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Satellites cure World Hunger?

By Solaarius in Technology
Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 04:59:40 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

For a few years now, I have been extremely interested in and excited about the development of truly global satellite communication technology. Why people seldom share my enthusiasm can be simply explained by such magnificent blunders as Iridium.

Despite such a precedent, however, I feel that low-earth-orbit satellite technology is the way of the future. The cultural implications of NOT evolving such a technology are potentially disastrous for mankind.

If you want to check out what I'm talking about, first go see Teledesic.

I will get to the technology, but first, a little cultural analysis...

A couple hundred years ago, when the first world went through an industrial revolution, much of the older third world did not need such a revolution. The high population densities created a larger workforce where hundreds of people that could have been replaced by a single machine, weren't, because they still needed jobs to survive. Thus, no revolution. Even today, this people-driven culture still works.

Unfortunately, the new information-driven economy does not have an easy alternative for the third world, as the industrial one did. The third world desperately needs high-tech communication, but cannot afford to create a cabling infrastructure like North America did. They need a cost-effective solution that will connect them with the first world. I'm not talking every individual here, as obviously someone in say, Somalia, who cannot find their next meal, probably doesn't care if they "have new mail!". I simply think that it's important for governments and businesses EVERYWHERE to be connected. (And of course world food distribution might be eased by such a connection, as well...)

I think that low-earth orbit satellite communication systems are the answer.

Now, I know what some of you will say: "Not possible!" "Look at Iridium!"

Iridium failed for two reasons. a)Too expensive. b)It mirrored existing cellular service (except for the roaming, of course;).

Let's face it. People in the first world don't need yet another wireless communication system. Particularly in North America and in Europe, there already exists an extensive cable and wireless infrastructure. These systems will contiue to grow as the user base and technology grows.

In places with an extremely high population density and relatively low connectivity (groud based), such as India and China (both 1billion+), a cabling infrastructure is a ludicrous suggestion. Need I even mention the "untamed wilderness" that is Africa?

Enter Teledesic (btw, I in NO way am associated with the company or ANY of its' empolyees or business partners - how's THAT for a disclaimer?).

Teledesic (if it becomes what it claims it will) looks like it just might save the third world. It has a high-bandwith/low-latency wireless data connection that rivals T3. Physical cables need not be run across huge distances (as in Africa) or to billions of places (as in Asia). If the cost is kept reasonably low enough that many of the people living in these areas are able to afford them, this company may have an excellent solution.

I, for one, hope they succeed.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


Related Links
o Iridium
o Teledesic
o Also by Solaarius

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Satellites cure World Hunger? | 21 comments (13 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
High density (3.66 / 9) (#3)
by ppanon on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 04:25:41 AM EST

I am afraid I have to disagree on your statements about the cost effectiveness of ground lines in high density countries like India and China. Canada is one of the leading countries in terms of developing telecommunications technologies (ground-based and satellite). We have one of the highest speed internet national backbones in the world. The province of British Columbia has one of the highest percentages of (primary to post-secondary) schools connected to the Internet. Why? Because the country is so large and our population so spread out (i.e. separation between urban centres, let alone rural communities) we need a good communications infrastructure to maintain reasonable efficiency.

India's high population densities are ideal for ground based communications. The problem is that much of the population in the Indian sub-continent is so poor that few can actually afford communications at a price which is 'profitable'. Satellite use in those areas will mainly be used to connect the rich and probably won't do much to alleviate the conditions for the rest of the populace since they are as much cultural and political as technological in origin. Can technology cure those cultural and political ills? Maybe, but I wouldn't bank on it. They may just as easily be used to secure the positions of the rich if the latter are the only ones who can participate in an information economy.

Its the opposite, I think. (4.00 / 9) (#7)
by inspire on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 07:16:18 AM EST

Areas of high population and small physical size are the ideal candidates for a wire connection. Case in point: Australia. We have (and I'm sure I'll draw some flames for this) two major population centres - Melbourne and Sydney.

These two centres are relatively well connected - cable internet has recently been launched in these two cities (and Queensland as well, but we'll leave that for now). DSL is just over the horizon. Wireless barely rates a mention in these cities (except for peer-to-peer wireless to save costs on the telco's horribly braindead pricing scheme).

