How to Save Democracy From Technology
Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly
It is hard to remember now how much excitement was generated seven years ago by the first live transatlantic television broadcast. The facilities in July 1962 were primitive. The signal held up for only twenty-two minutes and then died as the Telstar satellite which relayed the picture passed out of range of the earth stations at Andover, Maine, and Pleumeur Boudeau, France, both of which sent signals to Telstar and received from it. It was something less than a "smash hit," but it ushered in a new era in international communications.
Only seven years later, nearly half the land mass of the world was interlaced with communications facilities that made it possible for virtually all television viewers everywhere to watch live pictures from the surface of the moon. We have progressed to the point where a worldwide communications system is in full operation, based upon three satellites in synchronous orbit and a network of earth stations.
It is hardly necessary to belabor the benefits to mankind which will result from a sure, efficient, inexpensive and flexible worldwide communications system free of government restraints and capable of delivering sound, pictures, words and data by telephone, telex, radio, television and through data transmissions, from computer to computer. The implications may be especially profound for those sections of the world which for reasons of topography or poverty have so far been able to develop only the most rudimentary communications systems.
It is the instantaneous transmission of news and such events as the moon walk, the investiture of the Prince of Wales and the like that has so far constituted the most glamorous of the satellite's functions. By cable we have long been able to move written messages, voice and, in recent years, still pictures; the capacity to transmit moving pictures over great distances is new. But like the iceberg, the television coverage which has attracted the most attention is only a small part of the capability of the communications satellite system operated by the International Telecommunications Satellite consortium. Only about 2 percent of the revenues of the United States' Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat) derives from television usage. The remainder comes largely from telephone traffic. In the future, however, there is every reason to think that the satellite may become a device for relaying a great variety of information, including data, facsimile reproductions, medical information and even business and personal letters.
The implications of this new technology in terms of international relationships are immense. The worldwide delivery of vast quantities of news, information, data, instructional material, books, magazines and television programs at reasonable cost to developed and developing countries alike will soon become a reality. The generation of satellites now in use carries more than 50 percent more signal space than the most sophisticated transoceanic cables. The generation to be in service by about 1972 will have almost ten times the capacity of the most recently laid cables. Within another five years it is quite possible that the ratio will have increased to more than twenty times.
A vast new capacity to communicate will be available but its performance may be inhibited unless the nations of the world are somehow able to coöperate in an effort to write rules or procedures to avoid technological and political conflict and permit the new art to develop in an orderly way. The growth of electronic communications in the last century has required a certain amount of international coöperation but it represents only a fraction of that which will be necessary to encourage and protect the growth of worldwide space communications.
The International Telecommunications Union was founded as the International Telegraph Union in 1865 to regulate telegraphic communications in Europe. The ITU has since expanded its sphere to include telephones, cables, radio and television. In the 1920s it set up an adjunct called the International Frequency Registration Board to assist in preventing chaotic use of the frequencies available in the radio spectrum. Individual nations, including the United States through its Federal Radio Act of 1927 and its Federal Communications Act of 1934, were able to achieve relatively efficient spectrum management within individual countries.
Communications satellites produce an entirely new set of problems which may turn out to be beyond the regulatory capabilities of the existing agencies. Among the problems urgently requiring solution are the following:
Spectrum management to avoid frequency overlap and constant interference;
Political problems relating to international signals crossing national borderlines;
The rewriting of copyright conventions to make them applicable to an entirely new technology;
The establishment of rates which will guarantee a reasonable return on investment but at the same time encourage development of traffic and protect the user;
Writing an international convention which will guarantee equal access to the new facilities.
While the method by which a satellite functions may be incomprehensible to the layman, there is no mystery about its purpose. In a sense its function is similar to a microwave relay system which receives a signal from a sending point and relays it on to the next link in the chain, but there are two essential differences. The satellite operates at a far higher altitude and broadcasts its signals rather than confining them to a point-to-point beam.
Microwave towers on average terrain are generally placed 50 to 60 miles apart, or even closer. Three satellites positioned at a point 22,300 miles above the equator and adequately spaced cover, by line of sight, virtually the entire land mass of the globe.
