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The Great Mauritian Satellite Dish Revolt

Peter Timko
Matt Morgantini
May 30, 20238:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

The Republic of Mauritius is among the more geographically isolated countries in the world.

Finding it on a globe can be difficult if you don’t know where to look—but there it is, one small island and a smattering of even smaller islets scattered some 1000 kilometers east of Madagascar. Given its far-flung location, tropical climate, and picturesque beaches, the country is often seen by outsiders as a vacation destination, a place to go and get away from it all.

A nation of barely one million people, it’s not exactly ranked among the world’s foremost space powers. But it is slowly finding a role in the space ecosystem. In fact, life on the island is increasingly intertwined with activity in orbit. Recently, new space companies are becoming more active on the island, but as I found on a recent research trip, in the past, connecting with orbit was a do-it-yourself operation.

While most come to Mauritius to enjoy its sandy shores and locally distilled molasses rum, I came as a space anthropologist with the ARIES project, an ethnographic initiative tasked to understand the many ways people interact with space. My primary goal was to explore how this remote archipelago is increasingly crucial to the world’s growing network of satellite infrastructure. The country is currently becoming something of a satellite hub because as it turns out, a remote island is an ideal location for satellite ground stations. 

It’s all about location. When satellites capture data from orbit — for example, a gorgeous aerial photo — that data must be transmitted back down to Earth. However, LEO sats can only downlink data for the brief moments they pass over a receiving station below.  Thus, to ensure constant connectivity, it’s necessary to have stations all over the world, including in the middle of the Indian Ocean. As a result, companies are keen to outfit Mauritius with ground station infrastructure. There's already one commercial station on the island’s southern coast and another is being built toward the north. Many are optimistic that space tech will become an economic engine for the island's future.

Island Life

Even before this recent space boom, satellite communication was part of daily life in Mauritius, especially for accessing television. As in many places, satellite dishes and antennae are a common sight everywhere on the island. Driving around the island’s winding roads, you can’t miss it — they sit atop the shimmering towers of Cyber City, the country’s new-build urban development, and hang from the windows and balconies of Flic en Flac, a sleepy community on the western coast. Flip on the tube in any given pub and you may catch a cricket match in Australia or a news broadcast from India, South Africa, or France. Now, this type of connectivity is taken for granted. In fact, it almost seems quaint given the ubiquity of reliable high-speed internet.

However, back before the island was blanketed with broadband, satellite TV was the window to the wider world. Yet, it wasn’t always accessible. Just a generation earlier, most people living on the island couldn’t access it at all.

This brings us to Jaques Gentil, a retired airline mechanic and the current secretary of the Aeronautical Society of Mauritius. I first contacted him as part of my research into Mauritius's aerospace industry. We met on a sunny morning as he was out buying assorted computer parts to repair a rig destroyed in a recent cyclone. Gentil, a mustachioed man in his 60s, is a consummate tinkerer with a knack for DIY projects. As we talk, he describes the many technical ventures he’s set up including a small solar power network, an automated hydroponic system, and a homebrewed satellite telemetry and weather station he runs out of his house in Quatre Bonne. His enthusiasm for building and experimenting is contagious, though he’s so modest he almost glosses over one of his most impressive accomplishments:

Back in the early 90s, before the new space era, Gentil ducked government regulations to build the country’s first private satellite dishes. 

Understanding why setting up a satellite dish had to be a controversial, DIY affair requires knowing a bit of the country’s unique history. The republic's main island, conveniently named Mauritius, is just over 2000 square kilometers, or roughly three times the size of New York City. A tiny blip amid the vast Indian Ocean, it wasn’t discovered until Arab traders spotted it around 1000 A.D. The Dutch tried to set up shop in the 16th century but only stuck around long enough to eat the entire native population of Dodo birds. For the next few centuries, it was used as an imperial outpost, first by the French, then the British, who brought enslaved Africans and indentured Indian laborers to work the sugarcane plantations.

