Last month I went to a conference marking 50 years of the UK in space. Some of the speakers reminded us many of us use space daily without even thinking about it when we watch satellite television or get directions from our GPS.
I recently took delivery of a new object for the collection that also uses space – a satellite radio made for WorldSpace. The WorldSpace company was founded in 1990 and used geostationary satellites to broadcast to Asia and Africa. At one point they had 170,000 paid up listeners.
The company also maintained a not-for-profit arm, using 5% of the satellite’s bandwidth to broadcast programs giving advice on HIV and AIDS, agriculture or providing information for women. It was tricky to make these programs localised enough to be really useful. For example, WorldSpace broadcast some Somali language programmes for use in classrooms in one region of one country, but anyone in Africa could tune in.
Satellite radio also faces technical challenges; I spoke to an engineer who explained that the signal is easily interrupted by concrete, glass, trees and even smoke.
“I had a guy in Ethiopia write me every day that his signal was lost at roughly 10am, 1pm, and 4pm daily. We couldn’t figure it out… It turned out the antenna was in a courtyard, and people took their smoke break in front of the antenna – effectively cutting the signal until they finished their break.”
Unfortunately WorldSpace was unsustainable as a business and went into liquidation in 2008. It might be surprising that a business with 170,000 customers would struggle, but communications technology has changed rapidly since the service started. Back then mobile phones were only just getting going in developed countries, and satellite radio seemed to be a really good way forward. Now, however, mobile phones have completely changed telecommunications in Africa and Asia, and satellite technology is expensive and hard to localise.