The reason for the 22,300 miles is that at that altitude the satellite is in orbit around the earth at the exact rotational speed of the point on the earth directly under it. It is thus in effect stationary or "synchronous." All of the satellites now in use except those covering the Soviet Union are of the synchronous type. The Soviet Union still uses a system of satellites in oval orbit at a relatively low altitude. Contact with these Molniya satellites can be maintained for about four hours as the vehicle moves from the vicinity of Moscow to within range of the Vladivostok earth station, while the synchronous satellite furnishes 24-hours-a-day service to the larger area within its range.
The satellite experts generally talk in terms of three types of vehicles defined by their functions.
The "communications" satellite is relatively low-powered and its signal is beamed by its sending antenna so it will reach all land areas within its line of sight, thus making it possible for only three vehicles to provide service for the whole world. Earth stations are costly because they must greatly amplify signals both for sending to the satellite and for receiving. These stations cost about $2.2 to $2.5 million.
"Distribution" satellites are designed to cover considerably smaller areas. One Comsat proposal suggests launching two distribution satellites to serve the continental United States. Power output would be somewhat greater and the antenna beam considerably narrower, thus concentrating more power in a smaller area, much as a magnifying glass will concentrate the sun's rays. Ground stations as a result can be smaller and less costly. Comsat estimates that 80 percent of the population of the United States could receive satellite television service through 36 ground stations costing $200,000 each, provided generous use is made of local terrestrial facilities.
The third of the satellites is the "broadcast" type, which has not yet been developed. Its purpose would be to put a television signal directly into a home receiver or a master antenna of a housing development or a low-cost receiving station for a small village. To be feasible, power levels would have to be much higher than for distribution satellites; otherwise home receivers would be excessively bulky and expensive. It is now believed that such a system would be technically possible as early as 1975, but there is little confidence that society will be ready then in terms of economics, government regulation or international agreement. A target year of 1985 seems more likely, but only if the necessary national and international regulatory decisions can be made within the intervening time.
A new approach to spectrum management is vital to the efficient functioning of satellite communications if serious interference is to be avoided. Demands of the present communications satellites are not worrisome but distribution satellites, and ultimately broadcast satellites if they are ever to function, will pose much greater problems, particularly in high traffic density areas such as the northeast quadrant of the United States and to a lesser extent Western Europe, where much of the available spectrum space is already taken up. Some new regulatory procedures also seem essential to insure maximum usage with minimum restrictions and to keep rates equitable. Achieving these objectives will involve a long, difficult period of international wrangling. But the stakes are high. The new channels of international communications enormously greater in number, scope and capability offer the possibility of achieving new levels of international understanding affecting personal, business and educational relationships as well as relationships among governments.
Engineers are confident they can find answers to the spectrum management problem, but only if international political arrangements can be made to untangle the traffic maze and open up previously unused portions of the spectrum.[i] The International Telecommunications Union has recently begun to take an active interest in the question of space communications but it is still questionable whether the ITU has the courage and the muscle to exercise any real control.
If signals could be confined within national boundaries, national regulatory bodies could cope with the problem. But the satellite signal, while it can be directed to some extent by the positioning of its antenna, still cannot be made with certainty to stay within a single nation, particularly where nations are small and irregular in shape. Very few form circles as does the satellite beam as it reaches earth. More important, the signals could overlap and cause interference with adjacent signals.
For the immediate future the problems of the direct broadcast satellite are likely to remain difficult of solution and it is possible that international rivalries coupled with the self-interests of current owners and operators of communications services may permanently inhibit its use. Distribution satellites, however, appear inevitable.
UNESCO, for example, has been concerned for several years with the serious problem of education in India. The shortage of teachers and school facilities is so enormous that only some nationwide instructional communications system seems likely to make even a start in eradicating illiteracy and training a sufficient number of teachers to have any significant impact. Working with NASA, UNESCO has come up with a plan for a distribution satellite which would put a sufficiently powerful television signal into the Indian subcontinent so that relatively inexpensive earth stations could receive and display instructional programming for a high proportion of the population. The programs would originate in one central city; thus only one earth station of any substantial cost would be required. Only a satellite can perform this role because of the enormous cost of building land lines or microwave facilities to cover the country. Nevertheless, it is a curious fact that the largest part of the cost of establishing a satellite system of the kind described will be the earth- bound equipment rather than the satellite.
