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Satellite TV - The First Fifty Years

The original concept of satellite television is often attributed to writer Arthur C. Clarke, who was the first to suggest a worldwide satellite communications system. Funding for satellite technology in the U.S. began in the 1950s, amidst the space race, and the Russian launching of the satellite Sputnik in 1957.

The first communication satellite was developed by a group of businesses and governmententities in 1963. Syncom II orbited at 22,300 miles over the Atlantic; the first satellite communication was on July 26, 1963, between a U.S. Navy ship in Lagos, Nigeria and the U.S. Army naval station in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

Overloaded land based distribution methods had the telephone companies utilizing satellitecommunication way before the television industry even came into the picture. In fact, it was not until 1978 that satellite communication was officially used by the television industry.

In 1975, RWT's co-founder and BBC transmitter engineer Stephen Birkill built an experimental system for receiving Satellite Instructional Television Experiment TV (SITE) transmissions, beamed to Indian villages, from a NASA geostationary satellite.

Birkill extended his system, receiving TV pictures from Intelsat, Raduga, Molniya and others. In 1978, Birkill met up with Bob Cooper, a cable TV technical journalist and amateur radio enthusiast in the U.S., who invited him to a cable TV operators' conference and trade show, the CCOS-78. It was there that Birkill met with other satellite TV enthusiasts, who were interested, and ready to help develop, Birkill’s experiments.

Interest in Television Receive Only (TVRO) satellite technology burst forward. The American TVRO boom caught the attention of premium cable programmers, who began to realize the potential of satellite TV. Back in the mid-1970s, TV reception was the under the control of international operators, Intelsat and Intersputnik.

On March 1, 1978, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) introduced Public Television Satellite Service. Satellite communication technology caught on, and was used as a distribution method with the broadcasters from 1978 through 1984, with early signals broadcast from HBO, TBS, and CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network, later The Family Channel). TVRO system prices dropped, and the trade organization, Society for Private Commercial Earth Stations (SPACE), and the first dealerships were established.

Broadcasters realized that everyone had the potential to receive satellite signals for free, and they were not happy. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was governed by its open skies' policy, believing that users had as much right to receive satellite signals as broadcasters had the right to transmit them.

In 1980, the FCC established the Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS), a new service that consisted of a broadcast satellite in geostationary orbit, facilities for transmitting signals to the satellite, and the equipment needed for people to access the signals. In turn, broadcasters developed methods of scrambling their signals, forcing consumers to purchase a decoder, or a direct to home (DTH) satellite receiver, from a satellite program provider.

From 1981 to 1985, the big dish satellite market soared. Rural areas gained the capacity to receive television programming that was not capable of being received by standard methods.

The Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association of America (SBCA) was founded in 1986 as a merger between SPACE and the Direct Broadcast Satellite Association. But by this point, American communication companies had soured on the prospect of satellite TV.

Broadcast cable was very successful at this time, and the satellite industry received a lot of negative press coverage. Fifty percent of all satellite retailers closed their businesses.

Business eventually recovered, but the illegal theft of pay television signals was still a problem. Ultimately, encryption has proven to be the ultimate salvation of the satellite industry as it has made the transition from a hardware to software entertainment-driven business.

Early successful attempts to launch satellites for the mass consumer market were led by Japan and Hong Kong in 1986 and 1990, respectively. In 1994, the first successful attempts in America were led by a group of major cable companies, known collectively as Primestar.

Later that year, Direct TV was established, and in 1996, the DISH Network, a subsidiary of EchostarScience Articles, also entered the satellite TV industry. DISH Network’s low prices forced competing DBS providers to also lower their prices. And an explosion in the popularity of digital satellite TV ensued.

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Gary Davis is owner of Dish Network Satellite TV and has written numerous articles on the satellite television industry. Kate Ivy has written for a variety of publications and websites and is the owner of Ivygirl Media & Design.

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