International Satellite Business Opens Up
With new challengers to Intelsat's monopoly, liberalization of the industry looks inevitable
BETHESDA, MD. — DEBATE over high-technology policy is stuck on the first stage of development. Government officials in the United States and around the world want to know how to get the government in to new technological industries. But equally important is how governments will get out of those industries once they succeed.
The international satellite business is a case 2in point. Thirty years ago, the US and its noncommunist allies helped create the satellite industry by setting up a successful consortium called Intelsat. Intelsat carried telephone traffic to new places. It awed TV viewers with live newscasts from Europe. It brought the world the first pictures of man walking on the moon.
Today, Intelsat is no longer at the forefront of technology. Challengers are springing up with new and innovative services. These upstarts say that Intelsat now stands in the way of progress.
``The Intelsat monopoly is still very much a monopoly,'' says Phillip Spector, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has tangled with Intelsat in the past.
``Intelsat is caught in a bind between responding competitively and serving all their members,'' adds Thomas Watts, managing director of Ascent Communications, a New York-based management consulting firm for the communications industries.
Although liberalization is coming later to the international satellite business than to other sectors of telecommunications, everyone agrees it is inevitable. Three years ago, the European Commission proposed ``free and unrestricted access'' to satellite capacity. The US has agreed that by January 1997 it will not bar competing systems from carrying its bread-and-butter traffic - overseas telephone calls. Removing regulations
Other countries are coming to the same conclusion. ``The Japanese government is of the same opinion to remove the current regulations,'' says Takeo Miura, deputy director of the KDD Washington liaison office. KDD, which handles most of Japan's international telephone calls, now has two competitors who are allowed to use non-Intelsat services.
But competitors are not waiting for 1997. In 1988, a US company, PanAmSat, launched the first private international satellite. Although the company is barred from carrying telephone calls, PanAmSat has found exploding demand in carrying TV programming to and from Latin America. It plans to launch three more satellites in the next 18 months to create a worldwide telecommunications system.
Other US competitors - Orion Network Systems and Columbia Communications - hope to launch satellites in the near future that would handle international traffic within specific regions. They would join certain European and Asian companies that already serve several countries in their regions.
``We have to stay on our toes,'' says Mike Newsom, an Intelsat spokesman. ``That's why we have an aggressive satellite procurement program.'' The organization plans to launch 15 satellites through the end of 1996.
Intelsat's new competitors are jumping into the international satellite business just at the time that the business is changing. As telephone companies lay increasing amounts of undersea fiber-optic cable, their reliance on satellites is diminishing.
The telephone sector of the market will only grow by 3 percent a year through 1998, according to a private market survey obtained by the Monitor. The slight growth is due to increasing telephone traffic in developing nations, which typically are not linked to undersea fiber-optic cables. Industry should double
But other sectors of the industry are booming. By 1998, video transmission will account for 55 percent of industry revenues, up from one-third today, according to the study. The market for setting up private business networks will almost triple. Overall, the industry will grow 14 percent a year and more than double its size to $6.6 billion by 1998, the study forecasts.
Such changes bode well for industry upstarts. For example, two-thirds of PanAmSat's traffic is already video-based. Intelsat is still stuck with 60 percent of its traffic as telephone calls; in 10 years, it will still make up the largest share of the business - 30 percent, says Intelsat chief executive officer, Irving Goldstein. Digital technology
In the last five years, Intelsat has gone from 17 percent of its traffic being digital to nearly 90 percent. Digital technology allows satellites to roughly quadruple the number of channels they can offer using the same satellite capacity. With new companies and much greater capacity, industry analysts expect a wide-open market to emerge.
Even Comsat Corporation, Intelsat's US representative, concedes that more competition lies ahead. ``We can't say that we're now getting competition for the first time,'' says Robert Twining, vice president of sales, marketing, and business planning for Comsat World Systems. But the new international satellite players will intensify the battle, he adds, which he welcomes.
Intelsat's and Comsat's acceptance of competitors is a marked change from a few years ago, many analysts say. Both entities fought hard to keep PanAmSat from launching its satellite, they add.
The process now is streamlined. When PanAmSat sought approval from Intelsat for a second satellite, to be launched next year, the process lasted only two months. It took nine months to obtain permission for its first satellite. The company is pursuing a court case against Comsat for monopolistic practices, which should go to trial next year. ``We're about 20 percent of the way to having a liberalized environment everywhere,'' says Mr. Watts of Ascent Communications.