What the New Domestic COMMUNICATIONS SATELLITES Will Do for You (Jun, 1973)
I love it when writers with expertise in one area just throw in huge advances in other technologies as a possible result of another. Eg: What does a 3-D virtual conference room have to do with satellites? Would it not work with wires?
What the New Domestic COMMUNICATIONS SATELLITES Will Do for You
Canada’s pioneering Aniks, and U.S. successors, are introducing the revolutionary innovation of overland telephone-and-TV relays in the sky. They promise bargain rates for long-distance phone calls, picture phones that everyone can afford—and better television programs, by way of novel kinds of TV networks
By WERNHER von BRAUN
PS Consulting Editor, Space
On Jan. 11, 1973, Rudy Pudluk, community manager of Resolute on a Canadian island above the Arctic Circle, made a long-distance phone call to Ottawa. The English-speaking Eskimo chatted with Gerard Pelletier, Minister of Communications, and with David Golden, president of Telesat Canada, whose system carried his voice across the frozen North.
His call began commercial operations of Anik 1, North America’s first domestic communications satellite—and the world’s first domestic one in a synchronous orbit, like that of our transocean Intelsat satellites.
Anik 1 was launched from Cape Kennedy on Nov. 9, 1972. It hangs stationary with respect to Earth, 22,300 miles high, over the equator and the eastern Pacific at 109° west longitude (which puts it due south of Gallup, N.M., and mid western Canada). From its lofty height it views Canada coast to coast.
By the time you read this it will have been joined nearby in orbit by an identical twin, Anik 2, if all has gone well. One communications satellite has ample relaying range to span the continent; Anik 2 will simply add more message-carrying capacity, and be a backup in orbit. Anik 3, completing the litter, will be kept on the ground as a spare.
Within a year the United States will follow Canada’s example and launch domestic communications satellites of its own. They’ll transmit phone calls, television programs, telegrams, Telex, U.S. Postal Service Mailgrams, facsimiles of documents, computer data. A hotel-reservation service may find you accommodations via satellite.
A new kind of message net. For years we’ve enjoyed the advantages of transocean phone-and-TV satellites—but the Western world has waited until now for domestic ones, satellites linking points within a country’s own borders.
Understandably they came first in the Soviet Union—a nation with interior distances so vast that people in Vladivostok are awakening to a new day, when their countrymen in Kiev are going to bed the night before. Since 1965, the USSR has been spanned by Molniya (“lightning”) domestic communications satellites in elliptical orbits at steep angles to the equator.
Communications have to be switched from one Molniya to another as they pass successively over the country. Currently, however, the Russians are reported to have developed a synchronous version (awaiting launching at this writing) that will stay put in the sky as the Aniks do.
Anik means “brother” in Eskimo —and Telesat Canada, established by the Canadian Parliament in 1969, has set up a network extending all the way from Canada’s densely populated south to the remote northern settlements of its Eskimos and Indians.
The 37 satellite-linked earth stations of its initial net include two “heavy-route” ones at the Toronto and Victoria transcontinental-route terminals, with 98-foot dish antennas resembling those for global satellites; other stations’ dishes are smaller. Six “network television” stations transmit and receive TV; 25 “remote TV” stations receive it only.
“Northern telecommunication” stations at Resolute and Frobisher Bay establish a moderate-traffic phone link to lines in the south. “Thin-route” stations on Baffin Island and at Igloolik provide limited phone service to small Arctic communities. High-frequency radiotelephone links, available only two hours a day and subject to interference and fading, served Arctic outposts before.
What Aniks are like. Skillful design makes Anik an “economy” satellite. At bargain cost it offers phone-and-TV capacity in the same class with the big Intelsat IVs from the same maker, Hughes Aircraft.
Smaller than an Intelsat IV (11% feet high instead of 17%) and much lighter in weight (about 1200 pounds at liftoff, vs. 3100), an Anik is less expensive to buy, and to launch into orbit, a service for which the owner reimburses NASA. A Thor-Delta vehicle suffices, rather than the huskier Atlas-Centaur it takes to loft the Intelsat. All told, an Anik in orbit costs about $16% million, compared to about $29% million for an orbited Intelsat IV. It likewise is designed for a seven-year lifetime.
Chunky little Anik receives signals from Earth, and retransmits them back to other points, with a five-foot parabolic antenna of fine gold mesh rather than a solid dish. For electric power, some 20,000 solar cells surround Anik’s drum-shaped body. According to Telesat Canada, an Anik satellite’s 12 transponders (radio repeaters) give it a total capacity of up to nearly 12,000 oneway voice circuits—enough for 6000 two-way phone conversations—or 12 color television programs, at once.
Up to within a few months of Anik 1’s launching, the United States had done little about domestic communications satellites of its own.
It had been a pioneer with communications satellites. It played a leading part in establishing the Comsat/Intelsat net of global satellite links; and the Aniks themselves were built by a U.S. firm. But U.S. domestic ones long went neglected, for a simple reason: The U.S. already had a splendid network of coaxial cables and microwave towers, which seemed entirely capable of providing good long-distance communications and of expanding fast enough to meet ever-growing needs.
