ASTRA, 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.

The 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.

ASTRA's 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.

The 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.

A 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

As 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.

-Tony Pearson


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