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Issue 8: Historical Overview - Planning and Development of PALAPA

Planning and Development of Indonesia's Domestic Communications Satellite System PALAPA*

Marwah Daud Ibrahim

*This paper is taken from the author's dissertation written in 1989, entitled The Application of Communications Satellite in Developing Countries: The Case of Indonesia.

Download the full english version of the paper in PDF (148 KB)

The abstract of this paper is available in Bahasa Indonesia

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August 16, 1976 is a memorable day in the communication history of Indonesia. On that thirty-first anniversary of Indonesian independence, the country's PALAPA domestic communication satellite system was inaugurated by President Suharto.

This occasion made Indonesia the first developing country to acquire its own domestic satellite. This article aims to trace back the decision making process that led Indonesia to acquire its domestic satellite system, far ahead of other developing countries, i.e., six years before India, and about a decade before China, Brazil, Mexico, and the Arab countries.

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When the superpowers ventured into space technology-more specifically communication satellite technology-in the early 1960s, people in the developing countries just watched them with admiration:

We could not even dare to dream of it, because the enormous of cost involved. During that time we were still struggling to satisfy our basic needs of life such as adequacy of food, water, housing, electricity and improvement of the basic infrastructure.[1]
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However, only four years after EARLY BIRD was launched in 1965, Indonesia became a satellite user country by erecting an antenna in Jatiluhur. And, only a little over a decade after that the first commercial geostationary satellite was launched, Indonesia became a satellite owner country by acquiring PALAPA in 1976.

Physical and Socio-cultural Condition of Indonesia

Indonesia is the third largest nation in Asia and the biggest archipelago country in the world. It consist of five main islands and about 30 archipelagoes, all totaling 13,667 registered islands and inlets, of which 1,000 are inhabited. These thousands of islands are characterized by dense forests, mountains, rough terrain and swamp.

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Indonesia's five main islands are Sumatra measuring 473,606 square kilometers; Java-Madura, 132,187 square kilometers; Kalimantan which is two-thirds of Borneo with about 539,460 square kilometers; Sulawesi, 189,216 square kilometers; and Irian Jaya which is part of the world's second largest island New Guinea measures 421,981 square kilometers. The estimated area of Indonesia is 5,193,250 square kilometers which consist of water territory of 3,166,163 square kilometers and land areas of 2,027,870 square kilometers.

This total land area of Indonesia is about 50 times the size of the Netherlands. This archipelago nation forms a crossroad between the Pacific and Indian Oceans and a bridge between the Asian and Australia continents. Land boundaries are shared with Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. The greatest distance north-south is 2,210 kilometers and east-west is 5,271 kilometers. Superimposed on a map of the U.S., the map of these islands would include both New York and San Francisco.[2]

Indonesia is among the 10 equatorial countries in the world, which include Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Republic of Congo, Zaire, Gabon, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda. In fact, one-eighth of the equator line of the world goes through Indonesia. Indonesia has three time zones, each with a one-hour time differential. In 1976, administratively Indonesia was divided into 27 provinces, 246 districts or regency, 55 municipalities, 3,539 sub districts, and 66,175 villages.[3]

At the time of the first Palapa, the Indonesian population was over 175 million people, ranked as the fifth most populous country in the world after China, India, the Soviet Union and the United States. Indonesians are very unevenly distributed: Java, which has only about seven percent of the land area is inhabited by about 63 percent of the national population. In terms of natural resources, Indonesia has large deposits of valuable minerals: oil in Sumatra, Irian Jaya and Kalimantan, bauxite and copper in Irian Jaya, nickel in Sulawesi, to mention some. It has also large areas of fertile land as forest as well as large areas of water for fishing.[4]

The Indonesian population consist of over 250 ethnic groups, almost all with their distinct local language or dialect. The main groups are: Achenes, Batak, Sundanese, Javanese, Dayak, Bugenese, Makassarese, Minahasa, Toraja, Ambonese and several Irianese. Fortunately, there is "Bahasa Indonesia," which is used as the lingua franca to make communications possible between different ethnic groups. The majority of Indonesian-or about 70 percent-are rural dwellers.[5]