By the time Mauritius finally won independence in 1968, it was home to a very diverse population, a multiethnic mix of Muslim, Hindu, and Christian communities with ties to countries all over the world. 

During these first decades of independence, the country remained fairly removed from outside media. Up until the 90s, the government maintained tight controls on foreign broadcasts, only allowing access to television from the state-affiliated Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). According to Leslie Alexander, a former US ambassador to the island, this restriction was meant to foster some form of unity among the diverse population, which had previously experienced internal tensions. In interviews, Alexander recalls an illustrative incident: In 1993, he placed a satellite dish on the embassy roof, which attracted a visit from the deputy prime minister. The politician wasn’t thrilled—he explained that the government was wary that outside broadcasts might stoke factionalism, “[Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth] is afraid that if people start putting up satellite dishes they’re going to start looking at TV from India and from Pakistan and this is going to get them all riled up and they’re going to go out [and riot].” 

A few months later, a Mauritian man tried to import a satellite dish of his own. The state, ever cautious, intercepted it at the port. Suddenly, the issue of TV censorship was front-page news, which caught the attention of Gentil. He found the restriction ridiculous—after all, the satellites were up there broadcasting, why shouldn’t Mauritians be able to listen? “It’s crazy! I don’t see why they did this. I think the thinking at the time is that you need to tell the population only what you want to tell them.” Still, in his view, there was a loophole. The government was making it illegal to import a satellite dish, however, they hadn’t said anything about building your own. Reflecting on this little bit of legal hairsplitting, Gentil laughs, “I love a challenge. This was an opportunity for me to do something... to show them:

“You think it cannot be done? Well I’ll do it!”

Building the dish turned out to be easy enough for an experienced technician like Gentil. At work, he had just replaced some paneling on an old 747, so he repurposed the discarded metal with some chicken wire to create a 3.7m parabolic cone. Next, he outfitted the dish with some cabling and a simple signal-retrieving system and placed the whole contraption on the roof of his family’s home. After a few adjustments, it worked. Images appeared, fuzzy at first, then clearer. There was TV5 from France, M-Net from South Africa, and news broadcasts straight from Moscow, Beijing, and Lisbon. Just like that, the Gentil household had tapped into signals from above and connected to the world at large.

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A massive metal dish isn’t exactly inconspicuous, “Everybody knew about it,” says Gentil, “In fact, my parents used to tell me, you know, one day they're going to come and arrest you!” The national press even reported on the technological provocation. Gentil was covered as something of a folk hero; Le Mauricien described him as an “ingenious citizen” and claimed his homemade dish spoke to “a desire that is very present in the Mauritian collective unconscious… to escape the control of the State.” As word got out, others followed his lead and built dishes of their own, Gentil and friends built a few others in the neighborhood, “Once we knew how to do it, it was easy to replicate. You know, it was really about getting such an idea at all. It was just something that nobody would have dreamed about before because it was a big no-no.”

With public pressure mounting around the issue, and the established laws clearly being flouted, the government eventually dropped many of the restrictions keeping people from foreign broadcasts. By the end of the decade, dishes dotted the rooftops of Mauritian homes all across the island. Even so, the government has not completely relaxed its tightly wound grip on media freedom—recently, proposed plans to regulate social media through a Digital Ethics Committee have raised the ire of citizens and watchdog groups.

While Gentil’s original dish was destroyed by a cyclone a few years ago, the DIY spirit that moved Gentil to put it up remains unshaken. Skilled amateurs have been instrumental in bringing Mauritius into the new space age. Back in 2019, the Mauritian government launched MIRSAT-1, the nation's first satellite. As part of the process, the Mauritian Research and Innovation Council relied on the expertise of dedicated enthusiasts. Volunteers from the Mauritian Amateur Radio Society (MARS) were crucial for both installing and calibrating communications antennas for the project. They even helped dozens of schools build antennas of their own to contact MIRSAT-1 as it orbited above. With a little bit of ingenuity,  signals from space are never so far away.

Peter Timko
Matt Morgantini
May 30, 20238:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)