Out Of This World

Out Of This World

In late 1999, Noah Samara, CEO of Silver Spring, Maryland-based WorldSpace Inc., was driving along Lake Langano in southern Ethiopia when he heard a broadcast of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Although the song is a classic, the broadcast signal received near the lake marked a critical milestone for Samara.

It was at that time that the Georgetown University-trained lawyer saw his ideas realized. Samara had spent the previous nine years raising more than $1 billion to help create the technological architecture that would spawn the satellite radio industry, enabling people to listen to music or their favorite talk radio globally. It was a wonderful world, indeed.

“The idea was to deliver information and entertainment to a global audience,” explains Samara, 50. “From 36,000 kilometers above the equator, a satellite can practically see a third of the planet. Radio came into the picture because of the aspect of delivering content in a fundamentally mobile and ubiquitous way” he says.

Recent industry figures show that over the past two years, the satellite radio industry has generated more than $6 billion in the North American market alone. But when Samara started out, the concept was like creating a high-performance car where there were no drivers who could maneuver it-and no highways on which to drive it. This was before XM and before Sirius, in fact, WorldSpace was a principal founding investor in XM; the company sold its interest in XM in 1999, though XM still licenses some WorldSpace technology.

“We went about convincing the governments of the world to agree on a uniform set of frequencies so that we could cover multiple countries with a single satellite,” says Samara. Today, WorldSpace’s footprint covers approximately 83% of the world’s population.

WorldSpace went through a six-week deliberation process, getting approximately 127 countries to agree to find and allocate a frequency that would enable the company’s satellite service to reach listeners. With frequencies in place, WorldSpace hopscotched between the regulatory communications, built alliances with radio manufacturers, and acquired and created content.

By the time the first satellite, AfriStar, was commissioned for service, WorldSpace had engineered a complex road of uplink and delivery strategies to fit the anatomy of the satellite broadcast vehicle in the sky and on the ground. AfriStar covered the Middle East, Africa, and Western Europe. WorldSpace followed up with AsiaStar, enabling the company to cover roughly 130 countries outside of North America with its signal capability.

“When we launched, we had a three-tier service. During those years we sold north of 300,000 units,” says Samara. “Since then, we have switched to a subscription-based business model. The subscription fee is unique to the economic environment for media in that country.” In India, for example, where WorldSpace has roughly 170,000 subscribers, the fee is about $4 per month (U.S.); a six-month fee in South Africa costs just under $70 (U.S.).

In 2006, the company, which trades on Nasdaq under the symbol WRSP, posted $15.6 million in revenues. WorldSpace has also announced an alliance with automaker Fiat to enter the Italian