Vietnam blasts into the satellite age
Vietnam blasted into the satellite age on Saturday when a rocket launch from South America propelled its first orbiter into space, allowing it to beam home telecoms data and television signals.
From a command centre set amid lush rice fields outside the capital Hanoi, scientists tracked the Arianespace rocket as it propelled the Vinasat-1 on its path to hover 36,000 kilometres (22,000 miles) above the equator.
"This project is politically, economically and socially important," said Prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung, soon after the launch, noting that it would help to "raise Vietnam's image on the international stage."
The blast-off may only have been a small step for the European space agency in French Guiana, but it represents one great leap for communist Vietnam, a developing country with patchy phone coverage that only introduced the Internet a decade ago.
War-shattered and largely isolated until the early 1990s, Vietnam has seen a decade of rapid economic growth and is now racing to build the infrastructure to match the rising expectations of investors and its 86 million people.
The satellite project, worth around 300 million dollars, "puts Vietnam on the map of the world for using satellite communications," said a visibly proud Deputy Information and Communications Minister Tran Duc Lai.
"Demand for communications is now booming. Ten years ago we had only fixed telephones. Then we introduced mobiles. Since 1997 we started to introduce the Internet," he said.
"Now there is very high demand. We have around 23 percent of people who can access the Internet. By 2010 the target is to reach 40 percent."
The nerve centre of the satellite project is a walled compound packed with computers and a 13-metre-wide satellite dish on Hanoi's western urban outskirts in Ha Tay province -- an area where the old Vietnam meets the new.
In the shadow of the command and control centre, where technicians' eyes are peeled on flatbed monitors, farmers use buffalo to plow rice fields, and wood carvers make religious artifacts in nearby Son Dong village.
Yet only a few minutes drive away begins the urban sprawl of the capital, with construction crews and bulldozers forging a six-lane highway, lined with industrial plants, through centuries-old rice paddies.
Vinasat, a satellite made by US company Lockheed Martin, will seek to close the communication -- and economic - gap between urban Vietnam and the other 70 percent of the population who live in the countryside, said Lai.
"The geography of Vietnam is very complicated (with) a lot of remote areas, a lot of high mountains, a lot of islands," he said. "A satellite can provide all kinds of services -- telecom, Internet, radio and TV broadcasting -- to every corner of the country."
Vietnam's phone coverage has grown from one percent in 1995 to 57 percent of the population, with the largest gaps in the most remote areas, said Lam Hoang Vinh, vice president of the Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications (VNPT) Group.
"Thirty percent of people still don't receive television," he said. "With the satellite, people in mountainous and remote areas can now have the same facilities as people in urban areas."
Vinasat, with a capacity equivalent to 120 television channels, could also bring long-distance learning and tele-medicine to the most isolated regions, said Jim Gribbon, Lockheed Martin's vice president for Southeast Asia.
Vietnam got its first taste of satellite transmissions when a Russian Sputnik beamed in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and it has so far been forced to lease satellite capacity from other countries.
With Vinasat now orbiting high above the Indonesia-Papua New Guinea border -- casting a "footprint" that spans parts of Japan, Australia and Myanmar -- Vietnam hopes to sell excess capacity to its neighbours.
"Other countries, like Thailand and Singapore, have already contacted us," said Vinh of VNPT.