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Russia/Ukraine: Satellites Open New Dimension In Global Communications

Bellingham, Wash.; 24 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The remaining few years of this century will witness an unprecedented launching of satellites that will create a privately run, space-based communications system as the 21st century opens.

Consider this: Today, 150 commercial satellites are in orbit, providing communications services ranging from voice to video. But, within a decade, that number is expected to grow to 1,700 satellites, as dozens of ventures compete for what has been called a space-age equivalent of the California Gold Rush of 150 years ago.

Much of this proliferation springs directly from the end of the Cold War. Since one result will be to bring telecommunications to the most remote parts of Earth -- including vast stretches of the former Soviet Union -- it represents one of the most dramatic, and least noticed, "peace dividends."

Hughes Electronics, a former major defense supplier to the Pentagon which became a corporate giant because of the Cold War, last month sold that business for $9,500 billion to refocus on communications satellites and related services.

Last year, Loral Space and Communications did likewise, shedding its military business for $9,100 billion to focus on building a space-based telephone system called Globalstar, which has 12 international telecommunications partners -- including three in Russia.

"All in all," concludes "Business Week" magazine, "more than a dozen projects aim to blanket the skies with satellites that could completely transform the way that telephone calls, broadcast signals and data will dart around the Earth."

Globalstar expects to begin service next year. And the launch of the first four of its planned 48 satellites is scheduled for this August, using Ukraine "Zenit" rockets.

The goal is to advance the day when top-quality, low-cost telecommunications come to such underserved countries as Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Ukraine and former Yugoslavia -- not to mention India, Thailand and China, and much of South America.

Globalstar aims to provide wireless telephone service in virtually every populated part of the world. Callers will use hand-held terminals similar to present portable telephones. The satellite transmission system will be integrated with existing fixed-wire and cellular-radio networks, taking up where they leave off: It will switch automatically from one wire to radio to complete calls anywhere in the world.

In sparsely settled areas without much telephone service today, Central Asia for example, users will make or receive calls through fixed-site telephones. These will be similar to either today's public telephone booths or ordinary wire-based telephones. But the calls made through them will be captured by a satellite, thus bypassing the need for extensive, ground-based equipment.

This impending communications revolution is creating a huge and immediate demand for satellite launches, which means opportunities for both Ukraine and Russia. Last year, 22 rockets sent 29 satellites into orbit. This year, more than twice that amount of traffic is already scheduled -- 45 launches carrying 76 satellites. Next year will see 61 launches with 121 satellites. And so on.

That demand has led the Boeing Company, based on the West Coast of the United States, to create an international venture with Russian, Ukrainian and Norwegian partners to develop a sea-going launching system called Sea Launch, which is based in Long Beach on the Southern California coast.

Using a converted off-shore oil-drilling platform, Sea Launch will move the satellite launch site wherever is most convenient for its customers, also reducing launching costs. That site could be on the equator for launching satellites into high-altitude geo-synchronous orbits. Or it could be several hundred kilometers off shore to achieve low-Earth orbits.

Boeing says it will begin service next year and already is fully booked for Sea Launch's first three years of operation. All these orbiting satellites will do more than handle telephone conversations. They will eventually also link home computers to the Internet and switch data around the globe in an instant -- costing subscribers as little as $1,000 for the receiving "dish." And they will carry crystal clear pictures and sound as well, making hundreds of channels of television programming available anywhere.