TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan launched an experimental communications satellite on Saturday as part of an ambitious space program that could help ensure super high-speed Internet access in remote parts of Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
The H-2A rocket carrying the 2.7 tonne "KIZUNA" (WINDS) communications satellite took off into over the tiny island of Tanegashima, about 1,000 km (620 miles) south of Tokyo, at 5.55 p.m. (0855 GMT).
The launch had been briefly delayed after a ship strayed into restricted waters.
The KIZUNA, equipped with three antennas targeting Japan, Southeast Asia and the Pacific regions, is referred to as the Wideband InterNetworking engineering test and Demonstration Satellite or WINDS.
The geostationary satellite will be used to conduct experiments on large-volume, high-speed data communications on remote mountains and islands with little Internet access.
Japan's scientists say the 52.2 billion yen ($490 million) launch of WINDS will help the country build one of the world's most advanced information and telecommunications networks.
The launch comes 12 years after the project started, due mainly to technical glitches involving launch vehicles.
"The WINDS will help develop a society with no digital divide where everyone can enjoy high-speed communications equally no matter where they live," said an official at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
Space-based Internet access through Japan's domestically built satellite could also be used in various fields including "remote medicine," which allows patients in remote areas to receive sophisticated treatment from doctors in urban cities.
High-speed Internet access would play a key role in ensuring communications between a disaster-stricken area and rescue authorities in the event of major natural disasters such as earthquakes, JAXA officials said.
"The infrastructure on the ground may not withstand a major earthquake, and remote areas may not have any access to optic-fiber networks, one official said.
"In such cases, the satellite will play a great role."
The satellite could also help in communications with other countries, the official said.
"Data can be sent to Asian countries through WINDS faster than most other means," he said.
But some experts cast doubt on the usefulness of the project.
"About 95 percent of households in Japan are capable of having broadband Internet access. So, why now?," a communications expert told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Saturday's satellite launch is part of a bold space program, which sent the nation's first lunar probe into orbit around the moon last September.
Keen to compete with its Asian rivals, China and India, in space exploration projects, the Japanese space agency has said it hopes to send astronauts to the moon by 2025, although Japan has not yet attempted manned space flight.
Japan's space program was in tatters in the late 1990s after two unsuccessful launches of a previous rocket, the H-2.
Disaster followed in 2003 when Japan had to destroy an H-2A rocket carrying two spy satellites minutes after launch as it veered off course.
(Additional reporting by Edwina Gibbs; Editing by Jerry Norton)