Indonesia and Brazil are faced with similar problems-Brazil because of its vast interior through which it would be physically impossible to contruct land lines or microwave circuits, and Indonesia because of the enormous expanses of ocean separating its hundreds of islands. Africa poses similar problems but adds complications resulting from the small size of individual countries and the variety of languages and dialects.
Various European organizations, including most notably the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), have been toying with the notion of launching a vehicle which would tie together the nations of Western Europe and parts of North Africa and the Middle East. The purpose would be to maintain permanent circuits for the relaying of EBU programs and messages among the Union's members. Similarly, Japan is making plans for a satellite which would furnish communications links tying together all of Japan and, if there is sufficient interest, some of the countries of Southeast Asia and Oceania as well.
There have been several proposals in addition to Comsat's to set up a distribution satellite system for the United States which would supplement existing microwave facilities and furnish a cheaper and more efficient system for television network relays plus an expected vast increase in telephonic and other information communications. The Ford Foundation made a dramatic proposal in 1966 for a satellite system designed to accommodate network television signals, with the profits going to public television. AT&T has also registered a satellite plan with the FCC A decision by the Commission concerning the ownership and operation of such a system is expected at any moment.
There is no real concern that development of future satellite facilities will create excess capacity. As communications become more reliable and less costly, the volume of traffic has been building at a rate to utilize virtually all facilities available. Long-lines telephone traffic in the United States, for example, has been doubling every four years.
All of the world's present space communications except those of the Soviet Union are being transmitted through the facilities of the International Telecommunications Satellite consortium. The majority owner and manager is Comsat, which owns 53 percent of Intelsat's stock. Intelsat's growth in the few years of its existence has been phenomenal but its future is somewhat clouded by pressures from the non-U.S. members to reduce American influence. The two sticking points revolve around Comsat's position as manager and majority shareholder and the consortium's method of decision- making.
A conference of the 68 nations who are members of Intelsat met in Washington during February and early March of 1969 to discuss the consortium's future and recessed without arriving at any decisions. It is hoped that the conference will be reconvened in November-although some observers think February 1970 is a more likely time-to see if its internal problems can be resolved.
Because of Comsat's curious composition as a quasi-public corporation and an instrument of U.S. national communications policy, the Government of the United States, principally through the Department of State, has played a significant role in the Intelsat negotiations. The chief American delegate, former Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, is a nominee of the President as was his predecessor, Leonard Marks, who left the directorship of USIA to assume the role of ambassador and chairman of the U.S. delegation to Intelsat
The dominating role being played by the United States has led to a strong campaign by dissidents to govern Intelsat on a one-nation, one-vote basis, Comsat is willing to permit the dilution of its equity well below the majority it now holds but is adamant in its desire to continue its management role. Its executives believe that a single worldwide system efficiently managed and not subject to the vagaries of votes by an international debating society will permit far more orderly and rapid development than would occur if responsibilities were diffused and basic decisions depended upon international conferences. They also point out that Comsat has the experience, management know-how and technical background to continue performing at a high level of efficiency.
A third cause of some friction results from the desires of such agencies as the EBU and the Japanese Government to launch regional satellites covering their own areas. Comsat is not unalterably opposed, but believes that the interests of the world public will be best served if such communications systems are fully compatible with Intelsat and route interregional traffic through Intelsat facilities. They are also concerned that a proliferation of such regional systems might weaken Intelsat's economic base and thus reduce its capacity for orderly expansion.
Several alternate systems have been proposed to break the impasse. One of them would call for governing Intelsat by a two-chamber house, the lower house representing all member nations, each with one vote, and an upper composed of a relatively small group which would exercise the principal legislative power and appoint management. The United States continues to hold that a weakening of the present executive and management structure would lead to chaotic conditions, damage the economic viability of the system and inhibit reasonable progress.
The position of the Soviet Union is an enigma. The Soviet Orbita system has been in operation for a number of years and is furnishing a service from Moscow across Siberia to Vladivostok. There is some hope that the Soviet Union may abandon its objective of creating the Intersputnik system, conceived as a worldwide competitor of Intelsat and proposed at a U.N. conference on space communications held in Vienna in October 1968. Soviet observers attended the Intelsat conference in Washington in February and it is possible the Russians may join the organization.
Even if Intelsat should prevail and achieve its objectives of maintaining a worldwide monopoly and bringing regional satellites loosely within the Intelsat orbit, there are still international differences that will arise.
