updated 11/28/2006 11:35:00 PM ET 2006-11-29T04:35:00

A new satellite data network will give poorer countries access to essential crop, health, and climate data in real time and at low cost, helping them forecast and prevent natural disasters and health crises.

The project, called GEONETCast, will grant countries around the world access to potentially life-saving data gathered and disseminated by richer nations' expensive satellite systems.

"We are expanding the scope of available data and creating a data highway in the sky," Mike Williams, control centre chief at Europe's weather satellite operator EUMETSAT, told Reuters.

The project combines satellites operated by U.S., EU and China-based organizations to create a global network which can be used to beam data in real time from labs on the ground or instruments in the sky to end-users around the world.

GEONETCast will transmit data about disease, drought, natural disasters, air and water quality, and ocean conditions. To receive the data, users need only a receiver and a licence fee, costing a total of around $1,500.

It is easily available in Europe, Africa and the Americas and will soon be available in Asia. Around 2,000 users already benefit from data sent via the European and Asian satellites and operators expect demand for the extended service to be strong.

The data could be used to predict public health threats or forecast the course of a forest fire in a remote region. It is part of a broader project for a global observation system to help predict tsunamis, hurricanes and other natural disasters.

The network will also carry data from Europe's new polar-orbiting weather satellite which will allow meteorologists to extend the scope of their medium-range forecasts by a half day and better observe storms and hurricanes brewing over the sea.

Until now, some countries have been hamstrung by limited telecommunications but the new system removes such barriers.

"All you need is a satellite dish, a PC and the interface to convert this data into a form you can use," said Philemon Mjwara of South Africa's Department of Science and Technology. "It has the potential to save many, many lives."

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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