Via Satellite at 30: The 1990s and Early 2000s

Past Via Satellite editors share their experiences and views on the satellite industry for Via Satellite's 30th anniversary edition.

I often marvel at the industry developments that transpired during my 11-year editorial stint at Via Satellite, as both managing editor (1991-1994) and editor (1995-2002). Most of the decade saw an incredible period of growth: launch manifests were often full, new satellite systems were announced on what seemed like a daily basis, and ground stations were becoming smaller and more advanced. The industry benefited financially, as satellite companies became popular investments on Wall Street, and the huge economic expansion in Asia created prosperous new markets throughout the region. It is easy to see that much of the growth and eventual downturn in the satellite industry’s fortunes during this period mirrored the economic boom of the 1990s, culminating in the dot-com crash of 2000-2001.

The 1990s saw a transformation from government-regulated telecommunications cooperatives to a highly competitive commercial communications marketplace, spearheaded by commercial satellite industry pioneer PanAmSat. Although Intelsat, Eutelsat, and Inmarsat provided global and regional coverage, a growing number of customers — broadcasters, in particular — demanded more agile space segment services. By the end of the decade, the international cooperatives themselves operated as commercial companies, joined by a plethora of international, regional, and domestic competitors.

Proton rocket launch.ILS

The boom in the Asia-Pacific economies fueled an unheard-of increase in demand for spacecraft, launch vehicles, satellite capacity, and ground station networks, equipment, and services. Competition was fierce and the Asia-Pacific satellite landscape soon included numerous players in addition to the international cooperatives. Companies like AsiaSat and PanAmSat became part of a regional satellite fray that included China, Japan, Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and more.

The launch industry comprised a variety of companies and partnerships, most of which no longer exist in their previous incarnations. In several cases, their composition would seem unthinkable in today’s political climate. It is reassuring to see that industry stalwart Arianespace still remains competitive and viable. During my tenure, we saw the emergence of the International Launch Services partnership between Lockheed Martin and Krunichev/Energia to joint-market the U.S. Atlas and Russian Proton expendable launch vehicles. China debuted its Long March rocket as a commercial service. U.S., Russian, Ukrainian, and Norwegian companies established the innovative Sea Launch maritime platform.

DBS satellites for DirecTV and EchoStar were launched and the ensuing small-dish TV service quickly became popular. The satellite industry had never created a consumer service on such a large scale. Over the next two decades, DBS companies have grown, been bought and sold, and continue to drive the multi-billion market for DBS services.

Launch of a Long March rocket.Wikimedia Commons

Innovative orbits and heretofore untapped frequencies were incorporated into new satellite designs and ventures, many of which did not pan out or live up to their much-heralded potential. The industry was mesmerized by plans for large fleets of Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) satellites, Ka-band, and direct-to-user digital audio/radio services. Names like Iridium, Globalstar, Teledesic, WildBlue, Worldstar, and Sirius were on the tips of tongues at this time, as the satellite industry followed their business plans and technical ingenuity with great excitement.

The satellite industry grew from a small club-like atmosphere, where professionals often knew each other on a first-name basis, into a sophisticated, vibrant, international business. Many developments occurred that are too numerous to mention in the short space of this column. The satellite manufacturing sector, dominated largely by U.S., French, and British companies, was re-tooling to mass manufacture large numbers of LEO satellites. The European market was competitive for all types of services. Luxembourg-based SES Astra developed a vibrant array of services, as Eutelsat continued down its path of commercialization. Ground station equipment and component manufacturers were creating myriad products for the VSAT and maritime markets. The Internet was well on its way to indelibly changing our lives and, of course, new satellite-based Internet services were being brought into the market. On the regulatory side, a controversial, and no doubt entrepreneurial, practice had emerged whereby governmental entities like Tongasat filed for orbital slots that were then re-licensed to commercial entities.

Sea Launch's Zenit rocket at liftoff.Sea Launch

Financing poured in during much of this time period, and the sky literally was the limit for this growing business. By the end of the decade, like other telecom sectors, we witnessed a more austere environment for financing satellite projects. Not only had investors been burned by huge satellite business failures, some of the industry’s biggest customers themselves were in a period of retrenchment. For many, this somber backdrop was unfamiliar after such a long period of unhampered growth.

Life has taken me down an alternative career path. But, for me, working in the satellite industry during the 1990s was a not just a job, it was a privilege. Never have I witnessed a profession imbued with such a palpable sense of excitement, enthusiasm, and dedication and, from what I can tell, the industry has not changed in this regard. VS

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