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Friday, April 16, 1999 Published at 04:36 GMT 05:36 UK


Sci/Tech

Hams jam space spam

Swatch tried to justify the mission on its Website

By Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall

The Swiss watchmaker Swatch appears to have abandoned a satellite launch which had been criticised as the first incidence of space piracy.


Internet Correspondent Chris Nuttall: Swatch was to have broadcast messages of hope into space
Amateur radio and Internet enthusiasts had accused Swatch of taking over frequencies reserved for ham radio in planning to launch a satellite from the Mir space station later on Friday.

Swatch was to have broadcast messages promoting its new concept of worldwide Internet time.

Swatch switches to cyberspace

In a somewhat cryptic message posted on its Website at midnight (@000 Internet time), the company said: "Swatch has decided to assist the Spaceflight Control Centre and donate the batteries supporting the beatnik satellite to the Mir cosmonauts, thus cancelling the possibility of any radio transmission from space.

"However, in order to spread your messages, we have decided to launch in a few days a virtual beatnik that will carry your messages around cyberspace."

Mini-Sputnik was major radio turn-off

The mini-sputnik satellite being launched literally by hand from Mir had become a major bone of contention back on earth and in cyberspace. Internet campaigner Bruce Perens said it would be sending out junk mail from space.

"The satellite transmits in the most popular of the ham radio bands, where commercial messages of this kind are prohibited by international treaty," he said, in a message on his Website.

"If Swatch's plans proceed, hams will hear the Swatch advertisements on their two-way frequency of 145.815 MHz, as a sort of 'radio spam'."

Internet time starts at Swatch HQ

Swatch had struck a deal with the Russian Space Flight Control Centre to carry its messages into space unbeknown to amateur satellite organisations in France and Russia who built the football-sized device, renamed Beatnik by Swatch.

The name combined Sputnik with Beat, the name given to the new Internet time conceived by Swatch. This divides the day into a thousand beats, so noon becomes @500.

The fact that the meridian for Internet time runs through Swatch's Swiss headquarters rather then Greenwich in London, the basis for the widely-accepted Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and Universal Time (Co-Ordinated) (UTC) has laid the company open to accusations that its motives are purely commerical.

'Messages of peace'

Earlier, the Swatch Website had justified the mission saying it was scattering messages of hope, peace and brotherhood solicited on the site. It said the messages were not advertising and did not contain the Swatch brand name.

But a Swatch boycott campaign was organised and e-mails sent to the Website became increasingly critical of the mission. Even after its apparent abandonment, the complaints continued.

"No word of excuse from Swatch, this is a shame!! Do they still not understand why everyone was so angry and why their plans were totally illegal and against international law??" said one.

Amateurs' fate unclear

The satellite was capable of receiving and sending voice messages and HTML text, with its batteries due to last thirty days after it was passed out by hand into space by cosmonauts.

The satellite was supposed to allow amateurs to practise tracking objects in space, in preparation for tracking the International Space Station. It was not immediately clear whether its original purpose could still be fulfilled.

Swatch's Beat watches, which tell Internet time, can be bought online for 100 Swiss Francs and are due to go on sale in the UK later this month (@750April?)



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