Thoughts on Elvis, satellites, and poverty
The year was 1973. It was a
quiet evening in the
Lundin household, and
after surfing through all
three channels, we settled on “Aloha
From Hawaii,” a live performance by
none other than Elvis Aaron Presley.
My memory of the show is a bit hazy,
but I’m sure it was a mix of rockers and ballads that he punctuated with his
trademark stage moves and porkchop sideburns. One thing I do recall clearly
was the phrase “Live via Satellite” at the bottom of the television screen. My
dad explained that satellites orbit the Earth and receive a signal from one location and transmit it elsewhere. Presto! Households all over the U.S. receive a
concert taking place in Hawaii. Well, that’s pretty interesting.
Twelve years later, I enlisted in the United States Air Force, and learned a
lot more about communication satellites. The Soviet Union started the space
race when it launched Sputnik I on Oct. 4, 1957. If you want to split hairs or
bore your friends with Cold War trivia, you can say that the U.S. actually
started the era of satellite communications when it bounced a radio signal off
the moon, a natural satellite, three years earlier. Of course, the moon’s capabilities in this regard are limited. We can’t exactly load it up with radio gear,
recording devices, or cameras, which we often do with artificial satellites.
Satellites and the electronic systems they carry require all manner of housings, racks, and cabinetry, which sounds like opportunity for metal fabricators. And boy, do we have satellite opportunities these days: astronomical
satellites for observing distant planets, galaxies, and other outer-space
objects; biosatellites for scientific experiments on live organisms; navigation
satellites that send information to ground receivers, allowing them to determine their exact location (also known as global positioning satellites, or
GPSs); reconnaissance satellites for military applications; and observation
satellites for cartography and gathering data about the Earth’s weather, climate, and environment
How much opportunity does this add up to? Well, that’s hard to say, but
if we broaden this to include electronic equipment in general, satellite-based or not, we find that private investment in information processing
equipment (this includes computers and peripherals), communication
equipment, and office equipment such as photocopiers added up to $449.5
billion worth of opportunity in 2006. Granted, that’s the total amount
spent, and the fabricated metal portion is just a small part of the total, but
this is definitely a growth area. For example, we now have another satellite
application: listening to the radio. That’s right—if you are bored or exasperated with the music or talk radio available in your area, you can listen
to radio stations broadcast via satellite. The business model makes sense: A
A satellite project (which includes the satellite, the launch, a
ground control station, and insurance) costs anywhere from $160
Eric Lundin, senior editor of
The FABRICATOR, can be reached at
million to $480 million.
single satellite can carry hundreds of stations and reach millions of listen-
ers, and the cost to subscribe is reasonable. Basic plans from the two
providers, Sirius and XM, run $12.95 per month.
That’s all good and fine, but when I heard about satellite radio, my first
thoughts didn’t concern the technology, the history, or modern capabilities.
I wasn’t thinking about satellite applications, the Cold War, the space race,
or anything else like that. My first thought was the cost. Even though the
business plan makes sense, this seems like an extravagant way to broadcast
radio. I checked two communications company Web sites and found that a
satellite project (which includes the satellite, the launch, a ground control
station, and insurance) costs anywhere from $160 million to $480 million.
The fact that we can afford to invest this much to listen to the radio really
crystallized how fortunate we are. It’s hard to measure the “fortunate,” but we
can measure wealth. One quick and simple way is to divide a country’s gross
domestic product (GDP) by its population, and one easy-to-use reference is The
World Factbook, which the CIA compiles. It provides a brief analysis of 229
countries. According to The World Factbook, Bermuda has the highest per-capi-ta GDP at $69,900 (2004 estimate). The U.S. is ninth at $43,500.
We can use the same resource to measure poverty. If we chose an arbitrary
income level to represent poverty, say, $20,000, we find that 173 of the 229
countries ( 76 percent of them) have populations living below the poverty
level. Of course, merely dividing the GDP by the population is crude at best;
it doesn’t even attempt to find the difference between the wealthiest and the
poorest in each country. Yet it does illustrate where we stand in terms of
worldwide income distribution.
Does this mean we should feel guilty about indulging in something like
satellite radio? No more than we should feel guilty about listening to a regular
ground-based radio. On the contrary, we should enjoy what we have, knowing
that as technologies progress, competition drives costs down, and these things
become accessible to more people.
What does this mean for metal fabricators? Even if we aren’t involved
directly in making parts for satellites, communication systems, or other types
of electronic equipment, we shouldn’t forget how fortunate we are.
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The FABRICATOR | An FMA Publication
www.thefabricator.com | March 2007