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History of Satellite Television and Direct TV

The original concept of satellite television started over 50 years ago with the vision of writer Arthur C. Clarke, who was the first to suggest a worldwide satellite communications system.

Following his vision, the U.S. government began developing the for satellite technology in the 1950s, during the historical space race. The very first satellite, Sputnik, was developed and launched into orbit above the earth on October 4, 1957 by the Russians. The first communication satellite, Syncom II, was developed and launched by a consortium of business and government entities in 1963 and achieved an orbit at 22,300 miles over the Atlantic. On July 26, 1963, the first satellite communication between a U.S. Navy ship in the harbor of Lagos, Nigeria and the U.S. Army located at the naval station at Lakehurst, New Jersey made history.

Telephone companies started using satellite communication long before television. This developed out of necessity, as communicating by land based distribution methods became overloaded with too much data information. Television began using satellites on March 1, 1978 when the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) introduced Public Television Satellite Service. From 1978 to 1984, Broadcast networks adopted satellite communication as a distribution method with early signal broadcasts from HBO, TBS, and CBN (Christian Broadcasting Network, later The Family Channel). Television Receive Only (TVRO) system prices dropped, and the trade organization, Society for Private Commercial Earth Stations (SPACE), and the first dealerships were established. Network executives realized the potential of this developed satellite technology could provide broadcasting service to customers for free. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was governed by its open skies' policy, which indicated that users had as much right to receive satellite signals as broadcasters had the right to transmit them.

Direct to Home (DTH) satellite receivers or Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) were developed in the early 1980's. This technology enabled the more rural areas in the United States to receive signals and television programming that was previously unavailable with standard television broadcasting methods. DBS, then a new service, consisted of a broadcast satellite in geostationary orbit, which facilitated transmitting signals to the satellite and the equipment needed for viewers to access the signals. At this stage of the game, piracy and illegally accessing the satellite was a common problem for the broadcasters and methods were developed to scramble and encrypt the signals from non-paying viewers. In order to legally access the signals, the user purchased a decoder (the DTH receiver) from a licensed satellite program provider. These packaged programs were similar to the programming packages provided by Cable TV systems. From 1981 to 1985, the big dish satellite market soared, providing service and signals to these rural areas.

Successful early attempts to launch satellites by Japan and Hong Kong in 1986 and 1990, respectively, provided service to the mass consumer market. The first successful attempt in 1994 by the United States was led by a group of major cable companies and collectively named Primestar. Later that year, Direct TV was established followed by Echostarís Dish Network in the Spring of 1996.

Written by David Johnson.