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March/April 1999
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The Internet, Satellites, and Human Rights
By Michiel Hegener

If we are concerned about fostering human rights, if enemies of human rights around the globe are worried about increasing numbers of ordinary people having access to modern telecommunications such as the Internet, if human rights happen to be violated most often in areas with poor telecommunications infrastructure, and if satellites offer--and will continue to offer for at least a few decades to come--the quickest and cheapest way to link any far-off place to the Internet, then the combined effect of Internet, communication satellites, and human rights deserves some attention.

First, a few definitions: Communication satellites are relay stations for radio signals orbiting the earth. The Internet is, well, the Internet. But the question remains: exactly what are human rights? It isn't easy to answer--in part because there is no internationally accepted definition. The broadest definitions mention the right to work, the right to be educated, the right to access to basic amenities and health care, and the like. All of those are definitely fostered by good telecommunications. Also very definitely, how telecoms and those broad human rights interact is a subject far too vast to be dealt with here. The usual benchmark is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which outlines somewhat narrower principles, such as freedom of expression, assembly, and religion. At an even more basic level--the level of our physical existence, that is--the declaration states that all people in all countries under all laws should be free of evils like torture and arbitrary arrest.

Let's focus on the latter category first. Clearly, physical threats are themselves threatened in a society in which people can communicate freely. Disappearances, arrests, and violence can be reported to the outside world--in particular, to organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Via the media and politics in free countries, they can backfire at their perpetrators. Human rights violations in Greece and Portugal in the 1970s reached the rest of Europe thanks in large part to telephone density in those countries that wasn't very supportive of dictatorships: if you want to dictate, make sure your subjects can't communicate.

There is compelling evidence suggesting that dictatorial regimes can survive only in countries with fewer than 20 telephone lines per 100 inhabitants, and most Western countries now have well above 40 lines per 100 inhabitants. Of course, the Internet--e-mail in particular--must have a similar if not a stronger beneficial influence on the most basic human rights. But no research or evidence is needed to understand that the Internet is pivotal to the flourishing of freedom of expression and--in a nongeographic sense--freedom of assembly.

Interaction between the Internet, satellites, and human rights is something new. Human rights violations are as old as mankind, communication satellites have been around since the mid-60s, and the Internet is of course a very recent phenomenon--especially if we disregard its long period of gestation. However, it's the satellites that are causing the current and, even more so, will cause the future interaction. Despite its tender age and barring unforeseen developments, the way the Internet works appears to be far more stable than satellite technology. So let's take a brief look at some of the main satellite developments as far as they have a bearing on human rights and the Internet. Put simply, communication satellites will be getting much closer to the earth in the coming years, and they are becoming stronger all the time so they can pick up weaker signals than before and can transmit them back to the earth with so much power that simple receivers will do. In addition, satellites are using ever-higher frequencies, which means ever-smaller dish antennae for equipment on the ground. Not quite accidentally, those trends converge: communication by satellite is becoming easier and cheaper all the time.

Two-way satellite communication soon will become a mass product for individual users around the globe, especially for accessing the Internet. For instance, to link one PC--or a small network--from anywhere to an Internet backbone a couple of years ago, using a satellite for a simple point-to-point connection, you would have had to spend $25,000 on equipment alone for one small earth station with a dish of just a few meters. On the other side of the link, in the country with the Internet backbone, the incoming and outgoing signals usually travel via a dish antenna of up to 32 meters (630 feet) in diameter on an earth station that handles many different signals simultaneously. Today the bill for the same trick might be as low as $5,000, and it is expected to drop to $1,000 or less within the next few years. The tariff per megabyte sent or received may plummet to as little as one cent.

It's difficult to compare with the current situation. Today fixed throughput is still predominant. When you lease 64 kilobits per second for, say, $2,500 a month and use that slice of bandwidth all the time in its entirety, the price per megabyte will be just 7 cents. But it can skyrocket to $83 per megabyte if one megabyte is all you send or receive in one day. Demand-assigned bandwidth and billing on a pay-as-you-go basis are already available here and there and within certain limitations, but they will become predominant in the future.

