The History of Satellite TV

Beginning of the satellite TV industry, 1976–1980

Typical roof mounted satellite dish

The satellite television industry developed first in the US from the cable television industry as communication satellites were being used to distribute television programming to remote cable television headends. Home Box Office (HBO), Turner Broadcasting System (TBS), and Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN, later The Family Channel) were among the first to use satellite television to deliver programming. Taylor Howard of San Andreas, California became the first person to receive C-band satellite signals with his home-built system in 1976.

In the US, PBS, a non-profit public broadcasting service, began to distribute its television programming by satellite in 1978.

Gorizont Satellite

In 1979 Soviet engineers developed the Moskva (or Moscow) system of broadcasting and delivering of TV signals via satellites. They launched the Gorizont communication satellites later that same year. These satellites used geostationary orbits. They were equipped with powerful on-board transponders, so the size of receiving parabolic antennas of downlink stations was reduced to 4 and 2.5 metres.On October 18, 1979, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began allowing people to have home satellite earth stations without a federal government license. The front cover of the 1979 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalogue featured the first home satellite TV stations on sale for $36,500 USD. The dishes were nearly 20 feet (6.1 m) in diameter and were remote controlled. The price went down by half soon after that, but there were only eight more channels available in the USA. The Society for Private and Commercial Earth Stations (SPACE), an organisation which represented consumers and satellite TV system owners, was established in 1980.

Large Satellite Dish

Early satellite television systems were not very popular due to their expense and large dish size. The satellite television dishes of the systems in the late 1970s and early 1980s were 10 to 16 feet (3.0 to 4.9 m) in diameter, made of fibreglass or solid aluminum or steel, and in the United States cost more than $5,000, sometimes as much as $10,000. Programming sent from ground stations was relayed from eighteen satellites in geostationary orbit located 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above the Earth.

TVRO/C-band satellite era, 1980–1986

Small UK Satellite dish

By 1980, satellite television was well established in the USA and Europe. On 26 April 1982, the first satellite channel in the UK, Satellite Television Ltd. (later Sky1), was launched. Its signals were transmitted from the ESA's Orbital Test Satellites. Between 1981 to 1985, TVRO systems' sales rates increased as prices fell. Advances in receiver technology and the use of gallium arsenide FET technology enabled the use of smaller dishes. Five hundred thousand systems, some costing as little as $2000, were sold in the US in 1984. Dishes pointing to one satellite were even cheaper. People in areas without local broadcast stations or cable television service could obtain good-quality reception with no monthly fees. The large dishes were a subject of much consternation, as many people considered them eyesores, and in the US most condominiums, neighborhoods, and other homeowner associations tightly restricted their use, except in areas where such restrictions were illegal. These restrictions were altered in 1986 when the Federal Communications Commission ruled all of them illegal. A municipality could require a property owner to relocate the dish if it violated other zoning restrictions, such as a setback requirement, but could not outlaw their use. The necessity of these restrictions would slowly decline as the dishes got smaller.

Originally, all channels were broadcast in the clear (ITC) because the equipment necessary to receive the programming was too expensive for consumers. With the growing number of TVRO systems, the program providers and broadcasters had to scramble their signal and develop subscription systems.

In October 1984, the U.S. Congress passed the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, which gave those using TVRO systems the right to receive signals for free unless they were scrambled, and required those who did scramble to make their signals available for a reasonable fee. Since cable channels could prevent reception by big dishes, other companies had an incentive to offer competition. In January 1986, HBO began using the now-obsolete VideoCipher II system to encrypt their channels. Other channels used less secure television encryption systems. The scrambling of HBO was met with much protest from owners of big-dish systems, most of which had no other option at the time for receiving such channels, claiming that clear signals from cable channels would be difficult to receive. Eventually HBO allowed dish owners to subscribe directly to their service for $12.95 per month, a price equal to or higher than what cable subscribers were paying, and required a descrambler to be purchased for $395. This led to the attack on HBO's transponder Galaxy 1 by John R. MacDougall in April 1986. One by one, all commercial channels followed HBO's lead and began scrambling their channels. The Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association (SBCA) was founded on December 2, 1986 as the result of a merger between SPACE and the Direct Broadcast Satellite Association (DBSA).

Videocipher II used analog scrambling on its video signal and Data Encryption Standard–based encryption on its audio signal. VideoCipher II was defeated, and there was a black market for descrambler devices which were initially sold as "test" devices.


