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1986–2016: 30 Events that Shaped the Last 30 Years in Satellite

After having examined the archives and done an extensive reader survey, these are our final choices for the key 30 events between 1986 and 2016 in the satellite industry.

Via Satellite turned 30 years old this year; to celebrate, we decided to give ourselves the task of listing what we think are the key 30 events to impact our industry over the last three decades. Obviously, it is not an easy process and there were many different events considered. But, having examined the archives, and done an extensive user survey, these are our final choices for the key 30 events between 1986 and 2016 in the satellite industry.


Thirty years ago, space was front-page news across the world and people in homes all over the globe would marvel at Space Shuttle launches — they were momentous news events. However, on January 28, 1986, tragedy struck when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight leading to the deaths of all members of the crew. The STS-51L crew of Challenger included the first Teacher-in-Space participant, Christa McAuliffe, a Concord, New Hampshire, high school instructor. Also on board were Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka and Ron McNair, along with payload specialist Greg Jarvis, an engineer with the Hughes Aircraft Company.

The crew of Space Shuttle mission STS-51-L pose for their official portrait on November 15, 1985. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.NASA Human Space Flight

It was a tragedy that sent shockwaves not only across the space community, but also around the world. It showed that, while space is exciting and glamorous, there are risks involved. Even 30 years later, those who were around can remember where they were when they heard the news. This year, NASA held a ceremony on January 28, 30 years after the tragedy to commemorate those lives lost in space.


Via Satellite launched in 1986 and it has since seen and reported on many of the changes that have impacted the industry down the years. In terms of the how the magazine got its name, Bucky Marshall, the then publisher of Via Satellite, recalls an unlikely person to thank.

“We came up with the name Via Satellite because my brother-in-law would tease me by saying ‘via satellite, via satellite’ whenever a transmission came on the television with that icon in the corner of the screen. The actual title was a closely guarded secret when I was soliciting investors; we marketed the magazine under my company’s name of Satellite Broadcasting. One of the more interesting moments in that process was when one of the potential investors, a cable television magazine publisher said out of the blue that he had always wanted to publish a magazine under the name Via Satellite. He declined to invest, but his suggestion confirmed that it was the best name,” Marshall says.

Via Satellite's first issue in 1986

It took two years of effort (1984-1986) to put the plan together and get the first issue published. “We were boosted by an arrangement with Channel Guide, a [Television Receive-Only] TVRO industry guide to the programming available on the multitude of C-band satellites at the time,” says Marshall. “Lloyd Covens, Channel Guide’s publisher, allowed us space in his offices and the use of his personnel to get the first issue published. Via Satellite would not have been born without Lloyd’s tremendous support.”

It was shortly after the first issue came out that Marshall was contacted by Phil Cook of Phillips Magazines, Inc., the fledgling magazine publishing branch of Phillips Publishing Inc. (PPI). “Shortly thereafter, we consummated an agreement and the second issue of the magazine was published through their offices in Mission Viejo, California. It was a perfect match as they allowed us access to all of the resources of their newsletter publishing business in Washington, D.C., including the editorial staff of Satellite News,” he says.

Marshall admits his most chilling memory of those early years was learning of the Challenger shuttle disaster the day they had signed the deal with PPI. “Once we were with PPI, we embarked on a bimonthly schedule and after a few issues we were able to publish monthly and the rest as they say is (30 years of) history,” said Marshall.


Arianespace has been a European satellite success story for many decades. But, even in its illustrious history, the launch of the first Ariane 4 was a major event. Jean-Michel Desobeau, who at the time was the payload preparation facilities manager at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana for Arianespace, was there at the successful launch. Currently, Desobeau is the quality deputy vice president at Arianespace.

Launch of the first Ariane 4 rocket.

Desobeau highlights some of the significant elements of this initial Ariane 4 launch. “For the first Ariane 4 launch on 15 June 1988, this was the first launcher of a new family, and it contained many technical novelties. For example, it had digital avionics with dual inertial guidance units, use of carbon fiber for some structures, new fairing, new liquid strap-on boosters, etc., and upgrades [such as] enlarged first-stage tanks, more powerful solid propellant strap-on boosters, etc. This new Ariane 4 family could then allow a significantly larger and heavier pair of spacecraft being carried to orbit,” he says.

Looking back at events in 1998, Desobeau says that, in order to prepare the first Ariane 4 launch and make it seem as a really good option to the space community, Arianespace prepared a very complex payload comprising of the European weather forecast satellite Meteosat-P2 for Eumetsat, PanAmSat 1, and the ham-radio AMSAT Phase 3-C (having become Oscar 13 on orbit) built by the German AMSAT-DL group.

This 3,500 kg payload was one and half times heavier than anything Arianespace had flown on the previous Ariane 1, 2 and 3 versions and also the most complex with three independent spacecraft on board. It would prove to be a critical launch that would lead to a successful future.

“This new Ariane 4 family opened the door to launching more diverse, heavier spacecraft to be delivered on orbit with a much larger pairing flexibility. At the end of the Ariane 4 program, 116 vehicles flew in the six versions and delivered 187 spacecraft (including 27 auxiliary ones) to the benefit of more than 50 European and international space operators,” adds Desobeau.


Of course one of the satellites launched on the Ariane 4 was PanAmSat 1, which also stands alone as a significant event in the satellite industry. Fred Landman, former CEO and president of PanAmSat, admits looking back at events in the 1980s and saying that everyone at the time thought PanAmSat’s chances of making it was “a million to one shot.”

PanAmSat spent the first few years trying to get a country to coordinate with it. “You could not go to the telecoms entities because they had signed an Intelsat resolution to boycott PanAmSat. So, you had to go to the government, and the governments generally were all part of this system. The Founder and Chairman of PanAmSat, Rene Anselmo, finally prevailed in Peru,” says Landman. “He met the Peruvian president and finally convinced him that competition would be a good thing and would help Peru. That is how we started.”

PanAmSat ended up signing a launch deal for the “bargain basement” price of $8 million with Arianespace to launch its satellite. Even building the satellite created some unique challenges.

