CAIRO — Amid great fanfare, Egypt has launched Nilesat, its first solo satellite venture.

With a widely publicized lift off on April 28, Egypt has become the first Arab country to own and operate a media satellite, and officials are confident of the economic viability of the $158 million bird, even though the Mideastern skies are already crowded with orbiters showering down Arabic lingo programming onto the limited market.

Transmits May 20

Arabsat, Intelsat and Eutelsat, among others, already cover the region. Nilesat is expected to begin transmitting May 20.

Nilesat’s major competition will be Arabsat, whose footprint covers roughly the same area as the Egyptian bird; namely the Arab world from the Atlantic to the Gulf and extending southwards into parts of sub Saharan Africa.

Observers are openly predicting a full scale price war between the two sat operators as Nilesat tries to drum up the business it needs to pay its way.

Arabsat loaded

At present, Arabsat, which is run by a consortium of Arab countries, carries the lion’s share of Mideast satcasters, some 25 stations in all, including both pay TV and free to air operators.

Just how much of that business Nilesat may be able to lure away from Arabsat remains to be seen, but Amin Bassyouni, board chairman of the Egyptian Satellite Co., contends that the new bird has already snagged several programmers from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Bahrein and Libya.

Besides providing transponder rental space for satcasters covering the Mideast, Nilesat will facilitate expansion of programming by the state run Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU).

The pubcaster is currently the only TV programmer allowed to operate from Egyptian soil.

Nilesat is jointly owned by the ERTU and private investors.