Late 1980s and 1990s

By 1987, nine channels were scrambled, but 99 others were available free-to-air. While HBO initially charged a monthly fee of $19.95, soon it became possible to unscramble all channels for $200 a year. Dish sales went down from 600,000 in 1985 to 350,000 in 1986, but pay television services were seeing dishes as something positive since some people would never have cable service, and the industry was starting to recover as a result. Scrambling also led to the development of pay-per-view events. On November 1, 1988, NBC began scrambling its C-band signal but left its Ku band signal unencrypted in order for affiliates to not lose viewers who could not see their advertising. Most of the two million satellite dish users in the United States still used C-band. ABC and CBS were considering scrambling, though CBS was reluctant due to the number of people unable to receive local network affiliates. The piracy on satellite television networks in the US led to the introduction of the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992. This legislation enabled anyone caught engaging in signal theft to be fined up to $50,000 and to be sentenced to a maximum of two years in prison. A repeat offender can be fined up to $100,000 and be imprisoned for up to five years.

Satellite television had also developed in Europe but it initially used low power communication satellites and it required dish sizes of over 1.7 metres. On 11 December 1988 Luxembourg launched Astra 1A, the first satellite to provide medium power satellite coverage to Western Europe. This was one of the first medium-powered satellites, transmitting signals in Ku band and allowing reception with small dishes (90 cm). The launch of Astra beat the winner of the UK's state Direct Broadcast Satellite licence holder, British Satellite Broadcasting, to the market.

In the US in the early 1990s, four large cable companies launched PrimeStar, a direct broadcasting company using medium power satellites. The relatively strong transmissions allowed the use of smaller (90 cm) dishes. Its popularity declined with the 1994 launch of the Hughes DirecTV and Dish Network satellite television systems.

On March 4, 1996 EchoStar introduced Digital Sky Highway (Dish Network) using the EchoStar 1 satellite. EchoStar launched a second satellite in September 1996 to increase the number of channels available on Dish Network to 170. These systems provided better pictures and stereo sound on 150–200 video and audio channels, and allowed small dishes to be used. This greatly reduced the popularity of TVRO systems. In the mid-1990s, channels began moving their broadcasts to digital television transmission using the DigiCipher conditional access system.

In addition to encryption, the widespread availability, in the US, of DBS services such as PrimeStar and DirecTV had been reducing the popularity of TVRO systems since the early 1990s. Signals from DBS satellites (operating in the more recent Ku band) are higher in both frequency and power (due to improvements in the solar panels and energy efficiency of modern satellites) and therefore require much smaller dishes than C-band, and the digital modulation methods now used require less signal strength at the receiver than analog modulation methods. Each satellite also can carry up to 32 transponders in the Ku band, but only 24 in the C band, and several digital sub channels can be multiplexed (MCPC) or carried separately (SCPC) on a single transponder. Advances in noise reduction due to improved microwave technology and semiconductor materials have also had an effect. However, one consequence of the higher frequencies used for DBS services is rain fade where viewers lose signal during a heavy downpour. C-band satellite television signals are less prone to rain fade.


Australia 2000 to present date

Optus C1 Satellite

Satellite television in Australia has proven to be a far more feasible option than cable television, perhaps due to the vast distances between population centres, (although Canada, which also has large distances between population centres, has a relatively high cable television penetration rate). The first service to come online in Australia was Galaxy, which was later taken over by Cable Television giant Foxtel, which now operates both cable and satellite services to all state capital cities (except Darwin and Hobart) and the whole of Western Australia. Its main metropolitan rival was Optus Vision, while rural areas are served by Austar, both of which just rebroadcast Foxtel as of 2005. In 2006 SelecTV began operating, aiming at providing comparatively low cost packages and catering to specialised market segments.

Australia has produced numerous notable television series and miniseries, with the most prominent programs coming from the comedy, police, and medical drama genres.

One of the earliest Australian police drama series was Homicide, produced in Melbourne by Crawford Productions, widely viewed as having revolutionised Australian television drama production. It was followed by Division 4 and Matlock Police, which also enjoyed great popularity and long runs both locally and overseas. Other successful police drama series have included Cop Shop, Police Rescue, Blue Heelers, Water Rats and Stingers. Medical dramas have also proved popular with audiences, including series such as The Flying Doctors, GP, A Country Practice and All Saints.

