Taxpayers Pay for Satellite Communications: But Who Benefits?

When British science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was telling his fans 30 years ago that satellites would someday connect all homes and neighborhoods around the world via telephone, radio and television communications, few believed it could come so soon. Well, the technology is almost ready to fulfill Clarke’s vision — if the giant corporate Luddites will permit it.

Like most technologies, satellite communications reflect the distribution of political and economic power in a society.

The dominate controllers of satellites have been government (mostly for military purposes) and the large telecommunications corporations for business purposes. The commercial telecommunications satellite system called Intelsat serves business and government interests in over 89 countries.

U.S. taxpayers paid and still pay for the development of satellite communications. Yet as consumers they have scarcely benefitted. Long distance telephone rates, for example, should have declined markedly. Instead, the return on the taxpayers’ investment is going to AT&T, ITT and RCA Global Communications.

The new satellite technology has promised the kind of abundance that could have brought consumer prices down across the board. But the companies which have investments in older technologies, as in undersea cables, have fought, stalled, or stifled this wonder of science.

Michael Kinsley, author of the book, “Outer Space and Inner Sanctums,” described the 15-year period of collaboration between big business, Communications Satellite Corp. (COMSAT), and other federal agencies as tending “to thwart rather than to nurture technological advance and to deny the benefits of satellite technology to the taxpayers whose investment in outer space made it possible.”

Now comes a series of technological breakthroughs which will greatly reduce the cost of satellite communications use even further.

There is a new generation of high-power satellites capable of transmitting communications signals to small, relatively inexpensive ground receivers or antennas.

Eighteen months ago, NASA launched the ATS-6, which in 1975 transmitted telephone, radio, and television via $10,000 terminals to remote regions of Appalachia, Alaska and the Rocky Mountain States.

The cost of the receiver still is coming down. The Canadian government plans to use this latest technology to construct a direct-to-home satellite system serving 500,000 homes by 1980.

In small offices at 55 West 44th St. in New York City, the staff of the Public Interest Satellite Association (P.I.S.A.) works and dreams.

They work with a tiny budget to inform Americans of this realistic wonderland of cheap communications if enough people organize to challenge successfully the growing corporate attempts to block widespread citizen use.

They dream of the day when consumer, environmental, minority, community organization groups and many other civic interests can bypass the high prices of AT&T and network television to communicate with one another. They forsee low-cost use of telephone, Telex, facsimile, data and other communications techniques to connect local groups and develop new networks of information exchange here and abroad.

Shortly the Federal Communications Commission will start considering the question of introducing small earth station technology. The same corporate intransigence will be encountered here as was the case with cable TV years ago and as is the case with continuing issues of public and citizen access to commercial satellite communications.

P.I.S.A. wants to tell you how you can participate in the quest for communication systems which can become the filaments of a just society. Why should the many be able only to communicate to a few while the few can communicate to the many? Write to P.I.S.A. for free materials.

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