Teleport to use Staten Island's free air
New York — If the Statue of Liberty turns her head to the right for a moment in the not-too-distant future, she will see an advanced telecommunications network that looks like a garden of giant, inverted mushrooms. Soon to sprout in neat rows on Staten Island will be 17 aluminum dishes each about 25 feet across and individually aimed at orbiting satellites.
The city's least populated borough will be the site of the largest collection of satellite antennas in the world. Called Teleport, the communications center will have access to 24 existing and planned domestic and international communications satellites. It virtually ensures the Big Apple's continued status as information switchboard for the world.
Just as seaports and airports handle ships and airplanes, Teleport extends the concept of ''port'' to the promotion and management of electronic information. And information-industry companies - especially those in video broadcasting, finance, insurance, and banking - need a wide spectrum of communications capabilities.
But when the volume of microwave communications in a location grows, the airwaves become congested and electronic messages can interfere with one another. Both the delivery and the content of a message become garbled.
''Viewed as a communications bubble, Manhattan was full,'' says John F. Brendlen, project development manager of Teleport for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. ''Staten Island is free of any major radio-frequency interference.''
The dishes - ''earth stations for linkup and link-down'' - will join with an underground network of fiber-optic cables. These laser-light roots will then be spread through the city's tunnels and subways to office buildings in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Newark, N.J., where they will connect with computer terminals.
The project stems in part in response to the freedom that the telecommunications revolution gives companies to leave major cities and move to remote areas. Citicorp moved its credit-card operations to South Dakota from New York. American Express took its New York-based traveler's check operations to Utah.
From the outset, the project's sponsors - the Port Authority, Merrill Lynch, Western Union, and the City of New York - planned the venture to keep businesses in metropolitan New York. To the extent it proves sucessful, Teleport can serve as a model for major urban centers nationwide.
The Port Authority, owner of the two 110-story World Trade Center towers, has a major stake in Manhattan real estate. Rents can run as high as $40 a square foot in prime locations. ''That's just too much for back-office functions,'' says Mr. Brendlen, referring to business that is not conducted face to face with consumers, such as credit-card operations. ''Few companies want these data-processing-related clerical operations in expensive and often poorly designed (for computers) office space.''
Hence the real-estate component of Teleport, says Brendlen.
More than a million square feet of office space is planned in the first five-year phase, with another million to follow in a second five-year phase. Part of the agreement with the city is to have the ends of the fiber-optic cable terminate in economically depressed areas of the city, affording ample and inexpensive development space to communications-intensive businesses.
Officials cite the following examples of how they hope Teleport will keep or attract business to the New York area:
* The Sungard Service Division of Sun Information Services Company leased 60, 000 square feet of office space at the Staten Island site. Sunguard provides backup computers for companies in cases of emergencies. For example, a insurance company in Brooklyn, linked to Teleport via the fiber-optic cable, might buy or lease a computer that Sunguard maintains. Business operations can continue as if the in-house computer were running.
* The city is restoring a now-vacant movie studio in Astoria, Queens. A movie director there could transmit the day's filming to a producer in Hollwood. Both the producer and the director will be able to watch the scenes simultaneously, with the producer commenting on the filming immediately, eliminating a day of delay for overnight mail.
* A large New York bank could acquire a satellite antenna at Teleport and build similar antennas near its major branch offices in the United States or anywhere in the world, giving them their own private, intercompany telephone system.
* With the deregulation of banking and the expected influx of banks from all over the country into New York, access to Teleport will make properties like the Long Island City, Queens, very attractive as back-office facilities for firms in the information industry.
Will the project succeed? No one knows for sure.
A consulting firm retained by the Port Authority concluded that the rationale behind Teleport ''may be valid to only a limited degree.'' Propsective tenants surveyed by the consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc. indicated that commmunications-related features would influence their decisions to locate at Teleport.
Yet most indicated that other factors, such as cost and geographic location, would override telecommunications. Perhaps the biggest plus for the project is that there is a highly qualified labor pool of some 1.3 million people within 30 to 45 minutes of the Staten Island site.
By next June, the first three of Teleport's satellite antennas - enough to provide access to satellites for hundreds of New York businesses - should be in place and working. Total cost is projected at $300 million over the two five-year phases of the project.
''Anybody can come in and build right at the site, or lease a hookup to their business,'' says Merrill Lynch's Robert Annunziata, senior vice-president for Teleport Communications, the Merril Lynch-Western Union joint venture that will handle, like a phone company, the delivery of communications services.
Merrill Lynch's interest stemmed in part from its annual $500 milllion budget for information and data handling.
Other teleports are planned in some 20 other cities - Dallas; San Francisco; and Columbus, Ohio, to name a few, says TeleStrategies Inc., a McLean, Va., consulting firm.