Move further inland from these cities, and you hit problems - a fact that is often quoted in geography lessons here is the population density of the country - 2 people / square km. Now Telstra and Optus are finding it extremely difficult to provide these people with simple telephone service, let alone ISDN/ADSL/cable, or whatever the technology of the day is.

Government regulations require Telstra to offer a basic telephone service to just about every household in Australia, and Telstra end up spending horrendous amounts of money to run a wire hundreds of kilometres to outback Australia just so a cattle station/farm can have connectivity.

Needless to say, both the telcos in Australia are very excitied about new satellite and wireless services. In fact, Telstra have launched their satellite internet service targeted at rural users recently.

What I'm trying to get at is the basic principle that a long cable connecting two points is expensive to setup and maintain, but short cables to lots of points (like you'd see in a metropolitan telephone system) will generate a lot more profit for the companies involved.

Thus wireless would be good for the expanses of Africa, but not as economically viable for countries like India, where you can connect lots of paying customers with a relatively short length of cable.
What is the helix?

The cultural analysis. (4.33 / 9) (#8)
by inspire on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 07:32:58 AM EST

A couple hundred years ago, when the first world went through an industrial revolution, much of the older third world did not need such a revolution. The high population densities created a larger workforce where hundreds of people that could have been replaced by a single machine, weren't, because they still needed jobs to survive. Thus, no revolution. Even today, this people-driven culture still works.

I dont believe this is what happened. True, many of the fears of technological advances have been unfounded, but there have been fundamental changes in the way people work since the introduction of new machines and manufacturing processes.

What happened in the Third World was that with the introduction of labour-saving devices that threatened to leave meny people out of work, the people of the Third World had to adapt - make it more cost effecient for First World countries to use human labour rather than a machine - thus lowering the wages of the average worker to the point where they can barely live on the money given to them.

If corporations in developed countries found an even cheaper solution to their manufacturing problems, they'd move onto that, leaving third world workers without a job, anyway.

The main thrust behind an "industrial revolution" is industry. If, for lack of resources or opportunity, a country cannot develop an industry, no revolution will happen. If industry does develop, research into cost-saving methods will cause an industrial revolution whether the workers want it or not.

It is for this reason that I dont see LEO satellites, or any other technological solution to be the solution to world poverty. In my field of study, I'm bombarded with companies saying that genetic engineering will "revolutionise the world" and "end world hunger". Indeed, there are many technologies that do have the potential to do such things (disease resistant crops, etc).

However, when it comes to the crunch, companies like Monsanto make things like the "terminator seed" - basically a sterile version of a crop with disease-resistance, so that farmers have to buy seed every season, instead of every 3 or 4 seasons like they currently do (I think they have since retracted the idea).

My point?

It is not profitable to end world hunger. Technology alone does not provide the solution, it will be a combination of social/political, economic and technological factors that will hopefully solve these problems.
What is the helix?

Re: The cultural analysis. (4.00 / 4) (#17)
by DeepDarkSky on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 11:23:30 PM EST

I agree with you on world hunger being not profitable. More and more each day, I am continually amazed by how much the world is driven simply by money. China wins their favorable trading position in the world despite their "human rights" records, why? Because no country in the world is willing to sacrifice a huge potential market and lose billions of dollars to other countries on grounds of principle, and the U.S. leads the way with that.

I also think that third world countries are the way they are and they are not developing because they have relatively little for first world (read: western) countries to use and exploit. As soon as there's a potential to tap natural resources and/or possibility of saving on labor costs by using relatively good but very cheap manual labor, then it becomes profitable to "help" (read: invest) in those places, because now, those people will get more money (which everyone will claim is good) that they can spend on more stuff the can be traded over there.

If global corporations sees that the potential profitability of a third world nation is relatively high, then it will seek out and "help" make that country more "technologically advanced". Not the corporations' fault, the reason for their existence is to profit, at all costs, and it is especially good for the corporation if it can exploit others and get away with it legally, because its profitability would be high and liability (legally, and therefore, financially) low.

