There are many different uses for satellite technology, and television broadcasting is only one of them. In fact, communications satellites are also used for maritime applications, intercontinental telephony, business systems, and broadcasting television programming. In television, satellite is the easiest way to transmit a large number of services and thus a wide range of choices across a wide region, thereby overcoming the need for the complex infrastructure of terrestrial transmitters that a terrestrial network needs to broadcast its signals throughout a country.
By and large, satellite offers instant and almost total coverage within its footprint, giving it an advantage over both terrestrial and cable television. Limitations on the reception of terrestrial television were one of the motivations underlying the initial development of alternative delivery systems. Cable is disadvantaged in areas of lower population density where network construction costs are high in comparison to the number of homes passed (Bunting & Chapman 1996). On the other hand, satellite television is limited by the number of homes under the satellite footprint, and further limited by the number of homes with receiving dishes.
In fact, a signal carrying the television programs is beamed – from the “earth station” via a large dish (9 to 12 meters in diameter) – up to the satellite, where it is amplified and retransmitted toward the earth to individual consumers. At the earth reception level, satellite television requires the installation of a dish, which some consumers seem to dislike, if they also have to buy and install new set-boxes. Moreover, satellite transmission is also dependent on the weather – e.g., downtime can result from very rainy weather (see also Pelton & Howkins 1987).
Satellite TV was conceived in 1946 by Arthur C. Clarke who, in a widely ignored article in Wireless World, pointed out that an orbiting satellite would revolve around the earth at the same speed as the earth rotates on its axis, above a fixed point, and could be used as a transmitting station. Since the 1950s, major developments have taken place in satellite technology as a result of the space race between the US and the USSR, and the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik in 1957 with radio signals. In the 1950s, however, little thought was given to television broadcasting as the Americans and the Soviets engaged in the race to perfect intercontinental ballistic missiles and put them into space. In 1962, there was the launch of Telstar by AT&T, the world’s first communications satellite. It was not geostationary, although it signaled the beginning of the commercial exploitation of communications satellites. In 1964, the captions “live via satellite” brought the space age into millions of households as the Tokyo Olympic Games were flashed around the world. The age of satellite television had arrived.
In reality, satellite television started differently and that was with the relay of its signals via the cable systems to upper-income suburbs and municipalities in the US in the 1970s (Sherman 1987, 8). This could be done due to the advent of US commercial satellites, on the one hand, and the FCC’s 1972 Open Skies policy on the other. The latter gave the commercial satellites the right to transmit TV services – TV reception up until then had been under the control of international operators, Intelsat and Intersputnik. In 1975 RCA launched the first satellite designed exclusively for use by the three American television networks. Further, Home Box Office (HBO), Time Inc.’s pay movie channel, offered its service to cable operators using a transponder on RCA’s Satcom I, the US’s second commercial satellite, and began transmission of television programs via satellite to cable systems. A year later, Ted Turner uplinked TV signals from his terrestrial station in Atlanta and created WTBS, “America’s Station,” and in 1977, Pat Robertson began satellite delivery of the CBN cable network. These developments led to the explosion of cable TV systems in the US over the next decade. At the same time there were consumers outside cabled areas who wanted to install Television Reception Only (TVRO) dishes for these low-power satellites and TVRO technology burst forward. Thus, the industry found a potential market in fixed satellites needing smaller reception equipment, which provoked the commercial development of higher powered satellites, the so called DBS, “Direct Broadcasting by Satellite.”
Direct Broadcasting By Satellite
Over the years, the term “DBS” has become increasingly vague. In effect, DBS lost much of its distinguishing features in the 1980s. Originally, the term was coined to refer to highpowered satellite services that were to be received by individual dishes of approximately 90 centimeters in diameter. In fact, in 1997 the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), through the World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC) – considering that direct broadcasting to homes required high-powered satellites – allocated specific orbital slots for high-powered satellites, the original DBS satellites. But with a series of disasters in satellite launchers in 1986 (Shuttle, Ariane), and with each advance in technology, it became ever more possible to achieve the same objectives – direct-to-home reception – with medium-power satellites such as Astra or Eutelsat in Europe. Yet there has been little development in real DBS satellite systems. By the late 1980s only the Japanese system was in orbit and even that had suffered grave technical problems.
In the US in 1983, United Satellite Communications, backed by Prudential Insurance, inaugurated America’s first DBS service, the United Satellite, using a Canadian satellite. Just one year later, having attracted only 10,000 customers rather than 1 million as forecast, the service was in financial trouble. Comsat, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and Rupert Murdoch’s News Service also pulled out of DBS in the early 1980s. In 1986, the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association of America (SBCA) was founded – as a merger between SPACE and the Direct Broadcast Satellite Association – but the prospects of satellite TV in the US were small. This was due to the fact that the cable TV industry was very successful at this time, and the satellite industry received a lot of negative press coverage. Half of all satellite retailers closed their businesses. In 1994, the first successful attempts in America were led by a group of major cable companies, known as Primestar. In 1994, Direct TV was also established, and in 1996, the DISH Network, a subsidiary of Echostar, also entered the satellite-TV industry.