The early history of Indonesia shows the influence of the world's major religions. Starting in A.D. 100, Indians came and spread Hinduism in Indonesia. The Chinese with Budhism arrived around A.D 140. In the 13th century, Gujarati and Persian merchants propagated Islam religion, and in 1511, the Portuguese came and introduced Christianity. Presently, 88 percent of the country's population is Muslim (making Indonesia the biggest Islamic country in terms of population in the world), followed by Christians with 9 percent, then by Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists and animists.[6]

Functions of Satellites as Perceived by Indonesians Decision Makers

President Suharto valued the application of the telecommunications system in general and the satellite PALAPA in particular as follows:

Through the Domestic Communications Satellite PALAPA, we can make fast, smooth and good quality connections, so that the exchange of news and information from and to distant places can be undertaken easily and in a short period of time. This fast and accurate transfer of information is very important for the efficient running of the government and for economic activities, trade activities, defense and security, as well as other activities that can speed up the development process. No less important is the role of the domestic communications satellite PALAPA in realizing the unity of our nation, which has vast areas and consists of thousands of small and big islands that are connected by hundreds of straits and wide seas. (emphasis added)[7]

State Policy, TAP MPR No.IV/MPR/1973, determined by the People's Consultative Assembly (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat), stated:

The improvement in production of services in the communications and telecommunications sectors will make the flow of goods and people smoother and also has a very important role in strengthening national unity.[8]

From the two statements above one can infer that the role of the telecommunications network in Indonesia can be conveniently divided into two parts: As a means to unite the country, and as an infrastructure to support national development in a broader sense.

For Unification of the Country

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Unification of the country, also known as the concept of archipelago, has long been the main goal of the Indonesian people. On October 28, 1928, before independence, many of Indonesia's youth-originating from different ethnic, language, religious and cultural backgrounds-pledged: having one native country, Indonesia; belonging to one nation, the Indonesian nation; having one language of unity, the Indonesian language.[9]

The concept of Wawasan Nusantara (The Indonesian Archipelagic Outlook) symbolizes Indonesia's aspiration for unity and nationhood, that is, unity in political, socio-cultural, and economic views, and in defense and security.[10] Political unity means that the national territory is a unified whole for its people; that the Indonesian people are a unified nation despite their differences in ethnic, language and religous affiliations; that Pancasila is the one and only state and national philosophical ideology.[11]

Socio-cultural unity means the Indonesian society is one, that Indonesian culture is essentially one; the diversity of culture just reflects its exuberance. Unity in economy means that the natural resources are the collective assets and property of the nation; that economic development should be harmonious and well balanced through out the country.

Unity in defense and security means that any threat to any part of the country is essentially a threat to the whole nation; that all citizens have equal rights and obligations in the national defense.

The decision of naming the Indonesian communications satellite system PALAPA can be seen as an endeavor toward unification. The name was given by President Suharto in July 1975. It was derived from the oath of Gajah Mada-the Prime Minister of the Majapahit Kingdom-proclaimed in 1334 in the ancient Javanese language:

Lamun humus kalah Nusantara, isun amukti PALAPA, lamun humus kalah Gurun, ring Seran, Tanjungpura, ring Haru, ring Pahang, Dompo, Bali, Sunda, Palembang, Tumasik, Samana isun amukti PALAPA. [I will not rest until the archipelago has been united, when Gurun, Seran, Tanjungpura, Haru, Pahang, Dompo, Bali, Sunda, Palembang and Tumasik have been united, then, only then I will rest.][12]

If one takes into consideration the regional, ideological, and religious conflicts Indonesia experienced during the first two decades after independence, the crucial need for an adequate telecommunications network in Indonesia can be understood-not to mention the geographic, demographic and socio-cultural conditions of the country, which are very fragile without an adequate transportation and telecommunications system.

