The Soviets Want to Link Up


News that the Soviet Union is considering joining the International Telecommunications Satellite group reflects that country's desire for tangible links with the entrepreneurial West. During a meeting last month of the Intelsat board of governors, its director, Dean Burch, said Intelsat has met several times with Soviet representatives and was awaiting an official Soviet request to join.

Observers speculate that the Soviets might even like to merge their Intersputnik satellite system with Intelsat, but that would take complicated negotiations. There are technical as well as financial roadblocks to be hurdled. As members of the International Telecommunications Union, however, the Soviets could join Intelsat immediately.

The Soviets want to join Intelsat because their domestic phones cannot handle international traffic. To attract the kind of foreign investment they want, the Soviets must offer improved communications. Intelsat could provide a quick fix, installing Earth stations in Moscow and other cities.

This step would allow Soviet citizens and foreign entrepreneurs to connect more easily with phone systems in the West and Pacific Rim, further weakening government control of information. This would help cement domestic reforms and make it easier to do business there.

There remain a few problems before such an integration can go smoothly, however. Procedural issues are easily settled. Questions from Western corporations, on how to pay for a new communications infrastructure to handle the increased traffic to be expected, are not so easy to solve.

Dealing with questions of equity interest, stable customer bases in rapidly changing economic conditions and pricing will require adroit diplomacy and a good understanding of Soviet conditions. Opportunities are there, but so are pitfalls.

Still, linking up will be a solid step. Free communications cannot exist over choked channels.

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