Notable miniseries have included Against the Wind, All the Rivers Run, Bodyline, Brides of Christ, The Dismissal and The Timeless Land, and in more recent times Curtin, **** Boys and The Slap.

Australian soap opera success began with Bellbird in 1967 which was a moderate but consistent success. Following this the huge success of Number 96 in 1972 prompted creation of the similar The Box in 1974. These serials were all cancelled in 1977. Following this successful serials included The Young Doctors, The Sullivans, Prisoner, Sons and Daughters, Neighbours and Home and Away. This later group were also screened internationally, finding particular success in the United Kingdom.

Comedy series have included The Aunty Jack Show, The Paul Hogan Show, The Norman Gunston Show, and more recently The D-Generation, Frontline, The Glass House, Bogan Hunters, Summer Heights High, Please Like Me and popular series Thank God You're Here, which has since been adapted to a number of countries around the world, and already several of them have brought in creators and stars of shows like Kath & Kim to help produce, direct, star, or serve as consultants on their versions.

Old style Portable Satellite Dish

The Viewer Access Satellite Television service, or VAST, is a satellite television platform in Australia, providing digital television and radio services to remote and rural areas, viewers in terrestrial black spots and for people who are travelling. The service uses the Optus C1 and Optus D3 satellites. It is partly funded by the Australian Government and managed through a joint-venture between Southern Cross Media and Imparja Television. It is an even more restricted free-to-view replacement for Optus Aurora providing channels which have been absent (such as a Network Ten affiliate and digital only secondary and HD network channels) on the remote service until now. Also the replacement black spot service uses only H.264 video encoding and 8PSK for the additional channels, which allows for more lower bit rate channels on the limited transponder space that's available. The EPG uses an MHEG-5 guide instead of the usual more compatible DVB EIT.

On 10 January 2010, the Australian Government announced a new satellite service to deliver digital television and radio channels to Australian viewers who reside in remote and rural areas, or who can't obtain adequate television signal in an existing metropolitan or regional terrestrial broadcast area, commonly referred to as being in a black spot. Initially, the service was only available to viewers in and around Mildura, Victoria, to coincide with Australia's first analog television switch-off. On 15 December 2010, the service was made available to viewers in the existing Remote Central and Eastern Australia and Mt Isa license areas. In April 2011, the Western VAST service began for Regional and Remote Western Australia viewers.

Anyone is entitled to access ABC and SBS channels on the VAST service, after completing a successful application, regardless of location within Australia.


Several different groups of people are currently entitled to use the VAST service to receive commercial stations:

  • Those who live in areas designated as being part of the Remote Central & Eastern Australia license area.
  • Those who live outside the Remote Central & Eastern Australia license area and meet any of these conditions:
    • live in an area predicted to have no terrestrial digital coverage
    • have approval to view the existing Optus Aurora service; due to being in a signal black spot
    • those who do not have Optus Aurora approval, in which they may apply for VAST from 6 months before the switch over in their license area.1
  • Those who are traveling may apply for a temporary travellers approval. (Allowing 6 months access).
  • Those who live in areas of Western Australia where terrestrial coverage is not predicted to be available after the completion of the digital switch over in that state.

Viewers accessing the service must use a VAST certified satellite television set-top box and smartcard, and go through an application process. The original set-top box is a model provided by the South African owned vendor Altech UEC, which also offers models with recording functions. The units with a recording function inhibit forward cuing and skipping to prevent commercials being bypassed. Unlike the Aurora service, VAST only uses Irdeto version two and three (not version one) for DVB encryption key management with each smart card locked to the serial number of the provided set-top box.

Difficult to set up Satellite Dish

Initially it was suggested that a 65cm Satellite Dish would be sufficient to receive the VAST signal, however after research and feedback by users iTechworld determined that the actual size of dish needed was a minimum of 85cm in order to receive the signal anywhere in Australia. As more and more people use the VAST service while travelling the satellite equipment needed has evolved to be more streamline, lightweight and easy to store. This is due to travellers having limited space in their caravans and motor homes. Originally the travelling satellite kits were dishes that were took from house roofs and mounted onto a heavy and cumbersome tripod. This was adequate to do the job but did have some major flaws, it was extremely cumbersome to use with the dish often getting caught in the wind and being damaged, tools were needed every time to set the dish up and the dish had to be dismantled into two heavy and hard to store components, the tripod and dish. The assemble of the dish each for use would be a long and drawn out process.

Stable and Easy to use dish




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