Satellite Delivery Technology

Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) is a satellite-delivered program service meant for home reception. DBS programming is, in most respects, the same as that available to cable television subscribers. DBS subscribers, however, do not access their programs from terrestrial cable systems but rather directly from high powered telecommunications satellites stationed in geosynchronous orbit some 22,000 miles above the earth. Like cable systems, DBS program suppliers package a variety of program services or channels and market them to prospective DBS subscribers for a monthly fee.

The DBS business may be distinguished from the older Television Receive Only (TVRO) business in three important respects: technology, programming and cost. TVRO households (of which there are approximately four million in the United States) must purchase and install a satellite dish measuring between seven to ten feet in diameter and costing approximately $1,800. TVRO households receive about 75 channels of unscrambled programming but may also subscribe to a package of scrambled ("encrypted") program services for a monthly fee. TVRO programming is delivered via the three to six gigahertz (GHz) frequency range, known as the C-band, at a power of ten watts or less.

DBS dishes, on the other hand, measure 18 inches or less in diameter and cost approximately $700. DBS and TVRO program packages are similar, although DBS subscribers cannot receive the numerous unscrambled programming channels available to TVRO dish owners. DBS transmissions are delivered at the 11-to-15 GHz frequency range, known as the Ku-band, at a power that may exceed 120 watts. The higher power of the Ku-band allows a more directed satellite-to-receiver signal and, thus, requires a much smaller receiver dish than is required for C-band reception.

The origins of DBS date to 1975 when Home Box Office (HBO) first utilized a satellite to deliver its program service to local cable television systems. Numerous individuals, especially those living in rural areas beyond the reach of cable television, erected TVRO dishes on their property and accessed whatever programming they wanted as it flowed from satellites. Program suppliers soon objected to free receipt of their product by TVRO owners. As a result, HBO and similar services began scrambling their signals in 1985. TVRO owners thereafter were required to pay a subscription fee to receive such programming.

The first effort to create a true DBS service in the United States occurred in 1980 when the Satellite Television Corporation (STV) proposed such a service to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC approved STC's proposal and invited other companies to propose DBS services. Of the 13 companies that responded to the FCC, proposals from eight of them--including such electronics industry giants as Western Union and RCA--eventually were approved. By the early 1990s, however, the high start-up cost of establishing a DBS service (estimated at more than a billion dollars) had forced many of the original DBS applicants either to delay or to abandon their projects altogether. What's more, DBS companies were uncertain that program suppliers that heretofore had provided programming exclusively to cable systems would extend their services to DBS. That matter was settled when the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 prohibited cable program suppliers from refusing to sell their services to DBS operators.

FCC permission to launch DBS services included satellite transponder (or transmitter) assignment and DBS orbital slot assignment. Satellites providing a DBS service are allowed to occupy eight orbital slots positioned at 61.5, 101, 110, 119, 148, 157, 166, and 175 degrees west longitude.

A consortium of cable television system owners launched the first generation DBS service, called Primestar, in July 1991. Primestar utilized 45 watt transponders aboard GE American's Satcom K1 satellite to beam 67 program channels to some 70,000 households by 1995. Subscribers paid a monthly fee of $25-$35 for the Primestar service in addition to a $100-$200 installation fee for receiving hardware that Primestar continued to own.

A second generation DBS service became operational when the DBS-1 satellite went into orbit on 17 December 1993. The DBS-1, owned by Hughes Space and Communications Group, carried 32 transponders. Ten of the transponders were owned by United States Satellite Broadcasting (USSB), and the remaining transponders were owned by DirecTV. Although Primestar, DirecTV and USSB all transmitted via the Ku-band, the higher powered DBS-1 satellite allowed DirecTV and USSB subscribers to use a much smaller receiving dish.


DirecTV and USSB maintained a joint identity for marketing purposes and for selling the receiving system used for both DBS services. The receiving system was a package comprised of dish antenna, decoder unit, and remote control called the Digital Satellite System (DSS). The basic DSS unit retailed in 1995 for about $700 with installation costs ranging from $70 for a do-it-yourself kit to $200 for dealer assistance. By March 1995, over 400,000 of the systems had been sold.

DBS presents some major problems to subscribers. For instance, the receiving dish that requires a clear line-of-sight fix on the transmitting satellite may be blown out of alignment by heavy winds, thunderstorms will disrupt DBS signal reception, and DBS program services do not yet include local over-the-air television channels. However, DBS seems most appealing to persons who either are disenchanted with cable television or who live in areas that are not served by cable.

-Ronald Garay


Grant, August E. and Kenton T. Wilkinson. Communication Technology Update: 1993-1994. Boston, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 1994.

Hudson, H.E. Communication Satellites: Their Development and Impact New York: Free Press, 1990.

Mirabito, Michael M.A. The New Communications Technology, 2d ed. Boston, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 1994.

Rees, D.W.E. Satellite Communications: The First Quarter Century of Service. New York: Wiley & Sons, 1990.

Taylor, John P. Direct-to-Home Satellite Broadcasting. New York: Television/Radio Age, 1980.


See also Pay Cable; Pay-per-View Cable; Satellite; United States, Cable