Intelsat was a turning point in world communications. It broke the mold of incremental network expansion by offering a means of connecting any two points on earth in ways that supplied services directly or by linking into ground networks. Its satellites released the global system from its primary reliance on earthbound wire technology.
In the process, satellites changed the content and direction of American digital diplomacy. For the first time, it dealt with a communications policy issue that had to be negotiated on a global scale. Satellites do not recognize national boundaries. Their terrestrial footprints, to use the engineer’s term, cover regions and continents. The barriers to a universal system were, in fact, no longer technical. Instead they involved political and economic obstacles that hampered effective use of a powerful new force in human communications.
As we have seen, the United States was strongly positioned technologically and economically to build a space comsat network. It also had the national will to undertake the enterprise and to see it through to completion. Cold war considerations played a critical role in this decision. Even before the first Telstar satellite was launched, Washington policymakers feared that the USSR would be the first to build a similar network using its own technology. Such a turn of events would have been a major political as well as psychological triumph for the Soviet government, equal to if not greater than its 1957 Sputnik success. 1
This did not happen. Moscow’s formidable space program never caught up with the American effort in comsat technology. The Intelsat network was up and running for almost a decade before Soviet engineers launched a geostationary satellite capable of providing international