“We went to RCA which had never built a satellite for Intelsat and we were able to buy parts that were assembled for a spare satellite if there was a launch failure. We bought these spare parts from RCA; we made a series of payments worth around $60 million. We had this joke, the bagman from RCA would come around every few weeks asking for another $5 million in progress payments. It was very piecemeal,” Landman says.

Even getting to French Guiana for the launch back in those days was no easy feat. “We had to stop six times including in Trinidad and Port of Prince, but eventually we got there,” he says.

The real beauty of the story of PanAmSat is that one failed launch would have ended it before it began. “Everything was riding on this launch for us. Because of the Space Shuttle blowing up and this being an experimental launch, insurance premiums went through the roof,” Landman adds. “I remember sitting down before the launch with Anselmo and our insurance broker. We figured if we got $25 million in insurance, at least we would have something. He called it ‘peanut butter’ money as he would have enough money to get by if the launch failed. If the launch had been a failure, we would have closed up shop and gone home. We couldn’t get any financing from banks; this was done out of Rene’s personal checkbook.”

Landman is proud of what PanAmSat was able to achieve. “It took someone with a really long view and absolute determination to do this. There were so many barriers. People thought we were crazy and thought we would never succeed. It was $100 million to get something off the ground. In those days, it was a huge amount of money and a big risk. Most people were not willing to take that risk, given the international climate for competition in satellite communications,” he says. “The biggest mistake Intelsat made was they said PanAmSat would never succeed, but we did. That was all that Rene needed. There was no giving up then [once Intelsat had said that],” recalls Landman.


One of the biggest news stories of the 1980s was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which signified the start of a new Germany, a new Europe, and also a new era for satellite communications. PanAmSat was at the sharp end of covering the momentous historical events and providing video coverage of this event. Mike Antonovich, who was Director, Broadcast Services at PanAmSat at the time, recalls some of the events of the day.

People atop the Berlin Wall near the Brandenburg Gate on 9 November 1989Wikimedia Commons

“So Rene Anselmo, PanAmSat’s founder and still my personal hero, is up in Boston on a panel discussing satellite market deregulation with, among others, Peter Bross, was head of Germany’s Posts and Telecommunications department at the time. We were banging our heads against brick walls all over Europe trying to get market access for video services, with little success. We had transmit/receive rights in the UK, and downlink rights to France, but were otherwise shut out. But news comes trickling in that sections of the Berlin Wall had been breached. So Rene reaches over the Dr. Bross and says something like “You have to let the world SEE this!” So, within hours, we have flyaway satellite antennas (for US broadcast network CBS and NHK and Fuji TV of Japan) heading on the first planes out. By the following day, we are doing live shots from flyaways sitting on scaffolding as the real action of taking down the Wall begins.”

“As exciting as being part of one of the 21st Century’s biggest stories, for PanAmSat and the whole private satellite industry, this was a much bigger deal. Flyaway accessing PanAmSat followed the news into Czechoslovakia, Poland and across Eastern Europe. Not only did the Berlin Wall come down, but regulatory barriers all over Europe come down with it,” said Antonovich.

The barriers to broadcast major news stories across Europe via satellite all came tumbling down one after the other after Berlin Wall, according to Antonovich. “The power of satellite communications to instantly transmit breaking news for broadcasters became very clear and relevant to communications authorities. A lot of the gate-keeping regulatory authorities who had made our lives very difficult folded their cards at that point, as it was clear they could not hold us back. It was an incredibly important time in breaking down the barriers that had made private satellite systems difficult or impossible to do business with,” he adds. In Prague, Antonovich says CBS, which had been covering events via satellite, was wheeling their flyaway onto the balcony for live shots then rolling it back in, suddenly got a knock on the door at the hotel where they were staying. “It was the Communications Ministry in Czecoslovakia who marched them down the street and bought them into an office and everyone thinks they are going to go to jail. Turns out they are told to fill in a form for a license which up until then had been impossible to get. It was the start of liberalizing free and easy telecommunications across Europe. And the rest of the World followed."


There is little doubt one of the great innovations of television over the last decade has been the move from Standard Definition (SD) to High Definition (HD). In fact, it was one of the biggest changes we have seen in terms of improving overall picture quality. While the roots of HD can be traced even further back than 1993, this was a key year for HD in the United States. According to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) archives, in February 1993, an advisory committee set up a few years earlier reported that a digital HDTV system was achievable, but that all four competing digital systems then under consideration would benefit significantly from further development and none would be recommended over the others at that time. In May that year, seven companies and nine institutions that had been proponents of the four tested digital Advanced Television (ATV) systems joined together in a “grand alliance” to develop a final digital ATV system for the standard. Over the next two and a half years, that system was developed, extensively tested, and is documented in the Advanced Television Systems Committee Digital Television (ATSC DTV) standard. This, in essence, was the precursor to HD in the United States, a major event for the satellite industry.


The satellite industry is littered with failed launches; unfortunately, it comes with the territory. However, one launch that would have a lasting impact would be the launch failure involving the Intelsat 708 satellite in February 1996. The satellite would be launched via a Chinese Long March rocket and would crash shortly after takeoff into a nearby village killing a number of people, although the true figure is widely believed to be still not known.

Image of the failure of the Long March rocket carrying the Intelsat 708 satellite on February 15, 1996Wikimedia Commons

The failed launch also had far reaching effects politically, as the whole issue of protecting sophisticated U.S. technology became a huge issue and ultimately, as a result, satellite and launch vehicle technology became the subject of much stricter regulations ever since.


Back in the 1980s, it might have seemed inconceivable that a Western European satellite could be launched on a Russian rocket. But, in April 1996, a Proton rocket launched an SES satellite into space, heralding not only a new era in the launch market, but also a new era for satellite communications as a truly global industry. Theo Pirard, founder of the Space Information Center Belgium, called the launch of a private satellite for a Western enterprise from a former communist country and by using a “secret” rocket a “historical event” in space transportation.

“To attend it on the mythic cosmodrome of Baikonur, also named ‘the road to the stars,’ was an exciting moment. Just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the joint Russian-American enterprise International Launch Services (ILS) was a really original venture to market the Proton launch vehicle of the 1960s. It found as first customer Luxembourg-based SES, that was not yet a global operator,” says Pirard. “At this time, SES purchased all satellites from the United States — mostly from Hughes and Boeing — and contracted Arianespace for their [Geostationary Transfer Orbit] GTO launches. As a pan-European player for TV broadcasts, it had the bold stroke of opening the business of space access to a potential rival of Ariane.”

