Contemporary history of Europe

Technological risks and political challenges: the emergence of Luxembourg’s satellite policy

In the early 1970s, in a bid to diversify its economy – at that time primarily based on a declining steel industry and a still nascent international financial centre –, the Luxembourg government decided to invest in the country’s audiovisual sector and to pursue a policy to develop telecommunications satellites that would be used to broadcast European television programmes.
This ambitious yet risky objective represented a major challenge in five specific areas: in technological terms (choosing to invest in medium-range rather than the more dominant long-range satellites), in political terms (opting for US hardware and technology at the expense of the European leaders in the field, France and Germany), and with regard to culture (favouring the broadcast of programmes in English over those in French and German), management (the satellites were run via a private company with the government as the only shareholder), and standardisation, regulation and competition (especially at pan-European level). The Société Européenne des Satellites (SES) was finally set up in 1985, and Luxembourg’s first satellite for television broadcasts (GDL/ASTRA) was launched in 1987.
Drawing on new sources, this paper looks back at the emergence of the GDL/ASTRA project from a historical perspective, highlighting the main political, financial, technological and regulatory hurdles that had to be overcome, the influence of the project on Luxembourg’s relationship with the USA and with EEC Member States (especially France and Germany but also the UK, which at that time was embarking on the accession process) and its role in the completion of a common market for new media technologies and ultimately in the development of a European audiovisual area. The impact of the policy as a driver for the financial centre (especially the Luxembourg Stock Exchange) and for various niche markets will also be emphasised.

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