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[] NYT 15.10.01: Stopping Signals From Satellite TV Proves Difficult,
New York Times
October 15, 2001

News Analysis

Stopping Signals From Satellite TV Proves Difficult

By Seth Schiesel

When the White House suggested that five major United States television news organizations use caution before airing raw video statements from Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers last week, government officials said Mr. bin Laden's statements could include hidden messages to terrorists.

The networks agreed not to run raw footage of Al Qaeda statements as they are broadcast by the Al Jazeera network from Qatar, which appears to be Mr. bin Laden's preferred conduit for communicating with the world.

As recently as a decade ago, such an agreement between the government and broadcasters might have prevented Mr. bin Laden from communicating by television with any followers in the United States. No more. The global village simply has too many pathways.

Because of the privatization and deregulation of the international satellite business in recent years, along with the proliferation of advanced satellite technologies, control of the nation's television signals is by no means limited to the coterie of United States companies that the White House turned to last week. Instead, the images now reaching American living rooms from Central Asia and the Middle East are delivered by a loose amalgam of companies from around the world. And many of those companies may not be so willing to follow the White House's suggestions.

In fact, the great majority of homes in the United States have the option of receiving Al Jazeera directly using a satellite dish antenna not much bigger than a pizza pan. If any terrorists are in the country waiting for televised word from Mr. bin Laden ? with or without hidden messages ? last week's steps by the White House did next to nothing to thwart them.

It is just one of the many complications that advances in satellite technology have created. Even as new satellite systems dilute the government's ability to influence what Americans watch and read, they also allow television networks to deploy cameras and crew to remote areas more easily than ever before.

The images of tracer fire and khaki-clad correspondents from places like Kabul in Afghanistan and Islamabad in Pakistan are generally bouncing from at least three different satellites before reaching living rooms in America's heartland. And those three or four satellites may be owned by three or four different multinational companies.

The wrinkles in the newly changed satellite skyscape perhaps become most clear in the context of Al Jazeera.

For about four years, the EchoStar Communications Corporation (news/quote)'s Dish Network operation has been carrying Al Jazeera, in Arabic, as a part of a premium tier of international channels. Any home or apartment in the United States with a view of the southern sky can sign up for Dish Network and receive Al Jazeera. Dish Network has more than six million subscribers over all. An EchoStar spokeswoman would not specify how many Dish Network subscribers receive Al Jazeera, but said the figure was "substantially less" than six million. (EchoStar's main competitor, the DirecTV unit of General Motors (news/quote)' Hughes Electronics division, does not carry Al Jazeera.)

After asking the five broadcast and cable news networks to stop retransmitting Al Qaeda statements from Al Jazeera, the United States government asked the government of Qatar last week to consider trying to influence the station's coverage. (In recent years, Al Jazeera has also provoked the ire of some Arab governments for covering their critics.) In light of the Bush administration's efforts, it may appear curious that the White House has not asked EchoStar to stop carrying Al Jazeera.

"We have been in communication with them," said Judianne Atencio, the Echostar spokeswoman, referring to government agencies. "They are aware that we are broadcasting it 24 hours a day and they have not given us any specific directions. For now, it's business as usual."

A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment specifically on why the administration has not asked EchoStar to stop carrying Al Jazeera. On condition of anonymity, some media and satellite executives said last week that the White House had not asked EchoStar to shut off the signal because some government agencies are relying on its service to monitor Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera's technical staff in Qatar was not for comment, but satellite and media executives in the United States provided an outline of how Al Jazeera's signals reach United States homes.

 From Kabul, Al Jazeera bounces its signals off a satellite to Qatar, several hundred miles away. In Qatar, the overall Al Jazeera progamming package is assembled and then uplinked to the Arabsat 2A satellite over Central Africa. Arabsat satellites are operated by the Arab Satellite Communication Organization, which was formed by member nations of the Arab League in 1976.)

 From Arabsat 2A, the Al Jazeera signal is relayed by a major European satellite station in Fucino, Italy, maintained by Telespazio, an affiliate of Telecom Italia, the dominant telecommunications carrier in Italy.

 From Fucino, the Al Jazeera signal is uplinked to satellites including PAS 9, a satellite over South America that is owned by the PanAmSat Corporation (news/quote), based in Wilton, Conn.

The PAS 9 signal is available in much of the Western Hemisphere. It is the means by which CNN receives its own feeds from Al Jazeera, for example. EchoStar receives Al Jazeera at its satellite center in Cheyenne, Wyo. From Cheyenne, Al Jazeera is assembled with the rest of the Dish Network programming and beamed up to one of EchoStar's own satellites, for receipt by small dish antennas on homes.

If the government asked EchoStar to stop carrying Al Jazeera, the signal would be lost to viewers in the United States who use the small dish antennas operating on a frequency known as the KU-band. But Al Jazeera would still be available to at least some of the nearly a million households in the United States that have larger satellite dishes, which receive signals on a the so-called C- band frequency. Some of these dishes, often six feet in diameter or bigger, could receive Al Jazeera directly from PAS 9.

Were the government to persuade PanAmSat to stop relaying Al Jazeera from PAS 9, many C-band owners could receive Al Jazeera from at least one of the half-dozen different satellites that receive the signal from Fucino, according to satellite and media executives.

Were the government to convince Telespazio to stop relaying Al Jazeera from Fucino, most anyone with a satellite dish in Europe, Africa or the Middle East could receive the signal directly from Arabsat 2A or another Arabsat satellite.

In all, keeping satellite television signals out of the homes of those who make an effort to receive them may be a nearly impossible task. Unless Al Jazeera itself decides to stop broadcasting Al Qaeda statements, there may be little White House can do ? in technical terms, at least ? to prevent Al Qaeda from spreading its message by television.

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