First commercial launch of a Proton launch vehicle.ILS

Recalling the actual launch, Pirard said he had to spend the “longest night without sleeping” prior to the launch. Pirard and others were flown to Baikonur for the nighttime launch of Proton with Astra 1F, the sixth satellite of a European constellation for TV broadcasts. “We landed on the Yubelneyi airstrip — designed in the 1980s for the Soviet Buran shuttle — then transported by four buses to a viewing site 5 km away from the Proton launch complex, in the Northern part of Baikonur. I was particularly impressed by the quick lift-off of the Proton launcher. We departed from the launch site just after the injection on first orbit was confirmed,” remembers Pirard.


Like any vertical, the satellite sector is filled with success stories and inevitable failures. Some companies can fall into both categories. No company typifies this more than Iridium, which was one of the most high profile satellite companies to ever enter into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection back in 1999. Bob Kinzie, who now works for his own family generators business and says he “went from space to dirt,” was Iridium’s chairman at the time in 1999 when the company went through bankruptcy. Kinzie said the technology, promise, and usefulness of the Iridium system is brilliant. However, he admits the original business plan to monetize that brilliant system was flawed.

“The possibilities of that technically advanced system led to plans that could not survive in the real world. The system was not capable of handset-to-handset communications. It proved to be a one-way system: the customer could call on the Iridium handset but a customer could not receive unless they had an external antenna,” he says. “Thus, the consumer and business traveler customers did not materialize as envisaged in the business plan; they were enveloped in the explosion of cellular. In the brutal language of Wall Street, the dogs would not eat the dog food. The revenues could not be seen to grow into sustaining the capital structure.”

He admits that, while the system is invaluable to many users and uses where communication is not readily available, the income level to sustain the original capital structure was not there.

“The business plan needed revision; the implementation plan needed to be revamped, investment recast and restructured. There was no runway foreseen for the income to grow into the capital structure. Time was needed to restructure and revamp the plan; but there was no time granted,” he says. “It was not known that the system would last 10-plus years; lifetime had not been correctly analyzed; fuel life, battery life, and the ability of the grid configuration with inter-satellite links to work around a sick bird gave it a lifetime that could have provided time for testing and correction of defects. Pricing could have been radically different. The Darwinian forces of business solved the problem: bankruptcy, and then restructuring led to new owners picking up the pieces with a capital structure that a realistic customer base could sustain.”


At the start of the last millennium, a number of major satellite players such as Eutelsat, Inmarsat and Intelsat embarked on privatization. Giuliano Berretta, the ex-CEO of Eutelsat, admitted that privatization “was his first priority” when elected to lead the company. “The need generate cash after the burst of the bubble accelerated the approval of the privatization process, which happened in Cardiff, Wales in May 1999 with the objective to complete the process by July 2001.

The European Commission gave its clearance to this transformation in November 2000, with the commitment by Eutelsat to conduct an Initial Public Offering (IPO) of at least 30 percent of shares by July 2003. Eutelsat became a private company on July 2, 2001, adopting the typically German model of a directorate and a supervisory board.

Berretta admits telecoms operators’ attitudes toward Eutelsat changed in the wake of the telecoms bubble bursting. “After the internet bubble burst, telecom companies owning shares in Eutelsat rapidly sold their stock. Indeed, Lehman Brothers visited me straight away and said they were going to buy the shares of Telecom Italia. Lehman would prove to be a good shareholder. The worst came when our three major telecom shareholders (France Telecom, British Telecom, and Deutsche Telekom) advised me of their intention to sell Eutelsat to our direct competitor, Intelsat,” he adds.

It was clearly an interesting time to be leading Eutelsat during this period. “The payment of Intelsat was proposed to be partially with shares of Intelsat itself, therefore I asked and obtained a ‘due diligence’ of Intelsat, that revealed that Intelsat was much less efficient than Eutelsat. This discovery dampened board member spirits on selling Eutelsat. The separate sales of shares from Deutsche Telekom — approved on December 2002 — gave the coup de grace to this idea. In this way the party supporting the sales of Eutelsat lost the absolute majority and the board decided not to sell the company anymore. It was a wise decision!” Berretta remembers.


The satellite industry is always looking to reinvent itself and find new markets. At the start of the last millennium, the hot new market for satellite was satellite radio, and players such as XM Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio (which have since merged) created quite a stir. Hugh Panero, the ex-CEO of XM Radio admitted that the timing of satellite radio going to market was just right, and may not have succeeded if the two companies had gone to market at a different time. Reflecting on it, Panero believes that if either of the satellite radio companies had started six months earlier or six months later, they both probably would not have got off the ground.

“Luckily, we both began raising money at a time when there were very large satellite projects out there like Globalstar and Iridium and investors understood the capital needed for these kinds of large satellite projects. If those companies had failed earlier (which they eventually did), the market may well have been less optimistic about investing in satellite radio,” he says.

After getting General Motors on board, XM Radio also got Honda and Toyota as investors. Sirius got Chrysler and Ford. “This all happened before a big downturn in the auto industry — so we timed it right. Also, when we began developing XM, there was no such thing as an iPod, a device that people initially thought would be a niche product developed by a company called Apple. No one had a clue it would become one of the game changing consumer devices of the century. It grew up alongside satellite radio. If it had come out before XM in a bigger way, there might not have been a satellite radio industry. From concept to reality, there were lots of huge hurdles. If you look back on it, we were really the first of the successful music audio service, which spawned a multitude of internet audio providers like Spotify and others based on our subscription model,” added Panero.

