It all began not too long ago, on July 10, 1962, with a telephone call from American Telephone & Telegraph Chairman Frederick Kappel at the AT&T ground station in Andover, Maine, to President Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington -- the satelite age of communications.
Minutes after that first phone call via Telstar I, launched that day by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for AT&T, the first video satellite broadcast beamed photos of the American flag waving over Andover to Washington, and for a few brief seconds to both England and France.
The next day, France reciprocated with its first satellite broadcast, a tape of entertainers Yves Montand and Michelle Arnaud performing in Paris, relayed through a ground station at Pleumeur-Bodou, France. Then the English followed with a live transmission showing newsmen rummaging through a television studio at Goonhilly Downs.
The satellite that relayed those modest broadcasts is long since gone, and is nothing more than a relic from the dark ages of space communications.
Today some 50 satellites are hovering in space in a tiny stip circling the globe some 22,240 miles from the earth at the equatorial line. Powered by solar cells, they essentially stand still in relation to the earth, circling along with the globe once a day so they are perfect floating relay towers for continuous transmission of all kinds of communication.
But despite the many phrases about the infinity of space, serious overcrowding promises to cause major problems within two or three years. The overcrowding has nothing to do with how close the satellites are coming to each other -- although most are located in that one belt over the U.S. and Canada -- but instead involves use of a limited number of radio frequencies available to space satellites. In short, not unlike someone's uncommonly powerful CB radio transmitter coming in over a neighbor's TV, some communications satellites may be interfering with the signals of others.
The major cause of the problem is a rapidly growing demand for satellite technology not only from the private sector, particularly in the U.S., but also from developing and other nations seeking to use satellites for such things as basic telephone service. A recent world conference on global telecommunications, at which 173 international communications experts gathered, produced a report predicting that worldwide demand for international satellite communications will more than double in the next five years.
There is good reason for that increased demand. Satellites offer significant advantages over land-line systems because they can handle huge volumes of data: Sometimes as much as 25 times more information can be traditional land telephone lines in the same period of time.
All commercial satellites coming from the U.S. and from many foreign countries are launched by NASA at one of three launch sites: Cape Canaveral, Fla., Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Wallops Island, Va. NASA will be launching 14 satellites in 1979, and nine of those will be for either private entities or foreign countries. (The Department of Defense launches its own satellites).
And NASA doesn't provide cheap cab rides; it charges between $15 and $30 million to put a satellite in space, and that doesn't include the cost of building the satellite itself. The average launch on a Delta rocket -- the industry workhorse made by McDonnell-Douglas -- costs about $20 million, while the larger Atlas Centaur, a product of General Dynamics and United Technology, can handle a heavier load for an average charge of $28 million.
The people responsible for the satellites are, not surprisingly, communications companies. RCA, Western Union, and Comsat (The Communications Satellite Corp., a private corporation set up by the U.S. government and operated under its purview) are the industry leaders, but many more are expected to enter the field shortly. AT&T has petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for permission to set up an elaborate system of satellite business services which could link an estimated 137,000 computers from all kinds of businesses by 1983, essentially allowing the various companies to share each other's data and have their computers talk to each other.
Two other industry giants, IBM and Xerox, also are planning to enter the field with a bang. In partnership with Aetna Life & Casualty Co. and Comsat, IBM has formed Satellite Business Systems (SBS) which hopes by 1981 to offer a host of services to private corporations -- including the ability to have firms' executives talk via phone and television screeen to other staffers in other cities, and to transmit facsimile and data information.
SBS also wil offer a significantly different satellite transmission service than is now available. Most current systems bounce transmissions from earth off a satellite to a series of ground receiving stations (AT&T, for example, has seven stations placed strategically around the U.S.). The ground station then relays the message -- such as a telephone call or computer command -- to the final destination by traditional land lines, or other surface forms of communication, adding considerably to the final cost of transmission.
The SBS system, however, will transmit signals from a satellite directly to a small antenna on the roof or property of the customer. "We will, in effect, be a big private-line network," SBS President Philip Whittaker said recently.
Xerox is going for a different market. It hopes to offer somewhat more traditional services such as like facsimile transmission, computer data transmission and teleconferencing at lower prices.
Perhaps the most profound growth, however, will come in the international market, which is expected to be a lion's share of what some analysts say will be a $2 billion market within five years when an estimated 100 communication satellites are expected to be in orbit. (The industry did about $100 million worth of business last year.)
