the first independent European commercial satellite broadcasting
system, commenced transmissions in early 1989. By the beginning
of 1995, the ASTRA system had already achieved penetration of over
56 million households (approximately 150 million people) in twenty-two
European countries. This is 35% of the 160 million TV households
within the geographical target area and a 15% increase since the
end of 1993.
ASTRA system is owned and operated by Société Européen des Satellites
(SES), a private company incorporated in Luxembourg and trading
under a twenty-five year renewable franchise agreement with the
Grand Duchy which retains a 20% interest. SES, founded in March
1985 and backed by private commercial interests all over Europe,
has headquarters at the Château de Betzdorf in Luxembourg. From
there it uplinks TV and radio signals to the orbiting satellite
craft which comprise the system. The company's revenue is generated
by leasing satellite transponders--effectively the equivalent of
channel slots--to broadcasting organisations who pay annual rentals
reputedly as high as £5 million per transponder. Despite global
recession and widespread anxiety about the increasing fragmentation
of the audio-visual audience, SES has found no shortage of potential
customers, with transponder availability on each new satellite subject
to heavy demand from broadcasters willing to gamble high investment
and short-term unprofitability for healthier returns later.
first satellite, ASTRA 1A, was launched in December 1988 from the
European Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana aboard an Ariane
4 rocket. It became operational in February 1989, 35,975 kilometres
above the equator at its geostationary orbital position of 19.2
East. This was the first commercial European satellite specifically
dedicated to television and radio transmission. The system was subsequently
augmented by the launch of ASTRA 1B in March 1991, while 1C followed
in May 1993 and 1D in November 1994--all co-located at the same
orbital position and with an active life-span of ten to twelve years.
The sixty-four transponders of these four satellites provide over
seventy separate analogue television services in either the PAL
or D2Mac broadcast standards as well as nearly forty radio channels
approaching CD stereo quality. The "footprint," or geographical
universe, of this satellite constellation extends from Iceland and
Norway in the north to coastal Morocco, Sardinia and Belgrade, Yugoslavia
in the south; from the Canary Islands in the west to Warsaw, Poland
and Budapest, Hungary in the east, with some reception possible
even as far east as Helsinki, Finland.
available services are accessed via one of three methods of delivery,
the most visible being individual direct-to-home dish antenna (DTH)
which can be fixed or motorised and which, for successful reception
in the footprint's central belt, can be as small as 60cm in diameter.
Alternatively, in the case of viewers in multi-occupancy dwellings,
reception is via communal satellite master antenna systems (SMATV).
Many other viewers, including a large proportion in Germany, Holland
and Belgium, receive signals relayed over cable networks.
major factor in the early success of SES was Rupert Murdoch's 1988
decision to become ASTRA's first commercial client, taking four
transponders initially on ASTRA 1A for his incipient Sky Television
Service (subsequently British Sky Broadcasting), aimed principally
at English speaking audiences in the UK and Western Europe. A considerable
number of German broadcasting interests also migrated early to ASTRA
and SES's evolving system was soon enabling diverse programme services
in a wide variety of languages, ushering in a new era of themed
private television and radio channels as alternatives to the general
entertainment models commonly associated with terrestrial broadcasting.
Of course, many of the ASTRA channels are transmitted in encrypted
or scrambled form, available only to contracted subscribers possessing
the necessary decoding device. Movies, sports, music, news, children,
nostalgia and shopping channels are the most consistently popular.
ASTRA 1D inaugurated a significant new phase of technological development,
for it is the first satellite in the system that can be operated
in the BSS frequency band (Broadcast Satellite Services) reserved
for future digital transmissions. Indeed, it already provides capacity
for the first European digital test transmissions conducted in collaboration
with appropriate hardware manufactures and programmers. In the late
1990s viewers can expect an increasing number of programme services
to be made available simultaneously in both analogue and digital
formats via the process of "dual illumination." SES, which plans
to be a major influence in Europe's transition from the analogue
to the digital age of TV and video, has signed firm contracts for
the space launches of ASTRA satellites 1E, 1F and 1G in Summer 1995,
the first half of 1996 and the first half of 1997 respectively.
Each of these advanced satellites will be specially dedicated to
digital transmissions and will significantly increase the potential
capacity of the seven-satellite ASTRA system. They are expected
to carry a total of 56 additional transponders, each capable, with
the use of digital compression, of transmitting up to 10 TV programmes
simultaneously; they will also contribute to the introduction of
HDTV. In November 1994 the profitable French subscription channel
Canal Plus concluded a long-term agreement with SES covering six
transponders for digital transmission of the channel's "programmes
bouquet" to the different European language markets. Other digital
partners, such as British Sky Broadcasting and the European pay-television
group Nethold, are also participating in the evolving digital environment.
Couresty of ASTRA
many as eight ASTRA devices could theoretically be positioned at
the same location before SES would need to find an alternative orbital
slot for a second series of twenty-first century satellites. By
then, the ASTRA system as a whole will be able to deliver literally
hundreds of channels, programmes and services to homes all over
Europe. But SES is unlikely to enjoy an indefinite monopoly. In
April 1995, the European satellite agency EUTELSAT launched the
first in a new series of "Hot Bird" high-technology broadcasting
satellites which will compete for the same market. It remains to
be seen whether sufficient consumer demand exists for two such major
players in the European satellite transponder rental business.
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