Panero recalls one story during the soft launch phase for XM. The only people that had the first XM car radios were employees or his neighbors who Panero had cajoled into installing a big prototype antenna on their cars. XM then gradually hooked up a few real customers in a few markets including the D.C. area where it was headquartered. Panero remembers one evening driving home and listening to satellite radio for the first time in his car, feeling “thrilled and excited.” As he drove up to a busy intersection close to where he lives, he noticed a car that had an XM antenna on it that he did not recognize. It was not one of his employees’ or one of his neighbors’ cars, so it had to be a real customer. Panero drove up alongside the car, knocked on the window and asked the driver what the antenna was for and he proceeded to tell him all the many virtues of satellite radio. “When he was finished, I told him I was the CEO of XM and I wanted to thank him for being one of the first customers. He got so excited that he hit the gas pedal and accelerated fast into the busy intersection. My first thought was I had just killed our first customer; luckily, he made it through the intersection. When I got home, I told the story to my wife, a seasoned business journalist,” says Panero. “After I was done, she turned to me and said, ‘you know Hugh, if you can personally thank every one of your customers, we are in very big trouble.’ Well, things worked out and today the merged SiriusXM has more than 30 million subscribers but I always think back to that first customer at the intersection.”


The rise of small satellites has been an ongoing theme over the last few years, and a major talking point of events like the SATELLITE Conference & Exhibition. However, while small satellites are now en vogue, there have been some critical milestones over the last 15 years. One of the of the critical events took place in late June 2003, when the Eurockot launch vehicle launched a number of small satellites into orbit, including the Danish AAU CubeSat, a student satellite project at the University of Aalborg, which was initiated in the Summer of 2001.

One of the other satellites launched on the mission was the QuakeSat satellite. QuakeSat had the goal of providing a “proof-of-concept” for collecting Ultra Low Frequency (ULF) earthquake-precursor signals from space. The satellite was a collaboration between the Space Systems Development Laboratory at Stanford University — under the direction of Professor Robert Twiggs — QuakeFinder, and the Research and Development (R&D) division of Stellar Solutions in Palo Alto, California.

Wreck of the structure of the VLS launch pad due to the 2003 Alcântara VLS accidentWikimedia Commons


The industry has had its fair share of tragedies, and we have already highlighted one or two of them here. In 2003, it would suffer another human tragedy when the Brazilian Space Agency’s VL3 rocket exploded on the Launchpad in Alcantara in late August killing 21 technicians who had been working on the launch.

The launch had been considered a vital one for Brazil, as it had ambitions to become a space power in Latin America. The explosion was national news in Brazil and remains another sad chapter in space’s history.


Over the last decade, India has been one of the most, if not the most exciting DTH market anywhere in the world, with operators adding tens of millions subscribers in a very short space of time. The operator that really kickstarted this revolution of satellite TV in India was DishTV in 2003, and remains one of the major players in the market to this day despite some pretty stiff competition.

Jawahar Goel, chairman and managing director of Zee Television, said there were a number of challenges when starting the business, and likened it to “trekking through a jungle, where the leader clears and makes the path for others.” He said that initially there were no guidelines of giving content to DTH operators so some broadcasters simply declined. “It took us years to have the legal and regulatory framework in place which mandated that channels needed to be given to DTH platforms. The public awareness was low; the concept of a Set Top Box (STB) was new, and its cost high. We had to train and develop the entire chain of distributors, retailers and field service teams. An all-India payment mechanism with a pre-paid model had to be put in place, and the concept of call centers for TV services introduced — domestic call centers were non-existent,” he says. “Even policy makers in government were not aware what the new technology could do or what impact it would have on the entertainment and social space in India. We had to provide test installations in thousands to train and educate them. We battled issues of taxation at central, local and state levels, entertainment tax, service tax, and other rules, which local bodies would impose.”

Goel believes DishTV was able to demonstrate that DTH could be enabled at a cost suited to India and its customers. “We leveraged the large market size of India to have DTH headends prices aligned to this large base. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the DTH industry in India has changed the face of the DTH and pay TV industry in the rest of the world,” he says.

Goel believes DishTV set the bar in terms of prices of customer equipment, which were acceptable to the masses and the lower middle class. “We set the bar for quality, for customer acquisitions. We set the bar for channel packaging and how much could be charged for a group of channels. We set the bar for how customers could be provided with quality STBs. India is a market where cable TV and DTH are available at starting at $1.5 per month onwards, and would certainly go northwards in the future. All those who followed us in the DTH industry follow our models,” he adds.

Today, the Indian DTH market is a vibrant one where well over 100 transponders have been leased for capacity, making it an incredibly dynamic market for satellite players.


It seems these days you can’t go through a feature for Via Satellite without the term High Throughput Satellites (HTS) being mentioned at least once. However, as much as HTS have pervaded the overall satellite landscape, they have a relatively short history. Canadian satellite operator Telesat launched its Anik F2 satellite back in 2004, making it one of the first to offer commercial consumer Ka-band broadband services. It remains a significant milestone and, while there were other HTS at the time, initiatives like Telesat’s pointed to a different future for satellites. Today, as everyone talks HTS, the importance of these early announcements cannot be underestimated.

Launch of Anik F2Arianespace

Dave Wendling, CTO of Telesat, told Via Satellite that, at the time, Anik F2 was the largest telecommunications satellite ever carried into space. “With its 45 Ka-band spot beams, as well as 32 Ku-band and 24 C-band transponders, it also was the world's most complex communications satellite. Anik F2 opened up an important new market — consumer Ka broadband services — and was a precursor of today’s high throughput satellites that are transforming the industry and which are forecasted to generate billions of dollars in new revenues through the next decade,” he says.

“Telesat was and still is largely a wholesaler of satellite capacity. We had limited capability and experience in serving retail customers directly. As the technical solution evolved, the project team came to believe that our success with the Ka-band portion of the satellite would turn more on our ability to address service distribution and other commercial issues than on solving technical issues,” he added. “In the end, the technical solution that was born with Anik F2 led to new service companies in North America with the focus and determination to build a commercial broadband business.”

In terms of the challenges it faced, Wendling said from a technical standpoint, the complexity of the spacecraft and the fact that consumer ground terminals were still very much in development were major hurdles. He says the biggest question for Telesat at the time was how was the operator actually going to deliver the service to thousands of end users.


It was a $3.2 billion transaction that brought together an astounding 53 geostationary satellites under one name. On Aug. 25, 2005, Intelsat announced a merger that would create the biggest Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) operator in the world.

