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Multimedia Matters: In Search Of A Larger Role: Satellite Leaders Can Do More

By | February 1, 2002

      Theresa Foley

      As the world adapts to an increased sense of vulnerability in the aftermath of last September’s terrorist attacks, the satellite industry should take a look at its potential for a longer-term contribution to improving safety, security and the speed of information gathering and distribution. The opportunity takes many forms, reaching from military missions to industrial security to electronic communications that can replace or augment travel.

      As of December, individual managers and companies were paying attention to the problem, but no coordinated efforts to organize the satellite industry to promote a bigger role had been launched. Satellite leaders should seek a larger role, guided more by their desire to be of service than by how they can profit from the attacks. Too often, reliance on marketing studies and the desire for big profits has influenced the direction of the business, and here is a chance to play an important role in world development.

      Satellite companies were quick to respond in the days after the attack, helping the news media meet a demand for information that had multiplied exponentially overnight. Commendably, the companies donated some services to the fundraising efforts to help the attack victims. Transponder usage for occasional services and newsgathering doubled during September 2001, as the media and government called on satellite suppliers to help manage the information flow.

      “From GPS to satellite video phones to video transmission to satellite imagery through satellite-guided laser bombs, the infrastructure has been used to a remarkable degree,” Manish Thakur, managing director at S.G. Cowen Securities Corp. in New York, says. “As we go to a world where information systems are more important, the role of satellite infrastructure is key. We see it first in defense, then in other areas.”

      Thakur expects that this could lead to another wave of commercial satellite spin-offs in very much the same way the big LEO satellite constellations of the 1990s grew out of the military’s Strategic Defense Initiative, assuming that the Defense Department puts more research funds into satellites.

      On the commercial side, new ideas are emerging. Joan Brynes, executive vice president of marketing, sales and operations for Loral Skynet, sees satellite-based business television services becoming more popular, providing a more sustainable demand for satellite bandwidth than did the short-lived SNG demand in the autumn. These services involve corporate videoconferencing, which can use either terrestrial or satellite connections, to replace some travel. Internally, Loral stepped up its own use of a corporate network it had installed prior to 9/11 in the month after the attack when the corporation severely curtailed travel, and Skynet’s customers offer such services to its users.

      Brynes’ second idea is more undeveloped. She says satellites can provide security services like remote monitoring and sensing of the perimeter of places such as nuclear facilities. Ka-band satellites, connected to a system of motion-sensitive cameras and small uplink earth stations, could be a way to provide these services. Skynet has a Ka-band payload on Telstar 8, which will be launched at the end of 2002, to test this kind of application.

      The new digital radio satellite systems also might be called on in the campaign to improve safety services, according to Walter Morgan, president of the Communications Center. He suggests that federal authorities could respond to future emergencies by using a satellite channel with national coverage to beam information about disasters to anyone equipped with receivers. So far FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has no plans to do so, but is open to considering new technology that would help with its communications, according to a FEMA spokesman. Currently FEMA uses satellites to connect a fleet of trucks that are equipped to quickly provide phone banks in disaster areas. FEMA and CNN also used satellite video phones to send images out of the disaster area and war zone last fall.

      Morgan says the role that satellites already play providing back-up connections to telecom network switching centers should be expanded as a security measure.

      Voice of America is another U.S. agency with a mission that has gained visibility since the attacks. Voice of America already extensively uses satellites to distribute video and audio programs around the world. Tish King, spokesperson for the International Broadcasting Bureau, a U.S. government agency that supports VOA, says a major initiative is underway to expand VOA’s Middle East Broadcast Network in early 2002 by leasing more satellite capacity for five stereo channels. Besides news and information programs, the channels will carry music as they aim to attract a younger audience of next-generation leaders in the Middle East as listeners. “Satellite is an essential part of the path,” King says.

      How vulnerable are satellites themselves to attack? Morgan says satellites make lousy terrorist targets. “Anybody wanting to take out a satellite system will have one helluva a job,” he says. A terrorist might be able to knock out one ground station, but usually a satellite system has hundreds in place. Besides, he says, the terrorists benefited from satellites as much as anyone, relying on them and TV news cameras to record the World Trade Center collapse and show it to the world.

      Satellites have a more positive role to play in this new world, and it is a good time for industry leaders to begin promoting their capabilities in this regard in as generous a manner as possible.

      Theresa Foley is Via Satellite’s Senior Contributing Editor

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