The effect of increased satellite power should be quite clear. It is much harder to assess what the changing orbital altitudes will bring about. Traditionally, the vast majority of communication satellites have been following the geostationary orbit: eastbound in the equatorial plane at 35,786 kilometers’ (22,187 miles’) altitude, where they follow the rotation of the earth and appear not to move. They are called GEOs. Higher up they would go slower than the earth; lower, and they orbit in less than 23 hours and 56 minutes--the time needed for one revolution of the earth. As a result, two or more transmitter/receivers can communicate with each other if they have their dish antennas trained at the same satellite.

Earth stations can be very far apart--more than 15,000 kilometers. From their lofty positions, GEOs can see about 42 percent of the earth. These footprints often are narrowed down in order to concentrate signal power, but even then, GEOs cover huge areas. About 200–300 GEOs are operational right now, but just one is enough to establish a link between an area where human rights are threatened and an area where freedom abounds. A GEO also is excellent for datacasting--sending large amounts of data to any number of cheap, receive-only terminals within its footprint: half a continent or so. More about that later.

The very high altitude of GEOs has, however, two big drawbacks: To bridge the distance, you still need rather heavy and strong equipment on the ground. And the signals need about a quarter of a second to travel between two earth stations, which adversely affects Internet protocol in some ways. We'll skip the latter problem, because it has little to do with human rights. For further discussion of the effects of this so-called latency, see "Internet Unwired" in OnTheInternet, Sept./Oct. 1997.

Both problems can be avoided by using satellites at much lower altitudes--for instance, 700 or 1,400 kilometers above the earth. Fixed dish antennas won't do anymore, because the satellite orbits in an hour or two. So omnidirectional antennas or, in some cases, tracking antennas are being used instead. And because a satellite seen from a
given spot disappears behind the horizon some 15 or 30 minutes after it rises, you need dozens of satellites to make sure another one rises in time. Two of these low-earth-orbit (LEO) networks are already available today: Iridium uses 66 satellites at 705 kilometers’ altitude--not counting on orbit spares--and Orbcomm has 28 satellites at 755 kilometers. Both systems use handheld communication sets of just a few hundred grams, something that can't be done with today's GEOs. It can be done with much stronger GEOs that sport very large antennae, which also is a trend of the near future. The official term for all this is global mobile personal communications by satellite, or GMPCS.

Iridium was designed especially for telephony in areas that lack cellular coverage, and it also supports data traffic: 2,400 bits per second uplink and 4,800 bits per second downlink. At about $5 a minute, that means $5 just to download a piece the length of this article. Orbcomm serves the market for short messages either to or from anywhere and is excellent for tracking containers as they move from point A to point B or for tracking e-mail messages.

Several other LEO systems will follow soon. Unlike Iridium and Orbcomm, some of the new LEO networks--like Teledesic (288 satellites at 1,400 kilometers) and Sky Bridge (80 satellites at 1,469 kilometers)--were designed especially for Internet use.

In countries with suboptimal human rights situations--which is putting it ridiculously mildly, considering more than a few cases--for which the government can be held responsible, the government tends to check or even block the free flow of information and hence the unrestricted use of telecommunications. Severe restrictions on the use of small earth stations to communicate with GEOs--so-called VSATs, for very-small-aperture terminals--are invariably part of the package. Satellite communication is a splendid instrument to bypass the far-more-easy-to-tap local telecommunications infrastructure--cable networks in particular--and all governments know that. A simple VSAT--the lightest ones weigh about 10 kilograms (22 pounds)--can bring full, almost-impossible-to-monitor Internet access and other forms of communication to countries where people aren't free to say or to e-mail or to surf what they want. Of course, a sheltered place is needed to operate from: a single building with the dish hidden on the roof--flat rooftops, as are often found in warm and dry climates, are much better for this purpose than tilted ones--or an area over which the national government has lost control. An example is the northern, predominantly Kurdish part of Iraq, where Inmarsat satellite phones--essentially VSATs, although not officially recognized as such--are being used to access the Internet.

Part of the beauty of using VSATs to bypass restrictions on communication lies in inability of satellite owners or operators to know where the VSATs are located. And so they can't be held accountable by the authorities whose rules are being trespassed. The VSAT user still faces two problems, however: an old one and a new one. The old problem: it isn't so easy to lease just a very small quantity of satellite capacity--such as the amount needed for one VSAT--by just going to the satellite owner. Plus, you also need a downlink earth station somewhere as well as access from there to a cable backbone--the Internet backbone, for instance.