The most economical use of a regional satellite system would involve separating its signals by means of accurately beamed antennas so that two or more national systems could be served by one satellite. In order to achieve these efficiencies, nations involved would have to suppress natural jealousies and negotiate bilateral or multilateral agreements to permit such coöperation. They would also have to understand that space communications cannot be wholly confined within national boundaries.
Solutions might easily be reached if there were an international agency with sufficient power and precedent for action. The United Nations has been interested and has set up committees on space communications. A number of the specialized agencies of the U.N. in addition to the ITU have concerned themselves with the problem, but so far there has been a noticeable lack of results and considerable pessimism among observers that the United Nations will have the power or the will to act. What would seem to be called for is an international agency comparable to the Federal Communications Commission- an unlikely prospect at present.
The problems of international coöperation or lack of coöperation will be magnified when and if the direct broadcast satellite comes into general usage. It seems unlikely that those countries which maintain tight control over internal communications would show any enthusiasm for the importation of a television signal from the sky.
The political problems standing in the way of full utilization of modern space technology are only part of the story. The economic questions are equally puzzling and may be equally difficult to solve. Telephone service is scheduled interchangeably with cable transmission and is on the same tariff basis. Current rates for television transmission by satellite, however, are a curious hodgepodge. For example, the cost of ten minutes of television transmission between the United States and any given point in Western Europe amounts to $3,290. Of this sum $2,400 carries the signal between the European earth station and the satellite; the remaining $890 carries it between the satellite and the point of origin or termination in the United States. This wide discrepancy in pricing results from the fact that Comsat is apparently more interested in generating space- communications business than are the Europeans. So far the largely government-owned systems of Europe have been vastly more concerned with preserving the economic viability of their own land lines. The trend has been to establish rates based on comparable earth-bound facilities (where cost is related to distance) rather than on the actual costs of a satellite system. Yet in space, there is no relationship between the distance a signal travels and the cost of transporting it.
Another major consideration that has governed pricing has been the desire to generate traffic in the developing world, where communications systems are an essential element in national development. Consequently, those parts of the world with high traffic density are penalized to some extent by the effort to subsidize the lower-density areas.
Steps are being taken by a number of interested organizations including the European Broadcasting Union, the Asian Broadcasting Union, the International Press Telecommunications Union, the International Broadcast Institute and the three national commercial networks of the United States to encourage rate reduction. So far they have had noticeable success with Comsat, but their pleas to European post, telephone and telegraph systems have largely fallen on deaf ears.
The arguments of the interested agencies have revolved around the assumption that reduced rates will result in increased volume, and the evidence so far amply supports that assumption. It is also argued that declining costs which result from rapidly increasing capacity should be passed on to consumers. The investment required to keep one voice circuit in operation for one year of the now inoperative Intelsat II's expectable lifetime amounted to $15,300. This figure in the current Intelsat III series has been reduced to $1,450 and when the Intelsat IV series comes along within the next two or three years, the figure will drop to approximately $500 or about one-thirtieth of the cost of Intelsat II. The generation to come after the Intelsat IV will increase the satellite's capacity by a multiple of four and its design life by about three years, from seven years to ten. It is obvious that rates for the space portion of the communications transmission can be reduced to a fraction of their present level. Furthermore, more powerful satellites, narrower beams and technological modifications will make it possible to effect substantial reductions in the cost of earth stations, thus contributing to the likelihood that further rate reductions will be possible.
It is difficult to conceive of an international rate-making body which would serve to regulate space traffic as the ICC regulates railroads or as the FCC sets communications rates in the United States. At the same time it is evident that some international body will have to concern itself with pricing, at least in an advisory role, if space communications are to serve to the extent of their capabilities.
A third major problem which faces users of space communications is that of copyrights and protection of ownership of materials. The European Broadcasting Union feels a major concern about this matter. The first commercial satellites were capable of moving a signal from a sending earth station to a single receiving earth station with virtually pinpoint accuracy. As the satellites have grown more sophisticated, an increasing number of earth stations can receive the same signal. At the same time the number of earth stations in operation is multiplying in geometric ratio. Thus pirating is a potential problem. It is not yet serious because the number of facilities in use makes policing relatively simple, but as the versatility of satellites increases, as more earth stations are able to receive and as the costs of earth stations continue to decline, it is going to be easier for unauthorized users to pluck signals out of space and use them to their own advantage.