“One interesting feature of the Intelsat-PanAmSat deal was the way it took the sector’s best analysts by surprise, especially when factoring in the deal that did not happen,” Owen Kurtin, a partner at the law firm Brown Raysman Millstein Felder & Steiner at the time of the merger, wrote in Via Satellite two months after the revealing of the merger. “An Intelsat-New Skies tie-up had been rumored, but nobody seemed to have talked about Intelsat-PanAmSat, except in a context of canvassing every possible permutation of combinations among FSS operators.”

Kurtin wrote that a linkup between Intelsat and PanAmSat, even when pondered, was typically dismissed as unlikely and having limited benefit. The merger instead proved to be anything but. Intelsat gained PanAmSat’s strong video business, folding in a new business line in a way that healthily complemented the operator’s challenged telephony and data services business. PanAmSat went from launching its first satellite in 1988 to becoming one of the biggest players on the global satellite scene, and launched the second in a succession of three Galaxy series satellites for HD television shortly before being bought. The Galaxy 14 satellite, launched 12 days prior to the merger announcement, had 100 percent of it’s capacity leased out before even reaching the Baikonur Cosmodrome. The merger anchored Intelsat’s position in the American video market where PanAmSat was strong, and propelled Intelsat to the position the operator is in today, still owning one of the largest satellite fleets in the world and delivering both broadcast and other telecommunications services on a global basis.



The launch of Thaicom’s Ipstar and Hughes’ Spaceway satellites in 2005 showed the troubled first steps of high throughput systems. By 2011, Ipstar had achieved a fill rate of only 20 percent. Equipped with 94 Ku-band beams, most of them fixed spot beams, the satellite went from innovative to albatross as revenue failed to meet expectations. DirecTV repurposed Spaceway 1 and Spaceway 2 satellites for broadcast services, deferring Hughes’ vision of providing space-based broadband until Spaceway 3 launched in August 2007.

Ipstar did eventually reach a healthier utilization level. Led by CEO Suphajee Suthumpun, formerly of IBM, Thaicom boosted Ipstar’s fill rate above 50 percent by 2013 with customers from all over the Asia Pacific. Two years later at Ipstar’s 10-year anniversary, she would praise the satellite as being a trailblazer for HTS.

“Since the launch of Ipstar, HTS have proven their staying-power with widespread use in a variety of broadband applications and, even after 10 years, they remain more relevant than ever,” Suthumpun said in an Aug. 11, 2015 statement. “With HTS having grown so popular, the satellite market must continue to evolve through the influence of new technology.”

Hughes would eventually gain its HTS prize with the launch of Spaceway 3 on an Ariane 5 Aug. 14, 2007. Desperate not to delay any further, the operator switched the mission to Arianespace from Sea Launch after a Zenit rocket failure halted activity. The Ka-band spacecraft was the first communications satellite to have on-board switching and routing. Spaceway 3 gained its first consumer internet subscriber in April 2008. By June 2009 the Spaceway-supported HughesNet service had approximately 170,000 consumers and Small to Medium Business (SMB) customers. Both Thaicom and Hughes went on to pursue additional HTS systems.


NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program Office (C3PO) created a new framework for working with industry with the COTS contracts, choosing to rely on commercial companies to provide services in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) while the then-active Constellation program pursued further space activities. Rather than taking the agency’s traditional approach of using contractors to create systems that government would own and operate, the COTS arrangement helped cultivate commercial solutions that NASA would then purchase as a customer.

The Dragon Capsule on its way to the ISSSpaceX

The COTS announcement for proposals, released on Jan. 18, 2006 garnered 21 submissions from 20 companies, with ideas ranging from Shuttle-like concepts to Apollo capsule style ideas. NASA ultimately chose two: SpaceX’s Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft, and Rocketplane Kistler’s (RpK) planned reusable K-1 launch system. Through funded Space Act Agreements (SAAs), SpaceX received an award of $278 million, and RpK received $207 million to be paid out incrementally based on negotiated milestones.

In 2007, after receiving $32.1 million, RpK ultimately failed to meet financial and technical milestones, and fell out of the program. NASA terminated the SSA and recompeted a remaining $170 million between 13 proposals from players new and known. Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) won the second round with its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.

COTS proved its mettle in the following years, leading to Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts to the ISS. SpaceX performed the first commercial cargo mission to the ISS in history in May 2012, followed by Orbital Sciences completion of its ISS demonstration mission in the fall of 2013. There were challenges along the way — both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences had launch failures with CRS missions — but the success of the program led to a second CRS contract in January 2016. Incumbents SpaceX and Orbital ATK won CRS-2 contracts, along with Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). The third winner brought back COTS contender Dream Chaser, the project of SpaceDev, which SNC acquired in 2008. COTS proved to be a major contributor to the success of SpaceX, has advanced Orbital ATK’s role as a launch provider, and provided a path to orbit for small satellites through rideshares.


In 2007, Via Satellite named the three biggest champions of the satellite industry’s spectrum feud — Kengi Chen, director of spectrum management and operational planning for Inmarsat; Kalpak Gude, deputy general counsel at Intelsat; and John Lothian, VP of space development at SES — as satellite executives of the year for their efforts.

At the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) 2007 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-07), the satellite industry faced the very real possibility of losing access to C-band spectrum. Both the Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMax) group and the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT) industry wanted the band, with WiMax focused more on the lower portion, 3.4 to 3.6 gigahertz, and IMT gunning for the whole 3.4 to 4.2 range.

It took a collective effort to fend off the powerful and very financially capable terrestrial telecommunications players from obtaining this spectrum. Given the infrastructure already in place, satellite professionals estimated billions of dollars would be lost and millions of users would suffer an irreparable lapse in services. Robert Bednarek, CEO of SES New Skies, in a 2007 Via Satellite interview estimated that more than 160 satellites carried C-band payloads, equating to more than $40 billion in investment capital at stake. Fortunately the satellite industry coordinated an effective resistance, and with the exception of some country-specific footnotes, saved the band.

In his accompanying interview, Gude said he was not confident of a victory “until the last day of the conference.”

“We were very concerned that with the conference chairman being from France and with him already taking a very public pro-IMT position, our position may not win the day despite the support we had. We were very pleased that those fears were unnecessary,” he said.