Domestic communications satellites, however, can do things far beyond the reach of any earthbound system. Realizing this, the Federal Communications Commission cleared the way for them on June 16, 1972. It laid down the basic rules in a memorable “open skies” decision, which assured lively competition in the field: A go-ahead for U.S. systems. The FCC announced it was ready to license a limited number of technically and financially qualified U.S. companies to set up their own commercial systems of domestic communications satellites. Each system was to consist of the necessary space elements and ground stations, and would be expected to offer its channels to an emerging market of interested customers.
The scramble was on!
Some U.S. companies couldn’t wait to get their own satellites into orbit, and began setting up arrangements with Telesat Canada to lease Anik channels—which could serve U.S. cities just as well. Canadian users’ needs already claimed most of Anik 1’s capacity, but Anik 2 would have plenty to spare. The American Satellite Corp. and RCA were among prospective U.S. Anik customers.
Efforts to get systems of U.S. domestic communications satellites into early operation looked much like a race, with at least seven contenders. These were examples: Even before Hughes had completed Canada’s three Aniks, it had Western Union’s order for three more of the same. Western Union planned to orbit the first of them before mid-1974. Its “Westar” domestic-satellite system, besides carrying its own messages, would have channels to lease to all comers.
American Satellite Corp. (jointly owned by Fairchild Industries and Western Union International) contracted with Hughes for three 12-transponder domestic satellites, and made a down payment to NASA for a first launch in the third quarter of 1974. By then it planned to have a network of eight ground stations, near New York, Dallas, Chicago, Washington, Atlanta or Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
It has also initiated, with Fair-child, design and development of an advanced 24-transponder domestic communications satellite for future use in its system.
Big ones by 1975. For lease to AT&T, Communications Satellite Corp. will establish a U.S. domestic-satellite system with four big satellites, three in orbit and one on the ground. The first is to be launched in 1975. Announced details show them to be as large as Comsat’s global Intelsat IVs and of even greater message capacity: They’ll be about 18 feet high and weigh about 3100 pounds at liftoff by Atlas-Centaur vehicles. Each 24-transponder satellite will provide some 14,400 two-way voice-grade circuits. It will have two dish antennas of five-foot diameter, one vertically polarized and the other horizontally polarized (see box on technology below).
The three orbiting satellites will provide domestic-satellite service to all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and will be incorporated into AT&T’s nationwide network “to expand and diversify its services to customers.”
A satellite in synchronous orbit (as all these coming ones will be) is like a 22,300-mile-high microwave tower. It is in line-of-sight contact with every point in the U.S. Radio energy can therefore be beamed up to it (“uplink”) and down from it (“downlink”) in straight lines. Relatively short stretches of land lines, of course, connect users with the nearest Earth terminals.
Innovations we’ll see. Changes we can expect domestic satellites to bring about have been compared to those from paperback books. Books weren’t new; the real novelty of the paperbacks was their availability in so many places and at such low cost.
Even the most conservative planners expect the FCC’s “open skies” ruling to revolutionize the entire pattern of telecommunications in the United States. Here is why domestic communications satellites (“dom-sats” as they’re already being called (or short) are so exciting:
• They can provide many more channels, for the same investment, than conventional long-distance cables or microwave lines.
• A domestic communications satellite can carry a telephone call from Washington to Los Angeles as cheaply as from Washington to Baltimore.
Beyond a certain distance—say, 1000 miles for the present—the satellite route is the more economical one. First rates proposed for leasing U.S. domestic-satellite voice circuits give a striking example. The cost is only one-third as much as for coast-to-coast voice-grade circuits by land routes.
Presuming that the ultimate user will eventually share the benefit of the saving, agreeably lower rates for long-distance telephone calls could be your introduction to the practical advantages of domestic satellites.
• Communications satellites can connect one point with a multitude of other points—unlike a coaxial cable or a string of microwave towers on the ground, which always go from one point to another point.
In a TV hookup, for example, a domestic satellite can relay a program originating in New York to 50 or more TV stations throughout the nation, for local transmission—either via broadcast or cable TV.
Better TV on the way. Joining cable-TV systems into regional and national networks by satellite may be foreshadowed as early as this month. Subject to FCC clearance, an East (‘oast program was to be transmitted to Anaheim, Calif., by way of Anik in a June trial planned by TelePrompTer Corp., the largest cable-TV operator. This would test the feasibility of its “spacecast” plan to connect its cable-TV systems in 33 states and two Canadian provinces with a U.S. domestic satellite in 1974.
The predictable hook-up of local cable TV to satellites will drastically change our entire mode of distributing television programs.
A vast number of available uplink channels can simultaneously bring an advanced satellite dozens of different programs, originating in different cities. Each receiving station can draw upon a rich variety of fare for its viewers’ delectation. Moreover, the number of receiving stations can far exceed the present number of television stations, because they quietly feed the received signal into the local TV cable, rather than tying up a precious frequency “on the air.”
You’ll have a wider choice of what you want to watch through a recent FCC ruling: Franchises for new cable-TV installations, henceforth, will be granted only if they provide two-way communication.
