The satellite market is booming in the Asia-Pacific region.

Paul Phelan/CAIRNS

Space-related activity in the Asia-Pacific region is growing at a rate unknown elsewhere. From the westernmost-orbital position allocated to an Asian satellite (38¡E), to the dateline at 180¡E, a 60% growth in traditional satellite-communications capacity is expected to have occurred between December 1993 and December 1995.

This represents some 40 satellites, at a total cost of about $4 billion for hardware and launch services. The estimate, by Dr Bruce Middleton, former executive director of the Australian Space Office and now a Canberra-based space-industry consultant, is based on projections of satellite retirements for the period, along with the launch schedules for new satellites. Middleton believes that the 60% figure is probably conservative, given the capacity increases, which occur with each new generation of satellites.

Added to vehicles and launch services are other major regional economic benefits, such as the provision of infra-structural services, skilled labour, and tracking equipment. As an example, NASA pays some $14-15 million annually to Australia for access to tracking stations alone.

Growth will be driven by increasing demand for communications services, he predicts: "Many countries in the region are classified as developing nations, and typically their telephone systems have a density of fewer than one handset per 100 of population, whereas Australia's is one per two of population. There is a huge unfulfilled demand for telephone services. The growth of video demand, which comes on top of that, cannot possibly be satisfied without going to satellites. It's almost impossible to quantify the demand for those services, although I'm sure that people like Hughes are making canny estimates."

Indonesia and India base their projections on five-year plans, and each country's current plan (not for the same five years) forecasts an increase, of at least 1 million telephone lines a year.

"That estimate is probably only addressing the backlog they knew about at the beginning of the five years. That backlog is growing longer, with their economies running ahead at 5% to 10%, so all sorts of innovative means are being invented to get around it, including use of VSAT [very-small-aperture terminal] networks. The VSAT market in the region is worth at least $100 million annually. That's why the world's big telephone companies are up tramping around Asia looking for business."

Optical fibres have reduced the world's dependence on geostationary satellites, although no international carrier is willing to accept dependence on one or the other, says Middleton: "Although relatively recent work has increased the capacity of satellite transponders to match that of optical-fibre cables, which used to carry higher data rates than transponders, you won't see international satellite communications grow as a higher percentage because of the competition from cable," he adds.


The use of satellites is growing on new domestic and regional systems, says Middleton, who explains: "That's because in areas like Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Korea, all of which are establishing new domestic communication-satellite systems, the geography lends itself to satellites." In Indonesia, for example, because it is an archipelago, cable will "never compete with satellites and it's much easier, to send long distance traffic through a satellite". Middleton says that the same applies in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines."

The communications emphasis may combine with newly developing technology to take satellites and launches in a new direction. The growth of the so-called "Big LEOs" (large low-Earth-orbiting satellites) late in this decade, which will enable hand-held communications anywhere in the world, has threatened Inmarsat's market to the point that the international satellite organisation has had to change its basic philosophy to avoid being marginalised.

Inmarsat decided on an intermediate circular orbit, and has now agreed to set up a new organisation called Inmarsat P, of which it will own a minority share. A total of $1.4 billion is to be invested in the organisation and countries involved include Australia, China, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Poland, Russia, Saudia Arabia, South Africa and the USA.

There are also balancing trends, however, which are increasing the use of geo-stationary satellites. One is that the compression of digital television signals means that TV demands much less of a transponder than formerly. In consequence, TV distribution by satellite, including direct-to-home distribution, is now growing quickly. This service will be in considerable demand in the Asia Pacific region because of limitations on its terrestrial-communications infrastructure. Rupert Murdoch's Star TV in Hong Kong is an example.

"A lot of the business of such systems which are regional, not domestic, is TV distribution. But the sleeper is going to be video distribution, including video on demand, which is close to implementation. It will increase the requirement for bandwidth and will mean even more demand for satellite services," says Middleton.

The demand has already caused some congestion and disputes relating to satellite-slot allocation. In geo-stationary orbits, by convention, satellites are separated by at least 2¡ of longitude to prevent electromagnetic interference. While some users are designing "cluster" satellites, so that multiple vehicles can use one slot without interference, China in 1994 sited one temporarily in a slot allocated to another user, precipitating a dispute. A regional council is now being established, in part to reduce such problems. Indonesia's Indostar will consist of four small satellites in pairs, designed to work in the same slot without electronic interference.


