Satellite-based services become the bright new lights in the American consumer's constellation
Call it the ultimate remote.
The satellite dish has long been considered a necessary, if somewhat unsightly, tool for people in outlying regions who want to bring home a wide range of entertainment.
While satellite-based entertainment, growing since the mid-1970s, has never quite shaken that backwoods stigma, the technology has made great leaps.
And the rapid expansion of business and entertainment around the globe this past decade has wrought a priority shift. Americans have new expectations for receiving information: They want it instantly, and they want it everywhere.
Wary of spending more to lay out expensive fiber-optic networks, many communications firms are turning to satellites - one of which can serve millions of people at one time - to help cut costs and expand coverage.
Now, more than 26,000 man-made satellites circle the earth, clogging strips of space like autos in a four-lane highway.
The vision of a satellite-based culture is growing more real with every orbit.
After the end of the cold war, the easing of security concerns allowed some technologies, such as global positioning systems (GPS), to become available to consumers.
Technological advances and cheaper computer chips made satellites more powerful and capable of reaching more people. And on-the-ground receivers, including dishes, have shrunk to a size more consumers can live with.
The key benefit of satellites, however, is their instant, global reach.
"Because they're up in the sky you can tap into them anytime, anywhere, anyplace," says Daniel Burrus, a technology forecaster and author of the book "Technotrends."
Consider the satellite's impact on these major consumer areas:
As satellites become more powerful, dishes become smaller and more affordable. The largest satellite TV provider, DirecTV, now installs dishes 18 inches wide (a significant improvement from the original 25-meter models). The dish costs $100, including installation - an $800 drop since 1995, the company says.
Because most communication satellites now broadcast television signals digitally, rather than over radio waves, satellite customers can receive dozens more channels than those who use cable. DirecTV's basic package costs $32 a month for about 100 channels, including local stations. An additional $15 buys extra movie channels.
Many people opt for satellite delivery because of enticing programming packages, such as DirecTV's Family Pack (featuring the Discovery and History Channels) and Sunday NFL Ticket (offering as many as 13 football games each Sunday).
Yet the service isn't quite available everywhere. In a world filled with tall trees and big buildings - both of which block signals - the customer base is limited.
Users require a southern exposure, from their rooftop or apartment porch, to pick up the TV transmission. And those in apartment buildings are often denied permission to install a dish.
Satellite radio is the least intrusive of all satellite services. Transmissions are received through antennas the size of a half dollar affixed to the roof of a house or trunk of a car.
The tiny size is made possible by beefed-up satellites - the most powerful ever launched, according to the two primary manufacturers: Sirius and XM.
Radio satellite signals are digital, so the sound quality equals that of a compact disc. Digital also means there are plenty of stations to choose from: from 150 to 200.
While Sirius buys much of its programming through other stations, XM creates most of its content in its own studio in Washington, D.C. Both companies vow to broadcast fewer commercials than standard radio stations.
The real benefit of radio through satellite, however, is the ability to hear each channel all the time, except in large cities and mountainous areas, where tall objects - natural and man-made - block the signal.
The most likely satellite-radio customer: someone who frequently travels by car and wants to listen to bebop, jazz, or a New York shock jock who isn't likely to be broadcast in, say, Duluth.
"With a national audience, there's interest in niche genres like opera that don't have enough listeners in any one local area," adds Matt Swanson, a spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association in Arlington, Va.
The receiver and installation cost $300, with a $10 monthly fee. Since its national debut in November, XM has signed up close to 30,000 subscribers. Sirius plans to offer services in some cities starting next month.
A constellation of 24 government-owned satellites is responsible for telling everyone with a GPS receiver their near-exact location in altitude, latitude, and longitude in a city, on a mountain top, or in the middle of the ocean.
Many people own software on their personal digital assistants (PDAs) that place the coordinates in the context of a map.
The consumer boon is clear. People use hand-held GPS receivers for outdoor activities, such as hiking or sailing. Many small private planes have them. Some new cars made by General Motors and many new rental cars include a system that gives the driver audible directions as he or she approaches a destination.
Some parents are affixing GPS-ready watches to their children's wrists to keep tabs on their location. Golfers occasionally line up a GPS unit next to their ball to gauge the exact distance to the hole. Eschewing their pedometers, runners can use the devices to measure their total distance traveled in feet, not steps.
The technology might even replace the use of radar in a national air-traffic-control system currently being tested.
The only cost of GPS is the price of the receiver. The US government owns the satellites, so the service is otherwise free.
Again, reception requires a direct line of sight to the satellites, and the signal can weaken in some areas.
Notwithstanding all the ballyhoo over broadband the past five years, even people in large cities (including those dotting Silicon Valley) cannot get the boost of high-speed bandwidth through a phone company.
