Américas / November-December 1997
By Larry Luxner
KOUROU, French Guiana -- A four-way venture involving Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. and two of Latin America's biggest media conglomerates hopes to bring direct-to-home (DTH) satellite broadcasting to millions of TV viewers south of the Rio Grande.
In the wee hours of Aug. 8, executives from Arianespace, PanAmSat Corp. and several other multinationals swatted mosquitoes as they watched as an Ariane 44P rocket fitted with four solid-propellant boosters lift off from its launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana, flawlessly carrying into orbit PanAmSat's PAS-6 satellite. The bird, manufactured by Space Systems/Loral, is capable of delivering more than 360 digital TV channels via transponders leased by the venture, known as Sky Latin America.
"This satellite is dedicated to a DTH broadcasting project for South America that's been in the works for three or four years," says Fred Landman, PanAmSat's president and CEO. "DTH overall is playing an increasingly large role in Latin America."
In addition to News Corp., the Sky Latin America venture includes Brazil's TV Globo and Mexico's Televisa, the world's largest Spanish-language media company; each of the three companies has a 30% share. A fourth conglomerate, TCI International, has a 10% stake.
Sky's chief rival in the DTH market is Galaxy Latin America, a spinoff of Hughes Electronics' DirecTV venture that also includes Venezuela's Grupo Cisneros, Brazil's Televisão Abril and MVS Multivisión of Mexico.
The PanAmSat launch marked the 27th consecutive successful launch for an Ariane-4 rocket, and further consolidates Arianespace's hold on the satellite-launching market, despite the explosion of an Ariane-5 rocket seconds after takeoff on its maiden voyage in June 1996.
Doug Heydon, president of Arianespace Inc. in Washington, estimates that launches at Kourou cost anywhere from $40 million to $140 million, depending on the size of the satellite. Landman said PanAmSat could have launched PAS-6 from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, but that the Connecticut-based company chose French Guiana because of "the availability of Arianespace, and the fact that it delivers on time and with a high degree of reliability."
PanAmSat already operates the PAS-1 and PAS-3 Atlantic Ocean Region satellites, which deliver dozens of TV channels to more than 13 million cable households in Latin America.
PAS-6 is the 10th satellite entrusted to Arianespace by PanAmSat (five PanAmSat spacecraft for international services and five Galaxy satellites for the U.S. market). It carries 36 Ku-band transponders, to be divided between two Sky DTH services: one targeting Portuguese-speaking Brazil, the other beamed to South America's Spanish-speaking nations. A related satellite, PAS-5, was launched Aug. 22 from Kazakhstan, and will carry transponders for a third Sky Latin America service aimed at Central America.
"Beyond this success and the numbers which speak eloquently of the performance of the Ariane system," said Arianespace CEO Jean-Marie Luton, "this outcome testifies to the tremendous work of teams, both in Europe and here in Kourou, dedicated to the consolidation of the leadership of the European launcher in the global market, as well as to its preparation for space transportation for the 21st century."
Located only 5 degrees north of the Equator, where the Earth's rotation is fastest, Kourou allows a launcher sent toward the east to benefit from a "slingshot effect." By comparison, it would take about 15% more fuel to place a satellite into orbit if launched from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Since 1979, when the Ariane program was inaugurated, 98 rockets have been launched from Kourou -- for customers ranging from Arabsat to Intelsat to the government of Thailand. Between 80% and 90% of the payloads launched from Kourou are telecom satellites.
"Our activity is like an engine for the economy of French Guiana," says Luton. "Without the last 30 years of activity, Guiana would not be what it is today."