Chen pointed out that while individual efforts started soon after the WRC-03, the industry did not really star to effectively coordinate efforts until one year prior to WRC-07.

“The magnitude of the challenge led the satellite players to conclude that only a coordinated effort would achieve a successful outcome at the WRC,” he said.

The satellite industry went on to largely replicate this success at WRC-15, losing some, but not all of the C band to IMT users. Back in 2007, Lothian described the conference as a wake up call — a description that proved to be more than accurate of future spectrum battles.

“The message is now loud and clear — we are fighting for spectrum in competition with emerging terrestrial wireless services, both to keep our existing operations intact as well as to grow our own new services,” he said.


Yahsat burst onto the scene in 2007 with the announcement of two massive satellites, along with accompanying ground systems and launch services. As a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company, the then-nascent satellite operator placed the $1.7 billion dual order to anchor its position in the Middle East telecommunications market and help diversify the economy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

After some delay (the satellites were to launch in 2010), Y1A launched in April 2011 on an Ariane 5 rocket, bringing fresh C-, Ku- and Ka-band capacity to a market experts agreed had plenty of demand. Y1B followed in April 2012, launching an all Ka-band platform on an ILS Proton.

Yahsat quickly grew to become one of the most prominent operators serving Africa, having established partnerships across 28 countries. In 2008 the operator signed its first commercial agreement with Emerging Markets Communications (now a part of Global Eagle Entertainment), followed by the UAE Armed Forces, and later forged a joint venture with SES for DTH broadcasting.

“We think the end user market has been underserved, probably not because other operators did not want to target this area, but we believe we have the technology and approach to serve it better,” Jassem Al Zaabi, Yahsat’s former CEO, told Via Satellite in 2008. “It is the time to make it easier and more affordable.”


Greg WylerO3b Networks

In the mid-2000s, Greg Wyler was in Africa trying to determine how to bring people better internet access. He was working with a telco that had built out Fiber-to-the -Home (FTTH) with a 3G network centered principally in Rwanda. The challenge of overcoming infrastructure limitations led to the idea of O3b Networks.

“The in-country bandwidth was fantastic, but the international bandwidth was subject to extremely high latency from the GEO satellites,” Wyler recalled in a Via Satellite interview. “We kept on getting more and more bandwidth over the GEO, but increases in bandwidth didn’t stop the problem. The problem was the latency.”

Wyler landed on bringing satellites closer to the Earth as the solution for this problem, and designed a system that would quickly bring high throughput capacity to telecom headends using Ka-band spectrum. He embarked on creating the Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) system aimed at connecting the “Other 3 Billion,” — the number of people living without internet access at the time of founding. The Great Recession threatened to derail the startup, but the O3b team managed to get the funding necessary to progress.

“I started in 2007, and we should have and would have launched earlier, but then the 2009 financial meltdown happened. That certainly impacted our ability to raise funds, but we kept on going because we had a very solid plan and there was a very solid need. We were very fortunate to have such a great team,” said Wyler.

In November 2010 O3b completed its final funding round, raising $1.2 billion with support from big-name backers including Google, Liberty Global and SES. The first four O3b satellites, built by Thales Alenia Space, launched June 25, 2013 on an Arianespace Soyuz, followed by four more on July 10, 2014 and another four on Dec. 18, 2014. In May 2016 SES raised more than $1 billion to take 100 percent ownership of O3b, which continues to scale in satellites and customers. Wyler’s legacy continues not only in the success of O3b, but in his new company OneWeb, which aims to bring broadband to underserved areas with a constellation of 648 LEO satellites.

“I learned a lot in forming O3b, certainly a lot about building satellites, designing them and about the market needs. They are very different companies, but the formation and the pulling together of partners and capital is similar. Every time you build a company you learn a lot more. The second time around is certainly easier than the first time around, but one is infinitely hard and the other is half as infinitely hard,” joked Wyler.


The first ever collision between two artificial satellites happened Feb. 10, 2009, when Kosmos 2251, a dead Russian military communications satellite, crashed into Iridium’s active commercial communications satellite Iridium 33 approximately 800 kilometers above Siberia. The incident created nearly 2,000 pieces of debris sized at least 10 cm or bigger, and unquantified numbers of smaller bits, according to the Secure World Foundation (SWF). Iridium had no warning that a 900kg Strela-class satellite would crash at a right angle into one of its operational satellites at a speed of almost 10 kilometers per second.

Industry was just in the process of creating an organized practice of sharing maneuver and ephemeris data in the form of the Space Data Association (SDA), having laid the groundwork in 2008, but did not legally establish the SDA in the Isle of Man until June 19, 2009. Inmarsat, Intelsat and SES incorporated the SDA in order to automate, scale and put in place legal protections for the ad hoc sharing of such data that had gone on before the Iridium/Kosmos incident.

Roughly a year later in July 2010, SDA launched the Space Data Center (SDC), an automated Space Situational Awareness (SSA) system in the Isle of Man, built on commercial software from Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI). The SDC opened in September 2011, providing conjunction assessments to prevent future collisions, as well as support for sharing RF data to prevent interference.


SDA has since gained membership from all over the world, and counts the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) among its 31 members and participants. DOD, through the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), also ramped up its SSA capability and interactions with the commercial sector, expanded screenings to cover all of the almost 1,000 active satellites by the end of 2009. SDA has even tracked and assessed asteroids that get uncomfortably close to the planet, designated Near Earth Objects (NEOs), to make sure they pose no threat to spacecraft.

“The Space Data Association is currently contributing to the safety of flight for its members, and the industry in general, warning of close approaches and potential risks. As the environment becomes more congested in the coming years, we are working with partners to ensure that the SDA remains at the forefront of SSA, enabling the industry to operate in the safest possible way and actively taking measures to reduce the risks,” SDA Chairman Mark Rawlins told Via Satellite.

Iridium never joined the SDA, but does, in the spirit of flight safety, provide data on its constellation and planned maneuvers for use in the SDC.


Artist rendition of the Intelsat 22 satellite.Intelsat

The Australian Defense Force (ADF) signed its flagship hosted payload deal with Intelsat in April 2009, agreeing to place a government payload on a commercial satellite in a $167 million contract. In March 2012 the Boeing-built Intelsat 22 satellite launched with the Ultra-High-Frequency (UHF) hosted payload, and Intelsat, after moving the satellite into orbit and completing testing, handed the payload over to the Commonwealth of Australia, which then released the capability for operations.