In Europe, the German TV-SAT1 was found to have a malfunction after it reached its orbit and the French TDF1 eventually went into orbit in 1988 but it remained unused. The British BSB suffered delays and eventually did not start its transmissions. One could achieve almost similar results, however, with medium-power satellites such as Astra or the second generation “Hot Bird” Eutelsat system at a fraction of the cost. Indeed, the capacity of the new generation of medium-power satellites was immensely greater than DBS: DBS would carry four separate services while a medium-power satellite such as Astra could carry 16 channels. This had clear repercussions on costs: leasing a channel on TDF1 cost about $11.7 million compared to $5 million on Astra. A related reason for DBS’s slow growth must be that it was regulated as a national service and so to some extent dependent on state direction. In fact, those satellites that had been launched had all had some state involvement. When commercial considerations dominate, alternative cheaper and unregulated systems tend to prosper (Negrine & Papathanassopoulos 1990, 32–33). As a result, DBS systems remained “not proven” while other satellite systems were developing at an enormous pace. In 1992 in Europe there were 19 medium-power satellites in orbit, Astra being the largest operator in 1997 with six in operation.
In these circumstances, DBS was proven an unnecessary technological development. In fact, the Commission of the European Union in 1989 declared that the “1977 WARC DBS” concept was already redundant as a result of advances in transmission and reception technology and also that the principle of national coverage contradicts the European ideal of television across frontiers. It has therefore suggested a new arrangement for satellite broadcasting, which would allow for greater flexibility and a more efficient use of technological developments.
Digital Transmission And Its Effects
The advent of digital transmission has affected the development of satellite television. This is because, up to now, satellite remains the easiest way to upgrade and transmit television signals in a digitalized form. However, as in the case of analogue satellite transmission, the services provided are still limited by the satellite footprint and satellite television subscribers have to buy and install new set-boxes and a satellite aerial. On the other hand, digital satellite TV revenues per subscriber have been higher than cable, even after homes have converted to digital cable. The reason behind this is that subscribers of satellite TV actively seek more choice by purchasing the equipment, whereas many long-term cable subscribers are used to paying low fees for a few basic channels – these subscribers will need to learn the benefits of digital choice (Thomas et al. 2003).
Moreover, satellite operators have been the most successful in the digital market so far, in part because of their pioneering efforts. In June 1996, media companies were involved in the “digital rush,” but they failed to agree on a common decoder box. In effect, they agreed to develop a so-called “common-interface,” a plug-like connection device that would link digital TV decoder boxes. In April 1996, the French pay-TV service Canal+ became the first broadcaster in Europe to launch digital TV, Canalsatellite Numérique. In some countries, digital satellite television has had a head start (UK, France, and Spain). In others, such as the Netherlands and Germany (countries with high cable TV reach), digital terrestrial television (DTT) and digital satellite entry is small. Other countries (UK, Sweden, and Spain) have started digital television through satellite, cable, or terrestrial frequencies. By and large, satellite television, whether analog or digital, has recorded most success in countries that have low cable penetration, including the major markets of France, Italy, Spain, and the UK.
In 2005, digital satellite television remains the leader in the digital TV market worldwide. But, according to market forecasts, cable TV seems to be the main source of digital TV for households, bringing in 216 million homes by 2010 (Murray 2003). Digital satellite TV will be the next most popular delivery system, with 77 million homes forecast to receive digital terrestrial TV, and 21 million households to receive DSL entertainment signals. On the other hand, 632 million homes will still take analog signals, so digital growth is likely to extend beyond the forecast period.
According to the forecasts, digital satellite television will be strong in North America and Europe, but less so elsewhere. Digital terrestrial television is expected to present considerable development in China and other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. Europe is forecast to have 28.6 million digital satellite subscribers by 2010. The UK is forecast to remain the leader in the European satellite TV market. Revenues of digital satellite television are forecast to reach $13.8 billion by 2010, up from $8.8 billion in 2002. France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK will account for 84 percent of digital satellite TV revenues (Thomas et al. 2003).
In one way or another, content is important to viewers. The arrival of digital satellite platforms has opened up the way for increasing specialization in their content. In fact, digital technology has enabled the analog satellite channels of the 1990s to proliferate and achieve even more specific levels of segmentation. Nowadays, there are channels specializing in news, music, sports, children, lifestyle, home shopping, animals, wildlife and documentaries, history, science, channels for women, and so on (Papathanassopoulos 2002). However, the quality of programming and the overall range of services on offer seem to be increasingly important in the further development of satellite television in the digital era, and will remain so in the “battle” with cable and terrestrial digital television over the coming years.
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