The normal scenario is to contact an intermediary telecommunications organization that offers both services at the same time. In either case, the party that offers satellite capacity to a suspect user may well run into trouble. A fine example, though not two-way, is offered by Kurdish satellite TV station MED TV. Uplinking from an earth station in Great Britain, MED TV has been broadcasting since 1995 to eastern Turkey and adjoining regions. The Turkish government is less than pleased with the content and therefore has been putting both diplomatic and economic pressure on those Eutelsat member states that made the mistake of subleasing a small bit of their Eutelsat capacity to MED TV. Eutelsat has a beam on the Middle East that also covers Europe--and can be uplinked from there--which made it an obvious choice for MED TV. Spain, France, Germany, Portugal, and Poland--in that order--all helped MED TV and quickly disassociated themselves from the Kurdish TV station after Turkish intervention. Understandably, MED TV chooses not to disclose whose capacity it is currently using--on an Intelsat satellite.

Although it would like to venture into two-way communications and accommodate Internet use, MED TV does not expect it to happen within the next few years due to limited funds and limited Internet use in the Kurdish mountains. However, that's the direction many GEO owners are going. Today their focus still is heavily on one-way traffic in satellite TV while they shift from analog to digital. But all of the big players want to offer their customers interactive use within a few years. The technology isn't much of a problem; it already exists and is being used. The focus is on making it cheaper in order to reach mass markets: $500–$1,000 for user equipment. Doesn't that prospect seem splendid? Internet access for all the hundreds of millions of people in hundreds of thousands of unwired villages around the globe! Problem: the track record of dealings between big satellite TV companies--broadcasters, satellite owners, or combinations of the two--and countries with suboptimal human rights records is rather worrying.

Most satellite TV companies like to receive more money than they spend--a lot of money, in other words. For that they need the consent and cooperation of the governments that are ruling over the footprints of their satellites--or at least the vast majority of those governments. Here's why. If they scramble their signals and let their viewers pay by renting descramblers, that's very easy to control of course: get caught while selling or buying a descrambler, and you'll be viewing prison walls instead of satellite TV. So a satellite TV company that relies on such revenues usually makes sure its programs are more or less in tune with the ideas of those in power on the ground, especially if those powers have a habit of dealing with dissenters in unpleasant ways or, rather, of dealing with them at all. However, most satellite TV companies that are broadcasting to areas with adverse human rights conditions are sending unscrambled signals. Relying on ads is far easier to organize. But even then, the same problem may arise: advertising companies must have access to the footprint areas in order to sell their products, and most of them don't like to be associated with government-unfriendly TV stations.

The bearing of all of this on Internet access via GEOs may seem limited. After all, TV is altogether different from the Internet. But part of the difference is to the disadvantage of the latter. The dish antenna you need for receiving analog unscrambled TV satellite signals can well be welded locally. Scores of bicycle repairmen in developing countries and presumably some hairdressers, too, know pretty well how to do it. And if the signals are in the often used 12- to 14-gigahertz Ku-band range, an antenna of less than a meter is enough if you are not too far from the edge of the footprint. But for Internet use, you need digital decoding equipment, which definitely cannot be made locally. The user equipment must be imported and sold in shops. Plus, the party offering the Internet service via satellite wants to send out bills to users and wants the bills paid. In all, there are plenty of ways for local authorities to keep tabs on the Internet via satellite. They are in a position to dictate demands--like having access to who has been viewing which site; telling which sites must be altogether blocked; knowing who's been e-mailing what to whom; and dictating which spot beams on the satellites must be switched off entirely in order to allow others to be used.

Spot beams: we haven't discussed them yet, and that brings us to a new problem facing unofficial VSAT users, now that we've discussed the old one to some extent. The new problem is the trend toward equipping satellites with many spot beams, each of them covering a round area of as little as 200 kilometers across. The reason is that the same frequencies can be used by more than one VSAT at the same time as long as the VSATs are not located in overlapping beams. And it's easy to tell from which footprint an illegal VSAT is operating, which can be a footprint that reaches a rebel-held area in a certain country. The satellite owner may not care about the illegal use as long as the bills are being paid, which can well be done by supporters in the West. However, by not caring, they might lose favor with a government that controls the largest part of the (potential) market in the country concerned.

