Ex-Mayor Livingstone

Space cadet

Ariane 5 mock-up nicked from WikipediaThe Evening Standard carried a headline yesterday of “Mayor in £12 million space mission” along with the obligatory picture of an Ariane launcher blasting off. I couldn’t understand why the London Development Agency thought it was appropriate to commit to a £12 million punt on a new generation of geostationary comms/global positioning satellites. Apparently two other DTI-funded regional development agencies, South Eastern and East of England, are also putting up £12 million each. I went off to all three website this afternoon to get some explanation of what they were doing – none.

Between the three of them these unaccountable quangos spent almost £800 million last year. They get most of this in grants from the DTI. Apparently this scheme is a bid being made by Inmarsat, which is essentially a commercial telecomms operator based in the UK, to the European Space Agency. To qualify you need £34 million of state funding. The DTI itself turned down Inmarsat but the development agencies think they should be playing in this space in place of our government. Sounds like choosing winners to me which is not the place of regional bureaucrats.

The FT has more detail but I have not been able to find out what the programme is called and what it hopes to achieve. Any insight anyone?

5 replies on “Space cadet”

With reference to yesterday’s front page news that the Mayor was considering a 12M contribution towards the cost of a private company development project intended to facilitate traffic management in London in the future, some background information on the company concerned may be of interest to those responsible for the decision.

Inmarsat was formerly an inter-governmental organisation which, along with its employees, enjoyed a tax free status in the capital to 1999 (and continues to do so, in certain circumstances, to the benefit of original staff). Three years after privatisation and successive multi–million pound profits, the company was acquired by well known private equity investors Apax and Permira. Within three months a US CEO was put in charge and the staff numbers reduced by 15%, despite the continued spectacular success of its operations.

With revenues exceeding $500M a year from the sale of mobile communications by satellite, a large proportion of which are derived from ‘global security situations’ involving, amongst others, US and UK military organisations, the company has assets which include a prime location HQ, various earth stations and a spare $200M satellite awaiting launch at a cost close to $80M. To run this kind of business, the company retains an international structure and conducts some operations including selected appointments from off-shore affiliates. A quick look at the company’s reports confirms a grotesque salary and benefits structure and a remarkably low tax bill.

For once it seems clear that the proposed resources collected from hard pressed London residents would actually be better spent on bus lanes, or, possibly on revenue experts working on his behalf of the Mayor to determine how this company could better contribute to his voter’s needs.

You are completely correct to highlight our cash flowing out of these ‘development’ agencies. By what process did we ‘vote’ for our cash being spent on these geostationary comms/global positioning satellites? What bit of my quality of life I wonder is being enhanced by this rocketeering?

Who does and when does ‘Scrutiny’ on these development agencies happen?

How do we create a development agency for West Ealing? Maybe we could get millions in grants to set off 1,000s of Roman Candles and Catherine-wheels on Drayton Green? And of course the real pay-off will be that because of these Inmarsat launched satellites, we’ll be able to plot the precise lattitudinal and longitudinal grid reference of each Roman Candle and Catherine-wheel. Wouldn’t that just be something…..

Inmarsat is hardly the world’s leading technology operation…it tends to specialize in reaching awkward places that no one else can reach economically. It has long had “Empire” connections much like Cable and Wireless used to have. It is not seen by anyone in the telecomms business as a serious cutting edge player.

This aside, satellites have a couple of disadvantages: 1) they need to be replaced or “maintained” periodically. After about ten or so years a satellite runs out of the fuel (sometimes pressurised gas) that is used to keep nudging its position to the right place as satellites tend to drift.

2) There is the propagation delay of around quarter of a second in getting whatever is coming back from up upward transmission–this is simple physics; wireless doesn’t travel faster than light.

3)Satellites are EXPENSIVE.

4)They are vulnerable to terrorist blocking: as its all wireless you can jam the signal up and down very easily. Oh yes, and the detonation of any sort of nuclear device within about 100km would fry the satellite!

Overall, do we want yet more Microwave Radiation (variations on what out ovens use) beaming down on everyone?

I prefer optic fibre in the ground (its nuclear/neutron bomb proof and doesn’t radiate health hazards.

I much preferred the idea of high-altitude air-ships…at least they are relatively cheap!

As ever,


P.S. The cost of a satellite is so prohibitive (two billion pounds plus) that Inmarsat must have some other motivations, e.g. delivering High Definition TeleVision (HDTV)….there has got to be a money-spinner hidden somewhere in this…


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