and profit as motives to invade the heavens, it looks like the ITU’s mediation system could have a “hell” of a time ahead.
MANNA FROM HEAVEN?
FEW people today are aware of just how extensively satellites affect their lives – whether they live in Britain or Bangladesh.
Some of their uses:
* A worldwide network of satellite relays in geosynchronous orbits transmits television broadcasts, telephone and telegraphic messages and data across the globe.
* Another worldwide network of Transit and Global Positioning System satellites enables ships, aircraft and even commandos and trekkers equipped with relatively cheap pocket-sized receivers to know exactly where they are on a map.
* Meteorological satellites monitor and help forecast weather, giving life-saving warnings of impending storms and hurricanes.
* Landsat and other satellites are used to survey geological features for maps and indicate mineral resources, icebergs, water resources, water pollution and crop health.
* Reconnaissance and surveillance satellites let military and intelligence agencies in certain countries spy on their neighbours and enemies.