could not exist in its contemporary form without satellites. Since
10 July 1962, when NASA technicians in Maine transmitted fuzzy images
of themselves to engineers at a receiving station in England using
the Telstar satellite, orbiting communications satellites have been
routinely used to deliver television news and programming between
companies and to broadcasters and cable operators. And since the
mid-1980s they have been increasingly used to broadcast programming
directly to viewers, to distribute advertising, and to provide live
C. Clarke, a British engineer turned author, is credited with envisioning
the key elements of satellite communications long before the technical
skill or political will to implement his ideas existed. In 1945
he published a plan to put electronic relay stations--a radio receiver
and re-transmitter--into space at 23,000 miles above the earth's
equator. At this altitude, the satellite must complete a full rotation
around the earth every 24 hours in order to sustain orbit (countering
the pull of the earth's gravity). Given the rotation of the earth
itself, that keeps the satellite at the same relative position.
This "geosynchronous orbit" is where several hundred communications
satellites sit today providing telephone and data communications,
but mostly, relaying television signals. Television is currently
the largest user of satellite bandwidth.
"uplink" transmitter on earth, using a "dish" antenna pointed toward
the satellite, sends a signal to one of the satellite's "transponders."
The transponder amplifies that signal and shifts it to another frequency
(so as not to interfere with the incoming signal) to be transmitted
back to earth. A "downlink" antenna and receiver on earth then captures
that signal and sends it on its way. The essential advantage of
the satellite is that the uplink and downlink may be 8000 miles
apart. In practice, satellite communications is more efficient over
a shorter distances than that, but the advantages over terrestrial
transmissions--cable, fiber optics, and microwave--are profound,
particularly across oceans. As with Direct Broadcast Satellites
(DBS), satellites can transmit to an unlimited number of ground
receivers simultaneously, and costs do not increase with distance.
satellite has a distinct "footprint," or coverage area, which is
meticulously shaped and plotted. In 1971, the first communications
satellites carrying "spot beam" antennas were launched. A spot beam
antenna can be steered to focus the satellite's reception and transmission
capabilities on a small portion of the earth, instead of the 40%
of the earth's surface a wider antenna beam could cover. Spot coverage
is crucial in international broadcasting, when neighboring countries
may object to signal "spillover" into their territory.
satellites since the 1960's have received uplink signals in a range
of frequencies (or "bandwidth") near six GHz (gigahertz, or a billion
cycles per second) and downlinked signals near four GHz. This range
of frequencies is known as "C-band." Each range of frequencies is
subdivided into specific channels, which, in the case of C-band,
are each from 36 to 72 MHz wide. A single analog television transmission
may occupy enough bandwidth to fully utilize a single 36 Mhz channel.
Hundreds or thousands of voice or data signals requiring far less
bandwidth would fit on the same channel. In the 1980s a new generation
of satellites using bandwidths of 11 to 12 GHz (uplink) and 14 GHz
(downlink) came into use. The "Ku-band" does not require as much
power to be transmitted clearly, thereby permitting the use of small
(and less expensive) earth stations for uplink and downlink. With
the introduction of the Ku-band, television entered the era of live
news--satellite news gathering (SNG)--as "Ku-band" satellites made
it easy to uplink television signals with a portable dish from the
scene of a breaking news story. Television news has also made some
use of another satellite technology, remote sensing, using pictures
taken by satellites to illustrate or verify news stories.
In the late 1970s, with the satellite distribution of Home Box Office,
home satellite dishes, or "television receive only" (TVRO), became
popular for people out of reach of cable television. Later, direct
satellite broadcasting (DBS) to small home dishes became possible
through the use of these higher frequencies. Since 1988 DBS has
been heavily used in Europe, and it is rapidly gaining popularity
in the United States. Overuse of the C and Ku bandwidths and the
desire for even greater signal strength is leading to new satellites
that use other areas of the radio spectrum. A typical communications
satellite launched in the early 1990s has a mix of C and Ku-band
transponders, and is capable of relaying over 30,000 voice or data
circuits and four or more television transmissions. Telephony and
television use roughly equivalent portions of available satellite
capacity, but the demand for DBS has led to a number of satellites
dedicated to TV transmission.
other communications technologies, the satellite industry has embraced
digitalization and signal compression as a means of maximizing the
use of limited bandwidth. By converting analog signals to digital
signals, less bandwidth is required, and digital signals can be
broken into smaller pieces for transmission through bits of available
bandwidth, and reassembled at the point of reception. Compression
eliminates otherwise redundant portions of a television transmission,
allowing for a signal to be sent using far less bandwidth. Encryption,
or scrambling, of satellite television signals is now becoming common
to ensure that only customers who have bought or rented a decoder
can receive transmissions. Even inter-company television feeds via
satellite, such as daily feeds to broadcasters from television news
agencies, are being encrypted to prevent unauthorized use. Typical
television transmissions via satellite in the 1990s are digital,
and are often compressed and encrypted. Compression technology is
expected to considerably increase the number of DBS services available.
developing countries have demonstrated success in using satellite
delivered television to provide useful information to portions of
their populations out of reach of terrestrial broadcasting. In 1975,
an experimental satellite communications project called SITE (Satellite
Instructional Television Experiment) was used to bring informational
television programs to rural India. The project led to Indian development
of its own satellite network. China has also embarked on a ambitious
program of satellite use for development, claiming substantial success
in rural education.
controlled by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, transmits television programming
over much of Asia and has forced governments worldwide to reevaluate
their stance on issues of national sovereignty and control of incoming
information. STAR-TV reaches over 50 countries and potentially half
of the world's population--far more than any other satellite television
service (though it is technically not DBS, still requiring larger
dishes). A slew of contentious political and cultural issues have
resulted. Murdoch dropped BBC World Service Television from his
STAR-TV program lineup as a concession to the Chinese government.
Other governments have complained about the unrestricted importation
of news presented from an Anglo-American viewpoint, though their
concerns about political consequences are often couched in terms
of protecting local culture. Reports of disruptions to local cultures
stemming from international satellite broadcasting are widespread.
In all these instances satellite technology has called into question
conventional notions of the nation state. Geographic borders may
be insufficient definitions of culture and nationality in an era
of electronic information, beamed from multiple sources into the
sky, and down again into almost any location.
Technicians attaching the Telestar satellite to a Delta rocket for
Photo courtesy of AT and T
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of Independent Television Stations; British
Sky Broadcasting; Cable
News Network; Channel
Law and Television; Communication
Satellite Corporation; Development
Broadcast Satellite; Distant
Broadcast Union; European
Commercial Broadcasting Satellite; European
Union, Television Policy; Federal
Communications Commission; First
People's Television Broadcasting in Canada; Geography
and Television; Home
Box Office; Midwest
Telecommunication Union; The
Knowledge Network; Medical
Cable Television Association; News
Corporation, Ltd.; Olympics
and Television; Pay
Access Television; Scrambled
Space Program and Television;
Broadcasting Systems; United
States: Cable Television U.S.
Policy: Telecommunications Act of 1996