Internet access via cable remains limited as well.
Satellite service is a popular alternative. DirecPC, through local dealers such as EarthLink and Pegasus, offers Internet service through the same dish customers might use for DirecTV.
With the Internet, however, the challenges of satellites are more pronounced. The fact that the transmission must travel about 23,000 miles before reaching Earth significantly slows surfing time, according to Dave Rehben with Hughes Network System.
Because the technology is new, the price is still hefty. EarthLink charges $400 for the dish, $275 for installation, and a $70 monthly fee.
Still, prices are likely to fall as companies grow weary of spending money constructing fiber-optic networks around the world and worldwide demand for high-speed Internet access increases.
"No one's digging up Venice; no one's ripping up Beijing," says James Canton, CEO of the Institute for Global Futures in San Francisco. "Satellite is the only global network that will be able to facilitate what we'll be doing on the Internet in the future."
Unlike cellphones, satellite telephones are not dependent on earth-bound towers to place a call. They're the ideal tool for reporters overseas, for example, who must file stories from a remote mountaintop.
The setup, however, is not consumer-friendly. Many models are installed in a briefcase and topped by a mini-dish.
For now, cellular phones satisfy most consumers' need for mobility. And the price of the satellite option remains out of most consumers' price range. Low-end models start at $1,200.
But some observers suggest that within the next 10 years, the technology will come down in price, and at some point displace even cellular models as consumers' multipurpose phone.
The cold war crackup also loosened government control of observation satellites - the best of which can distinguish objects on the ground the size of a mailbox.
Two Colorado-based companies now offer people the opportunity to order a custom-made image of any seven-square-mile area - from the Tora Bora region of Afghanistan to their own neighborhood. (The government, however, has the right to reserve the satellites at any time.)
Custom-shot images cost a minimum of $1,800.
0For $10, customers of Space Imaging Inc., in Thornton, Colo., (www.spaceimaging.com) can download onto their computers one of 60 images from around the globe from the company's website.
"Options range from the pyramids of Giza to the lost Mayan city of Cancuen," says spokesman Gary Napier.
For $700, users can search the company's archive of 500,000 pictures to get a detailed look at whatever small slice of the world interests them.
While enriching consumers' lives and easing the delivery of entertainment, the considerable power of satellites is also challenging society's boundaries of personal privacy.
Individual users of GPS, for example, do not have total jurisdiction over the information charted by the device. GPS device and software manufacturers also have access to detailed data, notably customers' locations - and sometimes their daily schedules.
Examples of firms finding creative uses for the information - not necessarily to consumers' advantage - are already surfacing.
Last year, Acme Rental in New Haven, Conn., installed a system in its rental cars that tracked customer locations and driving speeds. Acme billed customers $150 when their automobiles exceeded 65 m.p.h. for more than two minutes, prompting a lawsuit from the state's attorney general.
Privacy experts worry that some companies also will start sending invasive advertisements based on a user's location.
With services like Vindigo, a software for GPS-ready personal digital assistants, users receive recommendations of where to find movie theaters, for example, based on their location at the time.
A typical scenario of the future, experts speculate, might include e-mailing a Vindigo user a coupon for milk just before he passes the entrance to a grocery store, or flashing an ad for a particular barber shop based on a customer's weekly travel patterns.
Many privacy advocates' chief concern is a government regulation requiring that all cellphones be equipped with GPS chips. The procedure, the government says, would help safety workers track the location of a cellular user in case of an emergency.
But wireless companies, which have asked for more time to comply with the mandate, could exploit the GPS perk, critics say, by selling information regarding the whereabouts of their customers - 125 million users in the US alone.
While GPS systems simply do not work in some parts of cities and rural areas, detailed location information could spawn a new era of near-constant direct marketing.
"You could start having a cellular phone ring every time you pass by a CVS to tell you something's on sale," says Ari Schwartz, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington.
One likely safety precaution includes allowing a cellphone user to turn off the GPS function at any time. Still, early acceptance of fast and loose use of GPS information, consumer watchdogs worry, could quickly snowball into larger infringements of personal privacy.
"Right now, people are saying a universal GPS could be used to track down terrorists," says Mr. Schwartz. "But what's the next step? Maybe 'deadbeat dads,' then student-loan defaulters, and people who haven't paid their parking tickets."
Uses by the state may be minimal. But experts believe marketers will eventually implement satellite technology in ways most consumers would never expect. One example: Mobilizing observation satellites, rather than creating focus groups, to search for a prospective customer base.
"When it comes to marketing, the more I can get my message to the right guy, the better off I am," says author and technology forecaster Daniel Burrus. "Marketers are already using satellites to take pictures of the Earth to find out what neighborhoods have, say, RVs or swimming pools."