If you prefer a free program sponsored by a commercial advertiser, fine. If you don’t want to miss a particular noncommercial pay-TV program—one of 50 programs the satellite may offer at the time—you just punch a two-digit number into a “touch-tone” communicator on your television set. The cable relay station will release the requested program to your set, and bill you at the end of the month.
In this way TV at last will break free of “lowest common denominator” programs (which often capture the highest Nielsen ratings), and be able to meet the infinite diversity of individual tastes.
TV will also be enabled to make a much greater contribution in the field of education. Congestion at campuses could be relieved if students went to their universities only for seminars, discussions, and laboratory work, while boning up on their chosen subjects via TV.
TV direct from the sky. A high-powered synchronous satellite can broadcast TV programs, beamed up to it from a central ground transmitter, direct to specially equipped individual receiving sets on Earth. (Due to the shorter frequencies used, the familiar rake-shaped TV antenna will be replaced by a wire-mesh dish about the size of a beach umbrella.) While this may be a long way off for home entertainment, it has immediate interest for educational programs in remote areas.
As soon as next year, the huge Fairchild-built ATS-F television-broadcast satellite, first of its kind, will give the idea a trial. (ATS is for Applications Technology Satellite, a many-purpose NASA series; F designates the sixth.) Weighing 2800 pounds at launch by a Titan III-C into synchronous orbit, ATS-F will unfold in space great solar-panel booms of total 52-foot span and an umbrella-shaped antenna of 30-foot diameter. First, in U.S. experiments, it will broadcast educational programs to Indian reservations in the Rockies, and to Eskimo settlements in Alaska.
In 1975, ATS-F’s thrusters will nudge it around the equator from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean for a momentous trial of a plan to beam educational TV all over northern In- dia LPS, May ’70], Experimental broadcasts will go to community TV receivers set up for the purpose in hundreds of remote villages.
Success of this ATS-F experiment would open the way to a projected operational system of India’s own, which could well make it the first country with direct sky-to-receiver television on a national scale. The full-fledged system would reach as many as thousands of villages via satellite, with educational programs broadcast in local tongues and suited especially to local needs.
More things are ahead. Steerable needle beams (see “technology” box) will open up a new era in communication with moving vehicles. Telephone service enroute can be provided quite readily for passengers in aircraft, ships, buses, and autos. In the eighties, automobiles will come with a circular receive-and-transmit antenna buried in the roof, flush and invisible. It will permit you to call anyone else on the globe from your moving car.
Picture phones for everyone. The almost unlimited channel capacity of communications satellites will finally transform video telephone service from an expensive luxury into a popular-priced amenity of everyday living.
This will not only be good news for young lovers—it will also help to keep fathers and husbands at home. Future monthly meetings of a national corporation’s general managers will no longer require their physical presence at corporate headquarters in a distant city.
Instead, each participant will sit before a 3-D color camera in a booth at his home office. Relayed by satellite, the images of all the others are projected upon the curved wall of the booth, and their voices are heard. All have the feeling of being seated together in the same room, around the same table.
Letting the electrons and microwaves do the traveling will become the fashion of the eighties. In the long run it will help to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution; it could even contribute to abating the energy crisis and countering the troublesome trend toward ever more urbanization.
I have heard it said that if Alexander Graham Bell had waited until the advent of satellites and microwaves to invent the telephone, instead of stringing the globe with millions of tons of copper wire, he would have opted for switchboards in the sky.
What’s ahead in domestic satellites’ technology Reducing ground stations’ cost will help them grow in number to make the most of domestic communications satellites. This can be done by boosting power (and cost) of the satellite. The trend is that way in the Intelsat community—so a trans-ocean message to a developing country’s $3-million ground station won’t incongruously have to reach a town 50 miles away by the local tom-tom system. (It had been only logical to put the burden of weight and expense on the ground when the satellites and launch techniques were in their infancy.) As important as higher power is “spectrum conservation.” Frequencies are limited; separate use of the same frequency in “vertical” and “horizontal” polarization makes them go twice as far. The electromagnetic waves swing up-and-down, left-and-right, respectively. Careful antenna and circuit design can keep them from interfering with each other. An alternative is to aim two beams of identical frequency at different spots on Earth—as can be done with large enough antenna dishes, far enough apart.
Higher frequencies will reduce the size of large, cumbersome-to-launch antenna arrays and ultimately permit steerable needle-sharp beams to be pointed down at small-area ground targets. That will open the way to high-speed channel switching, another way to get more mileage from limited frequencies. When the satellite relays a TV program to a ground station or a number of them, of course it ties up that frequency for the program’s duration. But the frequency used to relay a rare telephone call to a remote town can be reassigned to another call in much less time.
Beam-steering and frequency-reassignment require sophisticated equipment. To route a dial-phone call, you dial digits that activate a string of switching relays. A similar coded instruction will be sent to future satellites from the call-originating ground station. Solid-state switching equipment will select an available downlink frequency and aim it by needle-sharp beam at the destination. A great number of beams can emanate simultaneously from a satellite.
Advanced technology will enable one satellite to handle 100,000 circuits or more with ease.