It's just a lot of BS.

[ Parent ]

Re: The cultural analysis. (4.00 / 4) (#18)
by mattdm on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 02:13:26 AM EST

There's another reason to grant China normal trade status -- it's better to engage than to shun.

This is (buggies and plain clothes not withstanding) the historical difference between the Amish and the Mennonites -- the Amish believe that if someone is sinning, the way to correct that is to shun them. Until they come around, no one talks to them or relates to them in any way. Needless to say, in today's world, this tends to make more people completely leave the Amish church rather than address the issue (real or perceived). The Mennonite way of welcoming even with their flaws is in my opinion a more viable choice. It lets you work with them to effect positive change over time.

I hope the parallel is obvious. China has nuclear weapons and a huge army. They're big enough to be able to do okay despite economic pressure -- we're not exactly going to crush them with tariffs. Their human rights record is terrible, and it's not something we should overlook. But it's better to encourage more and better interaction rather than starting another cold war.

[ Parent ]
Brilliant idea, for those who can afford it... (4.00 / 9) (#11)
by Brazzo on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 01:33:53 PM EST

Teledesic is a good company, with a good idea: get everyone connected around the world, cheap. They've jumped on two of the hottest possibilities in the networking arena: wireless technology (albeit in satellite form, in their incarnation) and wiring an untapped market. If they succeed, they will be a formidable company in the emerging third-world connectivity arena.

But, the idea that Teledesic's technology will do anything to help solve the disparity of wealth or even Internet access in the Third World is absurd.

Who can afford a computer in China, India, or even the famine-striken African nations? For that matter, who has the time to take from their daily struggle for food and shelter to hop on the web at "near T3 speeds" to go shopping on Amazon.com or eBay?

In a nutshell, the author here has fallen into the standard "technology will solve the world's problems" mantra of the past decade and a half. Technology doesn't solve famine, overpopulation or worldwide epidemic. The Internet will not cure AIDS, and the world wide web doesn't put food in people's stomachs.

At best, Teledesic will only increase the disparity between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless in the Third World. Only the multinational corporations, and to some extent the monied rulers of the Third World, will benefit from the access that Teledesic will provide.

Perhaps ubiquitious Internet access will allow multinational corporations to enter markets and regions that have to date been left untouched, and then use the local populace as a source of cheap labor. Perhaps that's what the author meant by satellites curing world hunger.

Or, maybe he thinks Teledesic will beam food to Africa, and beam birth control to India and China.

That said, this article does do one thing: provoke conversation, which is what K5 is all about. (+1)

The "Third World" (4.14 / 7) (#12)
by Simon Kinahan on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 01:57:35 PM EST

I really want to abolish the term "thirld world". Its come to represent "everywhere except the west, the former soviet union, and their sattelites". This is neither culturally, not economically, a coherent group of countries. Its come to includes places like Argentina and Brazil, which are essentially badly run rich countries rather than poor ones, the vast continent-size civilisations of the Indian subconbtient and China, and the disintegrating chaos of subsaharan Africa. These places have nothing in common. The reasons the "third world" never had an industrial revolution vary from region to region, and the idea expressed in the article that they relied on people instead is dubious at best. Yes, countries that are currently industrialising do have more labour intensive industries based on low labour costs and higher capital costs, but this is not universal in the "third world" quite a lot of which is barely out of the Iron Age, and some of which has remained unchanged since Paleoliothic times, nor is it the only way. When it comes to telecoms, I think the important question is what its going to be used for. In general, cell-phone infrastructure in the third world is quite reasonable at least in the cities. Local entrepreneurs tend to own a couple of handsets, which they rent out for a small amount over the cost of the calls. Satellites seem like overkill, given the cost of the infrastructure, and the phones. Yes, they'll cover places with no cellphone coverage, but this mainly means farmland. Perhaps it will help farmers get a better price for their cash-crops, but many of these people live in essentially non-cash economies.