The International Telecommunications Satellite organization (Intelstat) is a cooperative jointly owned by about 100 member nations or their agent companies like Comsat, which is the U.S. representative. Among Intelstat's charges are coordinating satellite launchings and spacings. Most satellites are about 4 degrees apart, for example. (A full circle around the globe is 360 degrees.)
"There is a finite amount of orbit space and the demand is tremendous," says NASA's George Knouse. "Communications demands are growing to the point where we expect two dozen more communications satellites to go up within two or three years."
Although nations such as Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan and Italy have used NASA to launch their satellites, an increasing number are beginning to put them up by themselves. Russia and China, for example, have put up many for their own use, although China has asked the U.S. to launch some of its domestic communications satellites for an ambitious program that will include up to 35 television channels transmitted to different sections of the country, as well as facsimile and data transmission.
The earlier satellites were designed to last about two years, but most lasted much longer, NASA says. The problem usually involves running out of fuel needed to power mid-course corrections when the satellites drift, as many of them often do. Newer satellites are designed to last seven years, and the 10-year satellite is close to production. Length of service is important particularly because the major cost of any satellite is in the launching.
In another breakthrough, NASA is expected to get its Space Shuttle program off the ground soon, which will enable the agency to launch as many as four satellites with one returnable vehicle and even do some repair work in space on existing satellites. Four shuttles are presently on order and, as one NASA official said, "We have an option on a fifth." That means they will try to adhere to President Carter's request that they only build four, but don't discount possible pressures from private industry on Congress calling for the fifth.
But there may be some trouble ahead for the U.S. satellite business, which until recently has been experiencing virtually unbridled growth. The World Administrative Radio Conference, which meets officialy in Geneva every six years and coordinates the activities of all broadcast activity -- including now the spacecraft club -- is facing an "honest-to-good problem with coordination," according to a NASA spokesman.
The U.S., for example, has balked at the one-country-one-vote posture of the world body, which gives the U.S. the same leverage as even the smallest country that has no satellite capability. Many countries -- including the Soviet Union -- have filed for several new frequencies for satellite transmission, despite the U.S. belief that the other countries aren't planning to send anything up. "They are tying up a valuable frequency, when they may just be trying to reserve an orbit to cover themselves for the future, and there seems to be nothing we can do about it," a NASA source said.
Still, the future for satellite communications is exciting. There are already some advanced thinkers using satellites to bring tremendous change to existing industries. Atlanta's Ted Turner, for example, beams his Atlanta television stsation to more than 3 million viewers in 45 states using satellite feeds to cable television networks across the country. He has become the first local television station owner to charge national advertising rates for an audience he does not have to pay to reach.
The Mutual Broadcasting System will shortly begin transmitting all of its radio network programming over Western Union satellites, opening the network up to what one Western Union executive called a "quantum leap in uniform quality to all reception points." -- including the ability for Mutual to transmit three simultaneous programs and, in the future, to transmit in stereo.
And only last week the FCC approved creation of a noncommercial radio network by voting to allow the lingking of 192 public-radio stations by satellite. The new system, which will not be in effect for at least a year, will allow the stations to choose their programming from anywhere from four to 20 channels feeding simultaneously. In addition, up to 16 production companies around the country will have the ability to feed live programing -- such as concerts, sporting events or public hearings -- into the new network.
The possibilities are endless. The Post Office already is planning to use computer-satellite links to send mail through the airwaves (Airmail?) electronically. The Federal Reserve is studying electronic satellite fund transfers.
Corporate executives doubtless will mourn the death of the business trip as more and more companies hold meetings via picture phones. Telegrams will be sent instantaneously around the world from one machine, through the computer, to another.
The Washington Post London correspondant, for example, will sit down at a typewriter-computer-transmission device at his desk and type in words that will appear on a screen and on paper at the newspaper's headquarters here seconds later.
A researcher at a business school in the South could sit down at a console and obtain sales figures for the past 10 years from a New York -- based company's computer which is on the same network.
Two professors at two universities across the country from each other could play a game of chess on a video system, and the loser could send the winner an IOU over an instant facsimile transmitter.
But there will always be at least some risk associated with satellite transmission. In November 1977, the "Satellite Art Performance Project" set up an experiment involving a Northern California musician blowing his flute into a microphone near San Francisco. A Canadian Technology Satellite captured the tune and relayed it to Greenbelt, Md., where a group of dancers began to dance. Manwhile, the floutist also could see the dancers through a satellite television transmission taking the same path in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, shortly after the experiment began, the NASA transmitter in Maryland started shooting sparks and blew a fuse, causing one participant to muse, "We're having techno-karma problems," and look up.