Símón Bolívar: One of the most politicized satellites in orbit celebrates its 4th anniversary

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

This week marked the fourth anniversary of Venezuela's first satellite VENESAT-1 - affectionately known as the Simón Bolívar satellite after the country's independence hero  - which was launched in China on October 29, 2008.

Since the Simón Bolívar satellite was launched with the "aim of guaranteeing the democratization, independence and technological sovereignty of telecommunications services," Venezuela has launched a second satellite and other "pro-Bolivarian" countries in the region have plans to follow suit. BNamericas looks back at four years of operation of what is surely one of the most politicized satellites in orbit.

The fourth anniversary of the launch of the Símón Bolívar satellite will be marked by celebrations this week in Venezuela, and the launch of the country's second satellite, Miranda, in September was accompanied by a street party more reminiscent of a music festival than a technological event.

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But what makes Venezuela so enthusiastic about satellite communications? The very name - Símón Bolívar - conjures up images of a struggle for national independence. This, of course, is no mere coincidence, and something that the government is very keen to play on in its heavy rhetoric of "technological sovereignty."

The launch of the satellite in 2008 has had tangible consequences for many Venezuelans. Exclusively employed by state-owned telco Cantv, around 6.23mn people have benefitted from access to telecommunications services provided by the Símón Bolívar satellite.

The satellite has also been used to provide connectivity for education, information centers, healthcare, security and defense, and energy, according to a release by Cantv.

The state-owned telco is currently carrying out expansions of its fiber optic network, and the satellite has been a key part of its strategy to provide telecommunications services to areas not covered by fiber optic or mobile networks.

But Venezuela's enthusiasm for satellites does not stop there. In what may be considered political maneuvering, the Miranda satellite was launched just days before presidential elections in which Chávez won a fourth term. This satellite will be focused on territorial information for use in urban agricultural, industrial, transport and security planning.

Having launched its first two satellites in China, the government now expects to establish a manufacturing site for small satellites in Carabobo state in order to design and produce satellites locally.

And the love affair between Venezuela and its satellites seems to be catching on in other "pro-Bolivarian" nations in the region such as Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua, who are looking to follow suit with their own satellite launches.

Like Venezuela, these countries face significant challenges to expand telecommunications services in the shape of national geographies, and in some cases scarce financial resources.

In April 2012, UK satellite equipment supplier Inmarsat's Ecuadorian partner Comsatel - which was founded in 1997 and serves the oil, mining and government sectors - acquired the first license in the country to provide mobile satellite communications.

Bolivia also expects to improve telecommunications services with the launch of its Tupak Katiri satellite - named after the country's indigenous hero - in late 2013 or early 2014.

Meanwhile, Nicaragua is hoping to become the first Central American country to have its own satellite, which it plans to purchase from the China Great Wall Industry Corporation for US$300mn, according to press reports.

Venezuela's Simón Bolívar satellite has without a doubt been used as a political tool in the country's "socialist revolution.” But beyond the politics, satellite services have provided many Venezuelans in remote areas with telecommunications services for the first time, an achievement which other "pro-Bolivarian" countries will presumably be hoping to repeat.