As new technology multiplies slot capacity and as bandwidth increases, so necessarily does system susceptibility to rain - a problem common throughout the region. While the original C-band was resistant to blotting out by heavy rain showers, all of Optus' satellites are operated in Ku-band, also resistant to rain, partly because of C-band frequency shortage and partly because Ku-band can cope with more traffic capacity.

Cellular technology and the demand for smaller mobile units and antennae have advanced the cause of LEO satellites, and there are now at least three serious commitments to building LEO systems - from Globalstar, Iridium, and Odyssey. Competition between geo-stationary technology and LEO systems will develop as the new international hand-held market grows. While Optus has commissioned a 150W L-band geo-stationary transponder for its Mobilesat system, Hughes, which is establishing a similar geo-stationary-orbit mobile system in North America, has recently indicated that it is seriously looking at a similar system for the Asia Pacific region.

What has yet to happen, says Middleton, is a commensurate growth in industrial capacity in the region. While some countries, such as South Korea and Taiwan, have moved tentatively towards a government-operated capability, there is real opportunity for competitive corporate involvement in hardware manufacture, and probably in launch services if they are cost-competitive: "The real demand is for a more-realistic market pricing for launches. Don Cromer, from Hughes' space and communications operation, makes the point that over the last decade, while the real cost of a communications satellite has come down significantly, the real cost of launching hasn't come down at all."

Given the prime specifications for a "green-field" geo-stationary launch site - equatorial proximity; political stability; skilled labour; non-disruptive weather; communications and transport infrastructure; and compatible relationships with other countries - the options for establishing a commercial-launch site are profoundly limited. They would be worth pursuing, however, if the geo-stationary payload of the Russian Proton satellite, for example, was increased by some 46%, which could happen if launches were equatorial, rather than from Baikonur.

Most observers now doubt the viability of the proposal by an Australian consortium to launch the Proton from Papua New Guinea. Middleton, however, who in his former role was closely involved with the proposal to launch the Russian/Ukrainian Zenit satellite from Cape York, Australia, believes that option still offers the best chance of bringing launch costs down. Commercial customers are unconcerned about from which country a satellite is launched, he says, although he would not expect a Japanese Government payload to be launched from "...anywhere other than Japan. The same goes for China and India."

Companies such as KDD and NTT, the major communications firms in Japan, will not use the [Japanese] H2 "...unless it makes economic sense to do so. Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Taiwan, will also go to the best deal in terms of price, schedule, and reliability; the three dominant factors in selecting a launch. I don't think Proton will provide that, because it will be too complex and expensive. Zenit will do it because of the design of the whole system - low manning, re-usability, quick turnaround, and a high degree of automation," Middleton says.

A "pre-feasibility" study by the Australian Industry Development Corporation indicates that launching the Zenit from Cape York would be profitable at levels which would make it worth pursuing, using realistic expectations of failure rates and charges acceptable in the market. That study was done on the basis of calculated actual establishment costs, rather than on minimising the cost to establish operations, which is a different discipline. "If it could be established for a lesser price, and cash flow established, the numbers would look even more favourable," Middleton adds.


Political and security considerations abound within the region, and the development of any launch capability would inevitably involve international politics. Among the issues are concerns over the development of launch sites in the missile non-proliferation context; political and economic rivalries and jealousies between neighbouring countries; technology transfer and leakage concerns; and market inequities and barriers created by governments and government-funded enterprises.

The US launch-services trade agreements with China and Russia, with price constraints as a major component, are seen in the region as a device to maintain market share for US launchers, until investment is committed to bring the USA back to technological competitiveness.

Lockheed Krunichev Energia International's (LKEI) marketing of commercial launches on the Proton from Baikonur, illustrates the policy conflicts which arise, because the US/Russia agreement constrains LKEI's ability to pressure launch-market pricing. Complications can be expected with the Lockheed-Martin Marietta merger, due to be given the green light shortly. "The group will then be offering Atlas and Proton in competition with one another, and will have some interesting questions to resolve in-house," notes Middleton.

Source: Flight International