The hosted payload increased ADF’s UHF satcom capacity by 400 percent, and fit what Australia had identified as an urgent need for the continuation of capacity over the Indian Ocean

“Hosted payloads allow us to leverage commercial satellite industry experience and such approaches offer numerous advantages over the traditional ‘owned and operated’ solutions, including sharing costs and risks,” ADF Maj. Gen. Michael Milford, head of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) operations division, told Via Satellite in 2012.

Milford said the need to have affordable solutions for new and emerging requirements while also facing the realities of a constrained budget environment had a veritable impact on ADF thinking leading up to the hosted payload deal. With the recession bearing down on global economies, governments also found themselves in a budget crunch, and advocates for hosted payloads touted this approach as a means for governments to lower their costs without sacrificing space-based capabilities.

The total program, including an expansion agreed upon in April 2009, cost $269 million. Commercial partners delivered the hosted payload five weeks ahead of schedule and within budget.


After a set of manufacturer delays with Space Systems Loral (SSL) due to a transport incident and a potentially compromised component, ViaSat’s high capacity ViaSat 1 satellite successfully launched aboard an ILS Proton Oct. 19, 2011. In 2013 the satellite entered the Guinness World Records for being the highest capacity communications satellite in history. ViaSat said the satellite had more capacity than all other communication satellites covering North America combined.

ViaSat 1 satelliteSSL

With 140 Gbps of capacity, ViaSat 1 quickly became a major force in satellite broadband, redefining standards for the service, particularly at the consumer level, as well as for aircraft. ViaSat continues to build upon the success of ViaSat 1 in the satellite broadband market with the forthcoming ViaSat 2 and the future global ViaSat 3 system. The company says ViaSat 2 will double the bandwidth economics and throughput of ViaSat 1, while having seven times more coverage. ViaSat 3, projected to begin launching in 2019, will have more capacity than the rest of the world’s satellites together, according to ViaSat Chairman and CEO Mark Dankberg.


Boeing’s four-satellite deal with Asia Broadcast Satellite (ABS) and Satelites Mexicanos (Satmex) in March 2012 is arguably the flashpoint that made the rest of the industry take all-electric propulsion seriously. In the joint procurement, each operator purchased two satellites, announcing ABS 3A and Satmex 7 upfront, with the latter two to be announced at later dates. The deal was also Boeing’s first for the Boeing 702SP satellites. Satmex and ABS revealed that their second satellites would be Satmex 9 and ABS 2A respectively in July 2013.

“When this system was announced, virtually the entire industry made very negative and doubtful remarks. Now many all-electric satellites have been ordered and it would be hard to find one satellite manufacturer today that didn’t provide an all-electric option for orbit raising,” Tom Choi, CEO of ABS, told Via Satellite, adding that the all-electric nature of the satellites reduced the cost by 40 percent compared to equivalent satellite systems.

All-electric satellites ABS-3A and Eutelsat 115 West B stacked for launch.Boeing

“The ground-breaking deal between Satmex and ABS reflected the shared vision of two satellite operators to innovate in order to overcome the cost barriers associated with buying and launching new satellites,” added Patricio Northland, CEO of Satmex, now Eutelsat Americas following acquisition in January 2014.

Choi said the real savings came from the ability to dual launch two of the Boeing 702SPs on a SpaceX Falcon 9. All four satellites launched two to a Falcon 9, with the first launch, ABS 3A and Eutelsat 115 West B (formerly Satmex 7) occurring on March 1, 2016, and the second launch for ABS 2A and Eutelsat 117 West B (formerly Satmex 9) happening June 15, 2016. Though achieving substantial cost savings, the challenge of coordinating this project did take its toll.

“After experiencing the back-breaking pain of managing this project, I seriously doubt our technical team would agree to do another similar joint procurement,” Choi said.


When Malaysia Airlines flight 370 (MH370) disappeared unexpectedly during a March 8, 2014 flight from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Beijing, China, Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) service provider Inmarsat was the only organization capable of narrowing the search from millions of square kilometers to 60,000 square kilometers. Though not an answer to the mysterious fate of the missing aircraft, which claimed 239 lives, the data Inmarsat had proved extremely valuable in gathering what little information was possible to determine the plane’s probable last whereabouts.

Inmarsat received 3,000 media requests in four days once word that the satellite operator had clues about MH370’s disappearance got out, but it was not until months later that Mark Dickinson, VP of satellite operations at Inmarsat, gave Via Satellite the exclusive story of Inmarsat’s role. Dickinson said Inmarsat had made an upgrade to its ground station network only a year prior to MH370 that made it possible to rein in the search area. Those improvements actually stemmed from a previous missing flight — Air France 447 flight in 2009 — where 229 people lost their lives.

“All the available data points to a location in the Southern Indian Ocean. The analysis techniques have been refined and extensively validated; the search area is determined by the region of the highest probability; the work of the investigation team has been to determine this probability distribution in order to optimize the search effort. However, it cannot provide an ‘X marks the spot’ type of solution,” Dickinson said.


Google’s $500 million acquisition of Skybox Imaging proved that the space industry could do Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurism with the best of them. The Skybox founders Dan Berkenstock, Julian Mann, John Fenwick and Ching-Yu Hu wrote their business plan in an entrepreneurship class at Stanford, worked in Fenwick’s living room for six months and drew their first satellite design on a bar napkin. It took as many as 75 or more investor pitches before the startup sealed its first $3 million investment in 2009 with Khosla Ventures. Two years later Skybox Imaging gained another $18 Million from Khosla Ventures and Bessemer Venture Partners, followed by a $70 million Series C financing from both venture firms along with Canaan Partners and Norwest Ventures.

Dan Berkenstock, founding CEO of Skybox Imaging, told Via Satellite during his 2014 Satellite Executive of the Year winner interview that right from the beginning, discussions with Google were happening.