If you disagree, post, don't moderate
Re: The "Third World" (3.33 / 6) (#14)
by Covariance on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 02:45:30 PM EST

Not only are there huge differences between places labeled "third word", the way the language gets used propagates huge mis-perceptions. The term itself has derogatory connotations, which somehow makes people remember the negative images far more than any other. Many people where I'm from (the west cost of the US) have the idea that in every country that is labeled third world is the pictures of a civil war torn country they see on the evening news. It's stunning how much this language shapes the discussion. If I try to make a distinction between, say, even subsaharan Africa and south-east Asia, most people will be unable to make the separation and react with something like, "Aren't those all third world countries?". Trying to talk about differences between individual countries or regions in a country is generally hopeless.

[ Parent ]
Where's the money? (3.83 / 6) (#15)
by aphrael on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 03:00:49 PM EST

I can see where there is a need for this type of service. But, just as there are problems getting drug research companies to produce drugs that will cure diseases that only exist in overpopulated poor tropical countries (because they don't believe it is possible to make a profit off of selling drugs to overpopulated poor tropical countries' citizens), I am skeptical that this system can work --- I don't see how the people living in the untamed wilderness of Africa can *pay* for the service, and so I don't see how a company providing the service can stay afloat.

The only way that the model works financially is if (a) satellite production and maintenance costs go down; (b) the cost of providing satellite phone service to the third world is subsidized either by an international agency, or by customers in the rest of the world. (This is similar to the way long distance phone service used to subsidize local service in the United States, or how drugs for diseases like AIDS are cheaper in the third world than in the first, in effect being subsidized by higher prices in the developed world). There will be lots of political opposition to such a scheme, of course, but the money isn't there for the operation to work unless such a scheme is adopted.

But did anyone think about... (3.28 / 7) (#16)
by Solaarius on Sun Sep 24, 2000 at 04:19:02 PM EST

Has no one thought that greater connectivity of even just corporations and government could lead to greater accountability in nations with questionable leadership? The "freedom" of the press, particularly in the US, has opened for public view every little thing the government does wrong.

Until the press itself became a series of several influential corporations, of course. The answer for those who wanted to know what was really going on was the internet. A place where people could expose wrong without concern over the loss of power or influence, as in the press.

Now, I know people will point out that in this "ideal" situation, these things are reported by the public. By people like you and me with a 'puter in their basement.

I know that "poorer" nations don't have this luxury, but we can always hope that things might improve;)


"The Age was called Dark not because there was no Light, but rather because the People refused to see It."

High-speed wireless: It's not just for the poor (3.50 / 2) (#19)
by nyquist on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 08:53:36 AM EST

In addition to the uses of this system in countries without a good land-based data infrastructure, I see uses for this technology in The Good Old Industrialized World[tm] as well..

For example:

Organization 1 is a large Internet company that _can not_ afford to have it's Internet connection cut. Rather than buy two redundant land-based Internet connections that will often cross paths into a single point of failure-- usually right after hitting the street-- buy one high speed land connection and a continuous link to THIS company. Viola: your fear of backhoes out on the street is over.

Organziation 2 is a company that's moving into a new building. After getting everything else taken care of, they're informed that their block is out of fibre, and it'll be 6 months before their data company will be able to get more in their neighborhood. A connection to this company would be a good interim step that may indeed turn into a permanent connection if the IT folks are happy with it and it's cost effective enough (a BIG "if").


A brief comment on Africa (none / 0) (#20)
by qts on Mon Sep 25, 2000 at 04:12:30 PM EST

Actually, yes you do need to mention Africa - specifically South Africa. The use of Pay As You Go mobile phones has exploded there.


Right idea, wrong technology (none / 0) (#21)
by Paul Johnson on Thu Sep 28, 2000 at 03:48:55 AM EST

You are right about the need for data and voice comms in developing countries. However a satellite infrastructure is too expensive. Cellular works better. In particular areas with a low subscriber density can have large base stations with big antennae to cover large areas, and high density areas can have smaller stations.

The big problem for conventional landline telecoms in poor countries has been that theives steal the copper wires. With wireless this is much less of an issue.

You are lost in a twisty maze of little standards, all different.

Satellites cure World Hunger? | 21 comments (13 topical, 8 editorial, 0 hidden)
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