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New Electronic Era Undeniably Includes Satellites

By | August 16, 2004

      By Joseph Pelton

      A new kind of electronic reality has been created by satellite communications, fiber optics, cybernetics and computer networks. One way of viewing this electronic transformation has been called “telegeography,” a term coined by Gregory Staples, who contends that in this new-age physical distance lacks much meaning. In the age of broadband networking, New York, Tokyo, Paris, Singapore, Berlin, Moscow and London are closer together than Okmulgee, Okla., is to Arkadelphia, Ark., or Zamengoe, Cameroon, is to Gaborone, Gabon.

      Digital communications devices, for better or worse, now integrate our global business systems. Versatile space communications systems link our television sets, telephones, Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers, computers, terabyte databases and even portable Internet phones. This process has made our world smaller and more intimate in new and different ways. We have seen the advent of new and more powerful satellite systems that make global intimacy possible.

      Truly anybody can stay in touch anytime and anywhere — if they want to do so. Washington, D.C.-based WorldSpace’s satellite radio service makes it possible to transmit news, information and music to the world’s most remote rain forest or arid desert. Mobile satellite systems such as Inmarsat, Thuraya, Globalstar, and Iridium Satellite LLC can use a specially equipped cellphone or laptop transceiver to communicate to the world or to link to the Internet from ships at sea, from aircraft in the stratosphere or from the most remote island — and at increasingly low costs.

      Furthermore, billions of people can choose what they wish to watch on any one of hundreds of satellite television channels. They can do this by direct satellite, by satellite- fed cable television or simply by going to the Internet to watch their favorite show via “video streaming” or by listening to their favorite music by CD downloading. Ultimately, one will be able to watch virtually any movie ever made via the right connection on the Web.

      Commonplace Connectivity

      Today, people in developed countries and a growing number of those in developing nations can quickly connect to tens of thousands of “information networks” to learn about virtually any conceivable subject or watch any form of entertainment or amusement. Censorship in certain countries will not be as easy in the future as it has been in the past.

      Soon, we may well be paying more for screening out unwanted information than for connecting to the global network. Yet those without access to the networks or those unable to pay to access information may be pushed further away from modern advances. These “isolated communities” may not rue being cut off from global entertainment. Many would describe the chance to avoid a bombardment from pop culture images and sounds as a plus. However, these isolated individuals also are limited in their access to education and health care as well as to unfiltered news. At the most fundamental level, there is a question that goes beyond how to access global networks or whether it will be affordable. This burning question is whether or not one wishes to have access to and interact with the Western “technological society” at all? Is such access good or bad, right or wrong, beneficial or destructive? It is a judgment call.

      Telepower Trends

      To sum up how satellites have changed or will continue to change our world, here is a “Top Ten” list of projections for “telepower trends.” In many ways, these trends will be powered by satellite systems of the 21st century, as well as by their “kissing cousins” of Information Technology (IT), computer networks and broadband terrestrial telecommunications systems. The trends are:

      • Globalism and the rising importance of telegeography, in which physical distance has greatly reduced meaning;
      • Teleworking and the continued expansion of international outsourcing that lets “electronic immigrants” who live in one country work electronically with people in another;
      • New 21st Century Paradigms, such as the “World Wide Mind, ” that can unlock huge intellectual resources on a global basis to do almost anything, and “Knowledge-Based” organizations that intensely use the Internet and other electronic advances to do business globally 168 hours a week;
      • A Liquid World Economy, where more than $1 trillion in electronic funds transfers now occur globally daily to total nearly $400 trillion in a year — and the trend is surging;
      • New Ways of Coping with Terrorism in a Post -9/11 World where satellite-based electronic decentralization can reduce societal vulnerabilities, and satellite and IT security is a must;
      • Tele-Medicine, Tele-Health and Tele-Education, all poised to become key tools of the future;
      • Bridging the Gap by using new technology to span economic and information gulfs between the developed and the developing nations. This could be the key theater in the war against terrorism;
      • A “Visualized World,” in which a text-based society gives way to multimedia systems;
      • The “Everywhere Internet” that has allowed for digital convergence in markets, technology growth and everything else; and
      • Satellites and The Global Environment may allow fully integrated space systems to save planet Earth in the 21st century. This ultimately may occur through the advent of a “preservation-based” economy rather than a growth economy.

      Premium Prices?

      Industry executives should understand that satellites are an enabling technology that can bring all of these possibilities to reality. While the force and power of satellites have grown, they have become increasingly invisible to people using the technology. Satellites are almost seamlessly integrated with other technologies. In the past, “live via satellite” meant that something rare was happening. Now, no such label is used because satellites are deployed regularly during each broadcasting day.

      That seeming ubiquity of satellite services poises a challenge for industry executives. The value of the in-orbit transponders that are used to provide connectivity is diminishing as such capacity becomes more widespread across the world.

      More than half of the countries are connected to the Internet by satellite but users only see their own computer, and they have no idea satellites link them to the rest of the world. The ultimate irony is that as satellites have become essential to our daily lives in the electronic era, they also have disappeared from public view.

      History offers us a lesson. The industry’s future can be forecasted by examining the Renaissance in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries. That renaissance largely was built on the printed word, and it reached its full flower when printed books became commonplace. Today, the emergence of the electronic era has included satellites becoming almost commonplace as well as a virtual commodity in the global economy. The irony is that the satellites enabling the electronic era are disappearing from view just as the printing press became commonly accepted but was not directly seen by the readers of books during the Renaissance. The essential technologies become “invisible” or at least pedestrian as they are adopted in the mass market.

      The moral is that the satellite industry must look for new value-added services to offer, if any hope remains of commanding premium prices in the future. Today, we are paying out almost more money for screening calls than for the cost of receiving them. The satellite industry is going to have to invent new value-added services that go beyond the delivery of information quickly and efficiently if it is going to be able to retain its traditional role as a premium technology that can price its services accordingly in the 21st-century market.

      Joseph Pelton is director of the Space and Advanced Communication Research Institute (SACRI) at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the former dean of the International Space University in Strasbourg, France. He can be reached at, or at 703/536-6985. The information in this report is excerpted from a new book, Satellite Communications: Global Change Agent, edited by Pelton, Robert J. Oslund and Peter Marshall.

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