COMMUNICATIONS SATELLITE CORPORATION

COMSAT, or the Communications Satellite Corporation, was created in 1962 with the passage of the Communications Satellite Act. The act authorized the formation of a private corporation to administer satellite communications for the United States. COMSAT was given responsibility for many activities including the development of a global satellite communications system, the acquisition and maintenance of ground stations around the world, and the development of new satellite technologies. COMSAT is governed by a Board of Directors elected by the company's shareholders and the President of the United States. Half of the company's shares are owned by major communications companies such as AT and T, ITT, and Western Union, and the rest are held by members of the public. COMSAT has offices worldwide and its headquarters are located in Washington, D.C.

COMSAT emerged amidst a public controversy staged in a series of congressional hearings from 1961-62. During these hearings public advocates and private businesses struggled for control over satellite communications in the United States. Senators Morse and Kefauver and Congressman Celler formed an alliance against the privatization of COMSAT and rallied support from the American Communication Association-a union of telecommunications workers-as well as Assistant Attorney General Lee Loevinger and communications scholars Dallas Smythe and Herbert Schiller. Concerned that the privatization of COMSAT would strengthen the private sector's control over public airwaves, they called for further public participation in the hearings and government ownership of satellite communications. Senator Kerr, on the other hand, formed an alliance led by major communications companies such as RCA and AT and T and proposed a bill that called for the privatization of satellite communications. Kerr insisted that space communication offered new business opportunities that would benefit the private sector, the nation and the world. Pressure from both sides ultimately culminated in the creation of a "government corporation" designed to operate as a private business and yet act in the public interest. Throughout its history, COMSAT has faced the difficult challenge of negotiating the often contradictory interests of private enterprise and the public good. The organization has historically favored the business end of its mandate.

 


Courtesy of COMSAT

COMSAT was established as a "carrier's carrier." This meant that COMSAT could not sell satellite circuits directly to broadcasters, news agencies and other customers for overseas communication. Rather, the company could only sell circuits wholesale to other communications carriers and allow them to resell them. COMSAT must pursue customers to buy satellite time in order to recover the high cost of developing new satellite systems. Its customers range from national governments to common carriers. COMSAT maintains liaisons with private businesses and national governments around the world, and, at the same time, must fill its mandate to conduct business negotiations in the interest of the American public.

In 1964, COMSAT representatives participated in international negotiations that led to the creation of Intelsat-the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization. Intelsat still exists today and is a global satellite network that provides developing nations with access to communications satellites for domestic communications. The United States owns more than 50% of Intelsat, and COMSAT has managed the organization since 1964. In 1965, COMSAT launched Early Bird-the first commercial communications satellite. Early Bird relayed common carrier network traffic, telephone, television telegraph and digital data as well as voice bandwidth analog data such as facsimile and wire photo transmittals. The satellite was deployed to evaluate the viability of synchronous satellites for commercial communications and to supplement the capacity of trans-Atlantic cables. In 1980, COMSAT formed a subsidiary company called the Satellite Television Company (STC) to design and launch the United States' first direct broadcast satellite. Despite the STC's efforts, its domestic satellite system was thwarted when the FCC denied its application because of the STC's failure to demonstrate how satellite programming would differ from that offered by cable or network television. Today, COMSAT operates as the United States signatory to Intelsat and Inmarsat (International Maritime Satellite Organization). The company still sells satellite circuits to private companies and governments around the world for national and international communication. COMSAT laboratories located in Clarksburg, Maryland have been responsible for a variety of technical developments in satellite and wireless communications including coding and transmission, networking and multiple access, space-qualified electronics and power sources, antennas, and many others.

-Lisa Parks

FURTHER READING

Kinsley, Michael E. Outer Space and Inner Sanctums: Government, Business, And Satellite Communication. New York: Wiley, 1976.

Maddox, Brenda. Beyond Babel: New Directions In Communications. London: Andre Deutsch, 1972.

Schiller, Herbert I. Mass Communications and American Empire. Boulder: Westview, 1992.

 

See also Satellite