Revolutions from rural India to the West

Both villagers and high-flyers will benefit from the latest Inmarsat 3 launch. Dorothy Walker reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Ariane V97 opened its nose cone high above the Equator and thrust two satellites out into orbit earlier this month, the powerful European rocket emphasised two differing approaches to space technology.

For the business traveller, it meant more convenient phone calls at $3 a minute. For India, it meant that thousands of villages could have their first phone box and maybe a TV.

The launch of the Ariane 4 rocket was the latest in a series that has made the Kourou station in French Guyana the world's most important commercial space operation, with two-thirds of Western telecommunications satellites to its credit. And it was a point of high achievement for both the international Inmarsat group and the Indian Space Research Organisation's Insat series.

London-based Inmarsat has completed its billion-dollar programme to put four Inmarsat-3 satellites into geostationary orbit and cover the globe. Only the polar ice caps are out of range. Everywhere else the traveller can open up the battery-powered laptop phone and dial direct.

Increasing power of the satellite transmitters has allowed designers to create smaller phones, now down to the size of a hardback book and still shrinking. Demand is outstripping supply. There are more than 75,000 in use, many of them bulky and inconvenient, but the latest models are a breakthrough incorporating most of the features found in cellular systems such as smart cards. In future, they will include a messaging service and voicemail.

The latest phones cost about pounds 2,000 and are usually sold with an airtime contract as with mobile phones. The average price for calls is about pounds 2 a minute. This might sound expensive, but when measured against charges of up to pounds 10 a minute in some luxury hotels and aboard cruise ships, it is a bargain. It is, of course, an even better deal in places where there are no phones at all.

"Today the most indispensable item in the business traveller's luggage is a credit card," says Andrew Ivey of Inmarsat. "In five years' time, I guarantee that it will be an Inmarsat phone."

Chris Leber, vice president of Comsat, adds: "Cellular phone service is available in only a fifth of the world and is often incompatible from country to country. And fewer than 50 per cent of people in the world have access to a regular phone service."

Comsat manufactures the notebook-sized Planet 1 phone, which it says will allow you to place a call from anywhere you can see the sky. "Professionals in oil exploration, mining, agriculture, engineering and construction need to call and fax and e-mail as if they were in the home office," Leber says. "The same is true of broadcasters and journalists, humanitarian relief professionals and scientists researching everything from rare species to geology."

As Ariane V97 roared into the sky over Devil's Island and out over the Atlantic, it also marked a highpoint in India's space programme, which currently hoists its technology into orbit aboard the European-built rockets.

The Insat 2D satellite is a multi-purpose spacecraft, costing $50m to build and $64m to launch. It will help to complete India's communications, weather and TV networks. The country has invested more than $400m in its space programme, which is aimed at making India completely self-sufficient in satellite technology.

Leapfrogging ahead of traditional landline and broadcast services, India now provides satellite TV coverage for 85 per cent of its population, with stations transmitting in half a dozen major languages of the sub- continent. Broadcasts include entertainment, literacy and rural education programmes.

In the Jhabua District of Madhya Pradesh, central India, more than 150 direct-reception TV sets have been given to the 1,300 tribal villages, where literacy stands at just 14.5 per cent. By using satellite communications, experts are able to help with education, and agricultural and health problems.

Some of the TV sets have talkback links, so that village groups can ask presenters about the programmes.

"This is transforming rural India," says a researcher closely connected with the project. But even as the Ariane 4 rocket was being launched, the world was moving on. Soon Ariane 5 will be launched - after a disastrous first attempt last year - and will carry ever-heavier payloads into space.

Already in the queue are low-orbit satellites whose high power will allow the development of hand-held sat-phones. Just as mobile phones take their signal from one transmitter after another as you drive along, these will switch from satellite to satellite as the spacecraft disappear over the horizon.

And for India, the aim is ever-greater independence. On the drawing board in the Bangalore space research station are new launchers, designed to carry home-built satellites that will bring education and entertainment to millions of villagers, but also to cash in on the lucrative space trade.

In a few years' time, your phone call from a Caribbean cruise ship or African hotel may reach home via a satellite taken into space from an Indian launch pad - for $50mn

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