Summing it up, the idea of selling satellite communication as a trick to bypass the local infrastructure or whatever regulatory limitations a government imposes has become obsolete during the past few years. Under the stewardship of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, all major satellite companies and representatives of about 130 of the 183 ITU member states--including countries with awful human rights records--have had lengthy, fruitful discussions during the past few years, reaching wide agreement about friendly cooperation. Officially, the issue was financial: poor countries feared loss of telecommunications revenue from introduction of the new satellite systems, with their light, cheap, easy-to-smuggle-in user equipment. They wanted a slice of the pie; that's what some rich countries wanted too, and the ITU was quite right in using its position to address that problem. But by solving it, the human-rights-boosting potential of the GMPCS and the Internet satellite systems suffered more than a bit. Today and tomorrow the big satellite operators are and will be very keen on pleasing the powers that be. It is--or, rather, was--only the great width of their beams that allowed them to leave questions about illegal use unanswered and yet keep their bigger customers more or less satisfied. To sum it up: the trend is toward many narrow beams on GEOs and hence slimming chances for satellite use without the consent of the government.

The LEOs offer a hardly brighter prospect. As they move around the globe, rather simple on-board Doppler devices enable them to locate any user within a range of 10s of kilometers, kilometers even. So far, all LEO fleet owners follow the policy of blocking any use of their satellites to or from any country with which they don't have an agreement. When Orbcomm became operational in November 1998, it had full or provisional licenses in only 21 countries, although its 28 satellites covered the entire earth. Orbcomm and Iridium are fine for checking your e-mail, but because they are slow and rather expensive, neither is very useful for surfing the Web. But Teledesic and Sky Bridge are. Due to become operational in about 2003, both will offer extremely high speeds and the lowest tariffs anywhere on the planet--but not in countries whose governments don't like their citizens to have unchecked Internet access. These and other LEO systems simply will not work in those parts of the world. It remains to be seen what will happen if a country allows usage only in certain areas. What if China allows Teledesic, but not in Tibet? What if Sky Bridge is allowed to operate only in the northern half of Sudan? What if Indonesia kindly requests that Space Way or Cyber Star or Astro Link or any other of the new Internet-by-GEO systems switch off their spot beams covering Aceh--the rebellious northern tip of Sumatra--or the spot beam that reaches Irian Jaya (formerly Eastern Timor)?

Now for some good news. There will continue to be regular, old-fashioned GEOs--with beams so wide that no one can tell where the user is--for quite a while to come, if only because almost all of the ones on orbit now and most of the ones currently being built still have those human-rights-friendly wide beams. GEO life expectancies of 10–15 years are quite normal nowadays, so, yes, there will be plenty of opportunity for illegal VSAT use till 2020 at least. In the meanwhile, as pointed out before, VSATs are getting smaller and cheaper all the time. The problem of leasing a bit of satellite capacity remains, but can always be negotiated if you really want to and you can pull a few strings in countries where they don't care who is sending what.

Then there is datacasting: using just half of one uncompressed channel of a TV satellite--one or two megabits per second--GEOs can shower entire continents with Internet files and other data, including all sorts of information that can enhance the human rights situation. Datacasting may not increase freedom of expression, but access to lots of sensitive information also is a very good thing. The broadcasting of daily additions to all Internet newsgroups in an area stretching from, say, Tibet to Irian Jaya is peanuts for a modern TV satellite. Supporters of such programs in the West should make sure, however, that analog is being used.

Digital TV signals cannot be received without sophisticated decoders, which can hardly be traded and installed without the consent of local authorities. Even so, but less difficult, special cards for PCs need to be smuggled in to process the data flow and store on the hard disk only those bits--newsgroups, for instance--that interest the PC user. For the rest it's just a matter of an extra cable, from the dish antenna to the PC. In a strict sense, datacasting isn't an Internet application of satellites: the data flow won't be using TCP/IP, of course--because packet reception cannot be acknowledged--and the data sent will typically reach stand-alone PCs. But it is excellent to give volume to intranet applications on LANs. Datacasting, as opposed to two-way communication, has the big advantage that the end user doesn't have to send: that makes it a lot cheaper, and it is much more difficult to locate users in areas under government control.