“When we started thinking seriously about forming a company, we signed up for this Stanford course where they teach you how to write a business plan and pitch to investors. As part of the class they encourage you to get outside the building to talk to all of the potential partners and customers you can find. We took that as a personal challenge and probably talked to 200 different people during a single semester. Several of our spouses worked at Google and, since they are a large consumer of satellite imagery, we reached out to the maps team,” he said.

Google did not take the conversations with Skybox super seriously at first, but the more the company developed, the more realistic a Google-Skybox team became.

“In the beginning we weren’t looking for a contract, just customer requirements. Without anything formal they became an early set of advisors — we’d share our designs, early prototypes, and calculations and they probably just found us amusing in the beginning more than anything else,” Berkenstock said.

The opportunity for an acquisition did not reveal itself until after SkySat 1, the company’s first satellite, started delivering imagery in late 2013/early 2014. The startup continued to gain momentum, building its first two satellites independently before partnering with Space Systems Loral (SSL) to produce 13 more spacecraft. Google made the acquisition on June 10, 2014, ordered another six satellites from SSL, and renamed Skybox Imaging as Terra Bella. Today Terra Bella is providing imagery for a variety of customers and remains in the process of launching its total fleet.


FIFA, with sports and entertainment research firm Kantar Media, estimates that 3.2 billion people watched at least some portion of the 2014 Men’s World Cup. It is very likely that many of those viewers saw Sony prominently advertising for 4K all around the stadium. While 4K had yet to make a sizeable dent in the mindset of consumers, the prominence of the technology at the soccer, er, football game marked a notable milestone in awareness.

“It was the start of the move towards Ultra High Definition,” David Meynell, managing director of SIS Live, told Via Satellite. “Ultra-HD was spoken about a lot there, and it was the first real event that had some coverage.”


Not many people actually watched the Men’s World Cup in 4K Ultra-HD, despite the high profile efforts of Sony and FIFA, largely because so few 4K-capable television sets had actually been sold. Statista counted only 10.1 million 4K-television shipments in 2014, compared to 40 million in 2015 and 48.1 million in 2016.

U.K.-based SIS Live supported Latin American broadcaster TV Globo in covering the Men’s World Cup in 4K Ultra-HD. Meynell said lots of broadcasters actually made last minute decisions to add Ultra-HD capabilities for the World Cup. Rather than in the build up phase, it was the event itself that really served as the catalyst.

“There was a point where the broadcasters realized during the World Cup that Ultra-HD is very powerful and that it was a step change from HD that made it worth investing,” he said.


When a second internet giant invested in satellite just a year after Google’s purchase of Skybox Imaging, the news quickly spread well beyond regular industry channels. On Oct. 10, 2015 social media company Facebook, with a valuation in the nine figures and climbing, struck a deal through Eutelsat to use the high throughput Ka-band payload on Spacecom’s Amos 6 satellite to beam internet connectivity in Africa. The agreement put satellite back in the public’s mind as the technology of the future.

One year later, Facebook, with Eutelsat, purchased a Hughes Jupiter System with gateways stations, data centers, a network management system and some user terminals to be ready for Amos 6. Unfortunately, the Amos 6 never reached orbit due to the untimely explosion of the Falcon 9 rocket that meant to launch it. The rocket burst into flames on Sept. 1, 2016, days before launch due to an anomaly only eight minutes before a planned test firing for the rocket.

In a Via Satellite interview prior to the launch snafu, Ryan Wallace, Facebook’s technical program manager within connectivity deployments, explained the reasoning behind going with Amos 6, saying “it was about what gave us the fastest opportunity to bring connectivity to that region. HTS was great for this.” Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in Africa at the time of the loss, and took to his social media platform to say he was “deeply disappointed to hear that SpaceX's launch failure destroyed our satellite that would have provided connectivity to so many entrepreneurs and everyone else across the continent.”

Without the Amos 6, Facebook still has other satellite and telecommunications infrastructure planned for Africa. In the wake of the failure, Zuckerberg specifically mentioned Aquila, a solar-powered aircraft the company is working on to provide internet from 60,000 feet. Facebook also purchased capacity on SES satellites Astra 2G, Astra 3B and Astra 4A, a customized SES Enterprise+ broadband service, and ground infrastructure from Gilat Satellite Networks. Moreover, the social network also teamed with Microsoft and Telefonica to build a subsea transatlantic cable that has an initial estimated design capacity of 160Tbps, which would be the highest capacity ever to cross the Atlantic.


With so much attention fixated on SpaceX, it was at first hard to believe that another company would hold the title of first to send a rocket to space and land it back on Terra Firma. Blue Origin, the intentionally, almost painfully quiet space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, stunned the world by launching New Shepard on Nov. 23, 2015 to 100.5 kilometers and landing safely in West Texas. SpaceX, at the time had a number of nearly successful attempts at landing the Falcon 9 rocket out at sea. Before that, SpaceX had conducted a series of “Grasshopper” Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) tests, progressively climbing higher and higher and proving that landing the rocket was possible.

The first stage of the CSR 8 mission landing at the Of Course I Still Love You droneship.SpaceX

The Blue Origin New Shepard landing prompted some debate among industry and the general media about the magnitude of the achievement, with SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk pointing out via Twitter the differences between “space” and “orbit,” but the biggest takeaway was less who got there first and more that multiple companies were transforming access to space. And it wasn’t long before SpaceX would clench its long-awaiting landing — from orbit — on Dec. 22, 2015 guiding a Falcon 9 first stage booster safely back to Cape Canaveral after delivering 11 Orbcomm satellites to space.

Blue Origin's New Shepard returning from its second flight to space.Blue Origin

Neither SpaceX nor Blue Origin wasted any time after these accomplishments. Blue Origin went on to launch and land the same New Shepard booster four more times, essentially pole-vaulting up over the Karman Line and back, and revealed a duo of larger reusable orbital vehicles called New Glenn. Meanwhile SpaceX launched and landed the Falcon 9 five more times, each with different rockets, and received a contract from SES, the same satellite operator to first launch a spacecraft to geosynchronous orbit on a Falcon 9 in 2013, to buy a “flight-proven” Falcon 9 mission. Both companies have ambitious plans to revolutionize space travel for human beings, and through pursuit of their dreams, are revolutionizing the satellite industry as well. VS