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Politics of Radio


Political disputes between developed and less developed nations could harm radio astronomy research at Harvard over the next 20 years.

The General World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) met in Geneva on Monday to draft a treaty regulating the use of air waves.

Local scientists fear the new power of the less developed countries could deprive them of frequencies needed for research.

"The voice of scientific research is likely to be drowned out in favor of political and commercial interests," James M. Moran, professor of the Practice of Astronomy, said yesterday. "We could really suffer tremendously."

William H. Read, a research fellow in the Harvard Program on Information Resources Policy, said this week the less developed nations for the first time control more than two-thirds of the conference's votes. He added, they could overturn the present laissez-faire principles of frequency distribution, which favor developed nations. "What are the incentives not to change the political rules of the game if you are the have-nots?" Read said.

One such new rule, proposed by Ecuador and Columbia, would give nations property rights over orbits above their territory. The less developed nations also desire to block further spectrum expansion by developed nations. This could cause frequency overcrowding in the part of the spectrum used by satellites.

The satellite-frequency overcrowding worries radio astronomers. "You can't get away from a satellite," Moran said. "A satellite can blast a whole hemisphere and block frequencies essential to radio astronomy," he said. The search for signals of extraterrestrial life and the study of newly formed stars are areas particularly vulnerable to such interference, he said.

Bernard F. Burke, MIT professor of Physics, said yesterday that his greatest concern is that WARC might become so entangled in politics that it would produce no treaty at all.

"If there is no treaty, radio astronomers could see their skies filled with all sorts of miscellaneous radio noise," Burke said. New fields such as satellite study of the earth's climate could be crowded off the spectrum by an uncontrolled frequency "free-for-all" if no treaty were reached

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