Even better good news: individual access to the Internet via satellite will become so cheap and common in the next 5 or 10 years that it will infiltrate into areas where it's not allowed. Consider, for instance, the fact that Internet access has become a top priority for expatriates--Western expatriates in particular--wherever they live. If a country wants to attract foreign business--and that's what all countries want--then offering good, cheap Internet access may well help it reach that goal. And if the normal infrastructure doesn't support fast, reliable Internet use--except maybe in some of the bigger towns--pressure may mount to allow systems that are capable of delivering exactly that. Especially Teledesic can connect any area very quickly because it has intersatellite links, so the satellite with which you exchange signals doesn't have to have a ground station in view. Not having intersatellite links, an additional ground station may be needed to make Sky Bridge accessible from a given area. In the case of GEOs, it depends on whether they have spot beams trained on the area; if they don't, there is little to switch on, and adding a beam antenna to a satellite in orbit is not an option. So in all likelihood, all Internet satellite systems will, after they've been launched, experience an increase in the number of areas where they're allowed to operate.

Any country that continues to block all of these satellite systems may have a problem if its neighbors allow the systems to be used freely. Bear in mind that satellite communication is especially useful in places where there are no cables--which goes for many border areas because country borders often go through rugged terrain. Now a number of villages on the border get full-blown Internet access via Space Way or Teledesic or Astro Link.

Would that leave the inhabitants on the less fortunate side of the border completely unaffected given the difficulty to patrol such borders?

One may ask how the kind of poor, often not-so-literate societies we are talking about will get access to the Internet, even if it is allowed, and how they can possibly afford it. Well, they can't afford it--individually, that is. But together they can, and it's as simple as that. Personal computers in most developing countries, irrespective of the human rights situation, are almost invariably collective computers. One reason the Internet is spreading like a prairie fire across a continent as poor as Africa lies in the spread of telecenters--also known, among other names, as teleshops or Internet cafés: A local entrepreneur invests in connectivity and hardware and opens a shop. Anyone can walk in and send e-mail or surf the Net. Incoming mail is printed and kept until you drop in or it is stored in your own password-protected directory.

Most telecenters can be found where the best telecommunications infrastructure, the highest degree of literacy, and the greatest spending power can be found: in towns. But with the aid of big organizations like the ITU and UNESCO, more and more telecenters are being set up in poor rural areas, almost invariably using satellite communication to link to backbones. The best telecenters have staff who sensitize the local population about using telecommunications to their personal advantage. At a more basic level, Starlight Telecommunications in Kampala, Uganda, simply turned custom-made truck containers into small telecenters--including a power generator and a VSAT--and brought them to small towns deep in the Ugandan countryside--by truck, of course.

Telecenters clearly can't exist without consent of government, which might justify the question that asks what relevance they have in areas of very bad human rights conditions. The government just won't allow them or will check every message and person that goes in or out. The answer is that governments are not the only violators of human rights. Wherever human rights violations occur, the government and its agents--like police, secret services, and armed forces--are the usual suspects. As a consequence, countries without any government--like Somalia--should be human rights heavens. That not being the case at all, we must accept the rather more confusing idea that any society, any part of a society, or even any group with the means, the motive, and the opportunity can and probably will violate human rights. One example on a grand scale is female circumcision, which is not endorsed by the governments of the African countries where it happens; some governments are even fighting it. Another example is religious intolerance--like threats, even death threats--against individuals who choose to disassociate themselves from religions they once belonged to. This is important when we consider the Internet, satellites, and human rights, because it is invariably governments that are the entities that have the means, the right, and even the obligation to regulate wireless communications. To narrow it down and be precise, nongovernmental human rights violators must fear Internet via satellite most--even more than governments fear it--especially when it becomes as cheap, ubiquitous, and common as satellite TV is today. That time isn't far away.

For more information on satellite systems and telecenters, see








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