A telecommunications system is viewed as capable of helping the national integration process. This is because it enables people from the northernmost parts of Sumatra to get in touch with those on the easternmost parts of Irian Jaya. In other words, a telecommunications network is seen as an important means in keeping this country's population united, despite its different religions, languages, customs, and levels of economy.[13]

As Infrastructure to Support Development Programs

It is obvious that the Indonesia government saw the role of the telecommunications system as an essential part of the infrastructure to support the Indonesian development process. In fact, the decision to use INTELSAT's satellite was taken at the same time that Indonesia embarked on its first Five Year Development Plan (FYDP) (1968-1972); and the decision to acquire PALAPA was taken at the second FYDP (1973-1979). In the first two FYDPs, the policy makers in Indonesia gave priority to the development of infrastructure, especially in the areas of transportation and telecommunications.[14]

It was viewed that to be able to make development programs successful in Indonesia, it was necessary to develop human resources and all natural resources of the country. This could only be done if all the people and all parts of the country could be reached by direct means of transportation and telecommunications. For this reason, Indonesia devoted a great amount of its development budget improving and developing the country's highways, rural roads, waterways, pioneer seaports, pioneer airports, and telecommunications system.[15]

More specifically, telecommunications services in Indonesia were viewed as an important means in supporting other development programs such as economic, political, socio-cultural, defense and security programs.

Economically, the telecommunications infrastructure is a basic instrument for private and government companies involved in the extractive industries such as mining, timber, and oil. It is very much needed for multinational corporations and banking, trade, and aeronautical activities.[16]

Politically, the telecommunications infrastructure, especially television, is viewed as an essential instrument for democratization and the political process.[17] Telecommunications also can facilitate smoother operations of government administration. The lowest government hierarchy in the most remote area, for instance, can be reached easily and simultaneously, particularly in establishing government national policies.[18] The need for this becomes more pressing realizing the fact that over 70 percent of Indonesians are rural dwellers. A telecommunications system, therefore, enables the central government to reach villages and vice versa.

Socio-culturally, the telecommunications infrastructure, more specifically communications satellite PALAPA, is viewed as a very important instrument to introduce the national language "Bahasa Indonesia" through television. It can also introduce new values and will help other developmental programs, such as rural development, family planning, and public health.[19]

The communications satellite is also seen as very helpful for educational programs. In fact, one of the first proposals for the communication satellite was to support education in Indonesia. President Suharto in his speech announcing the domestic satellite system as a national project clearly stated that: "Besides for telecommunications, the Indonesian domestic satellite will be used for radio and television and for educational television."[20]

Adequate telecommunication services are also needed to support defense and security programs.[21] Telecommunications are viewed as the nerve center of the command because they can help facilitate contact with defense staff even in the remotest areas of the country. So any threat in any part of the country can be known quickly by the highest command in the capital city.[22]

In sum, the telecommunications infrastructure is viewed by Indonesia's policy makers as one of the essential instruments to unite the country and to support all other development programs.

Nevertheless, not all experts and policy makers agreed to the use of the communication satellite for domestic purposes in Indonesia in early 1970s. Some were skeptical about the idea and raised questions concerning the feasibility and economic assumptions of the project,[23] and also the justification for such a huge outlay by a developing country, the capability to cope with a great leap to high technology, and even the moral appropriateness of the decision.[24]

The most protests came from social scientists who worried about "negative potential impact of the technology on society and culture, particularly the potential effects of satellite television on rural populations."[25] Interestingly, some segments within the government, including those in the education and information sectors were reluctant to accept the new technology. Education officials, for instance, compared the cost of the satellite system with that of building thousands of schools and training teachers.[26] Moreover, officials from the Department of Information and Television Republic of Indonesia (TVRI), as well as the Department of Education and Culture (i.e., The Center of Communication Technology for Education and Culture) appeared to be unprepared for educational television.[27]

The initiative to launch a domestic communication system in Indonesia came from the Telecommunication Council,[28] the Directorate General for Posts and Telecommunications and PERUMTEL, the entities that are responsible for providing public telecommunications services in Indonesia. The project was successfully undertaken due to the full support from the President and the Parliament. The decision took place at the time Indonesia needed a nation-wide telecommunications infrastructure to support its national development program, while the existing conventional/terrestrial system was found to be limited.

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