Leading Article: Powerful rulers of the satellite airwaves

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With astonishing speed, the companies who piled into the satellite television industry are discovering that technology and markets can develop and decay in the flicker of a microsecond. Ted Turner, the founder of Cable News Network, says the satellite business is getting overcrowded. There is a risk that no one will make a profit and some will go broke. A new process called digital compression will effectively shrink the data transmitted so that more channels can use the same satellite. A shakeout is bound to come, says Mr Turner.

Yet CNN is charging into the Asian market later this year in competition with Rupert Murdoch's Star TV. The rewards, like the risks, are great. CNN is not alone in thinking that it, too, must be a player in this unpredictable business.

Even as these behemoths fight it out, the future of global communications may be about to take another jump. Teledesic, a small company backed by shrewd investors, plans to place satellites in low orbit around the earth. The idea is to provide a network for all manner of links between rich, poor or remote areas. A global mobile telephone system is high on the list of possibilities. All this means the world of cross-border television and data is likely to change. It will become more accessible. But if a ferocious free-market battle develops, the most influential controllers of the airwaves will also be the biggest.

That is why legislators, broadcasters and all concerned for free speech need to think now about the challenges ahead. It is far from clear whether Mr Murdoch's first brave claim that satellites could defeat dictatorships will be borne out. He has dropped the BBC from his Star channel because it offended the government of China, and he muses whether Star really needs news at all. In India, another great potential market, he promises sensitivity to local feelings, whatever they may be in so vast and heterogenous a country. In Saudi Arabia, the government has simply banned satellite dishes. And in Britain, anxious bureaucrats spurred by a prurient tabloid press rush to defend our simon-pure society from a few seedy continental films broadcast late at night.

The power of television continues to defy cliche: witness the rise within four months of Silvio Berlusconi, who controls almost half the output of Italian television, to a heavyweight contender for political power. Clearly, a reflex to over- regulate is not satisfactory. But there are questions of sovereignty, standards and exploitation to consider. These are matters too important to be left to Mr Murdoch, Mr Turner and Mr Berlusconi.