International copyright conventions which now prevail, those of Berne and Rome, were written before space communications were conceived. Attempts to modify or amend these conventions have been undertaken in recent years but so far with a notable lack of success, largely because the parties have generally looked at the copyright problem from narrow areas of self- interest and tradition rather than on a basis which conforms to the rapidly changing conditions brought about by the new technology. The weakness of present copyright enforcement results from overlapping and confusion, difficulty of interpretation, delays in enforcement and lack of adaptability to present conditions.
Broadcasters are more selfishly concerned about the fact that the only safe way to acquire rights to cover a limited segment of the world is to buy full worldwide rights. This applies to drama, music, sports events, news, live coverage of special events, and all those other program components which require permission to broadcast. Purveyors of rights have frequently taken the position that once a program is distributed by satellite, copyright protection is lost; hence they demand special compensation. This, broadcasters argue, is pricing many worthwhile performances out of the market.
Comsat officials are not quite as concerned as the EBU, at least not as long as it is necessary for signals to go through large and costly earth stations. The earth stations, they feels constitute a sufficient control point for unscrambling traffic and sending it only to authorized users. They admit, however, that there have been problems, particularly with sports events. Concern will increase when the low-cost earth station falls within the means of individuals or small television stations.
A final concern relates to the freedom of access to space facilities. The tools are swiftly becoming available for a genuinely international system of communications for all. The increase in the number of voice circuits is creating a capacity consistent with need, and there is no reason why supply should not keep up with demand. This will permit international communications on a scale and of a scope significantly greater than had been considered possible until very recently.
The question remains, however, whether it will be possible to avoid censorship or unduly restrictive regulation, to maintain free access through land lines, earth stations and to satellites for the transmission of all kinds of information. General de Gaulle gave the European nations and the United States a severe jolt in 1963 when he refused permission for the earth station at Pleumeur Boudeau to carry a CBS News program that included Jean Monnet as one of its participants. In order to retain Monnet on the program and achieve European distribution, CBS was forced to make some quick readjustments. At this period of satellite communications development, the French facility at Pleumeur Boudeau and the British station at Goonhilly Downs were the only functioning European earth stations. The two were alternating on a daily basis as the European terminus for transatlantic signals. The day in question unfortunately was Pleumeur Boudeau's turn to perform. By some quick manipulation CBS executives were able to arrange for Goonhilly Downs to step in out of turn, receive the program and relay it to the United Kingdom and through EBU leased terrestrial lines to the remainder of Europe with the exception of France. Meanwhile, M. Monnet had been flown to Brussels, whence his portion of the program originated.
Freedom of the press has been a difficult concept to define and interpret. There are so many widely divergent attitudes toward the meaning of a free press that it is difficult for interested persons from different countries and cultures to speak in a common language. Freedom of access to communications facilities, however, provides a common denominator. If communications are able to move across international borders without restraint, the journalist, whether he works in print or on the air, has a free and untampered source of information and a yardstick against which to measure developments in his own country. By law, regulation or custom, he may still be restricted as to what he may print or say or show on the air, but at least his raw material arrives at his desk without restraint or control. Most important, this is a more attainable objective than the amendment of national law or regulatory practice.
These are matters of broad international concern. Solutions will have to be found through bilateral or multilateral negotiations and through some enlargement of the regulatory powers of the United Nations, related international agencies or new agencies. An indicator of how important these matters are is the tremendous interest the Government of the United States, notably the Department of State, has taken in the Intelsat negotiations. But their real significance relates not so much to the need for international agreements to facilitate space communications as to the ability of the new technology to deliver ideas, information, education and cultural riches on a worldwide basis to the developed and developing nations alike. The scientists and engineers have created devices with a vast capacity to inform and to educate. It is for the non-scientists and the non-engineers to create the legal, political, economic and social environment in which the devices can flourish.
[i] Curiously, satellite parking may become a problem. Scientists have not determined as yet how closely the satellites might be stationed together at the 22,300-mile altitude without interfering with each other's signals. Until such scientific measurements are made, some control will have to be exercised over launching and parking so as to maintain some reasonable separation.