My dream career in the satellite industry started in March of 1980 at Satellite Communications magazine. In 1980 the industry was in the very early stages of development. Everyone knew that there was a future for the first commercial industry in space, but no one was exactly clear on what applications of the technology would be commercially viable. We all believed in Arthur C. Clarke’s vision but creating successful business ventures was a problem.
The Early 1980s
At trade shows there was always the same group of professionals that were interested in finding viable satellite applications. We were from various different professions that hadn’t necessarily worked together in the past.
The users of the technology were in cable television, broadcasting and general telecommunications (the internet wasn’t even invented yet). The providers of the technology were building and operating commercial communications satellites and launching them into space. Our market included everyone from the individual viewer of television programming to NASA and the builders of launch vehicles. We were an interesting mix.
It was from this group that the Society of Satellite Professionals International (SSPI) developed. We would pick a night at the trade shows to get together and compare notes and would go long into the evening over dinner and drinks. We were young and excited about the opportunities we saw and the camaraderie that we experienced. Anyone who didn’t make the meetings was subject to being elected “Chairman of the Bored” and would have to organize the next gathering.
While pursuing a Master of Arts degree at the University of Denver in the mid-1970s, the application that most struck my fancy was Direct Broadcast Satellites (DBS). The idea of a satellite dish on every home in America to receive programming was intriguing. In the process of preparing my thesis on DBS I wrote letters to the various VPs of technology at the broadcast networks to get their assessment of DBS' prospects. Remember, there was no internet at the time.
The responses in their letters were that “DBS would not be viable in the United States.” They postulated that, “the broadcast networks infrastructure was too well established for a competing technology to break into the market. Perhaps in developing nations, but with four networks with a very large penetration of the marketplace, who would want more?” History has proven them wrong.
Cable TV was the first real driver of video programming via satellite. HBO was the first major programmer to make the move. They had been bicycling tapes between the various head-ends when they pioneered the distribution of video programming via satellite.
In the 1970s, it was technically necessary and required by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for Television Receive-Only (TVRO) antennas to be at least 9 meters in aperture. That was reduced to 4.5 meters and in 1979 the size of a receive antenna was deregulated. This allowed for technological innovators to use smaller and smaller size antennas and lower temperature Low-Noise Amplifiers (LNAs) to be able to receive satellite signals.
One of the features of the trade shows at that time was a parking lot full of antennas of all sizes. At great expense, complete uplinks were erected for a three- or four-day event. When the small TVROs were first exhibited, technicians would put their hand in front of the antenna’s feed to see if it interrupted the signal. They were sure that the vendor was playing a tape under the counter.
In the mid 1980s the TVRO industry began to boom, with 8- and 10-foot antennas appearing outside homes across the U.S., especially in rural areas. People enjoyed the wide array of cable TV and backhaul programming available, watching Johnny Carson being fed live and seeing the shenanigans during the breaks.
Copyrights were at stake and HBO was forced to encrypt their signal. This was quite a controversy at the time with some saying that, since NASA had developed the technology on the taxpayers' dime, the programming should be free. The owners of the copyrights however disagreed. Early encryption technologies were defeated, but eventually HBO made the cost of defeating the encryption greater than that of just paying for the programming and won the battle.
One predecessor of today’s DBS systems was Primestar, which was owned by a consortium of cable companies. The system used a medium-powered Ku-band satellite to delivered 10 channels. They saw it only as a supplement to cable to reach viewers in rural areas outside cable coverage. They did not succeed and the failure of Satellite Television Corporation’s DBS project didn’t bode well for DBS’ future.
It took Hughes moving forward with DirecTV to get DBS off the ground. Charlie Ergen and DISH Network soon followed. Today both systems are successful reaching tens of millions of homes.
Long Distance Failure
One application that didn’t pan out was the use of satellites for long distance telephone calls. Satellite Business Systems (SBS) tried to sell cheap long distance service via satellite but the delay inherent in satellite transmission proved to make conversations impossible.
Too Many to Thank
There are so many people that I have to thank for help in getting Via Satellite launched and more throughout my career. The list of people would be too long to mention here and many are no longer with us; but thanks to all who participated and supported Via Satellite in the early years. One final example that stands out is that in the early days we didn’t have a large travel budget so I tried to stay at friend’s homes when on the road to save money. We had to be at all the events, but could barely afford the airfare. Special thanks to Scott and Lynn Chase for the several times that I stayed with them while the magazine was at PPI. When I left the magazine to pursue other ventures I knew that Via Satellite was in good hands with Scott. VS