Communications Technology Management Inc., a local consulting and engineering company, has built the area's first two-way link to the entire domestic and international communications satellite network. This is just one facet of a three-year, $25 million program that could place the company at the forefront of national rresearch on linking computers with television.
The satellite earth station hookup, known in the industry as an uplink, consists of three 10-meter dishes and is located at the intersection of Interstates 395 and 495 in Virginia. It will provide area business and news organizations with their first direct access to a variety of communications satellites.
Previously, broadcast news bureaus in the area, for example, were generally forced to send their transmission first to earth stations in New York and New Jersey via telephone lines before they then were sent to their ultimate destination.
The company also is putting together a test market of approximately 500 homes in the Washington area to experiment with what the firm's management says will be the nation's first full-scale, two-way cable television system, one that will offer a variety of home services never before tested on an audience of that size.
"We're doing it in this market because we have to show the Federal Communications Commission, the Congress and the White House that there are many ways to distribute these products," said Robert Schmidt, the president of CTM and a former president of the National Cable Television Association. "It does not have to, by default, wind up in the telephone industry's hands."
In addition, using a local microwave network it has constructed at a half-dozen sites around the metropolitan area, the firm is planning a communications network that ultimatelycould link the Capital Centre, a studio at L'Enfant Plaza and other institutions for a variety of business and entertainment uses.
For example, the company has hired former Senate sergeant-at-arms Frank Nordy Hoffman to coordinate a speakers bureau, with the aim of permitting Washington figures such as members of Congress to give speeches to audiences around the country through a satellite connection without ever leaving the confines of downtown Washington.
"We're trying to tell the cable industry that here is somebody who will dedicate their efforts to determining what new services will change the industry from an entertainment to a cable communications industry."
So Schmidt, armed with extensive connections from his work at the NCTA and his previous position as a lobbyist for International Telephone & Telegraph, joined with three partners to set up his own business in McLean in an effort to corner a slice of the cable technical and consulting market.
Getting clients seems not to have been a problem. The brokerage house Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, the New York Stock Exchange and Walt Disney Productions are already among CTM's contractors.
The Disney project is particularly interesting because it meshes well with CTM's futuristic view of cable television. The company is acting as a communications consultant for Disney World's "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorow" (EPCOT), assisting in the design of a future home entertainment center that will be a major part of a massive Disney project that will test consumer interest in these sophisticated services.
These facets of the firm's business -- consulting, building design, technical experimentation, the satellite link and the conference and speaking section -- are all connected to the premise behind Schmidt's assembling of CTM when he left the national association late in 1979.
His view is that despite the boom in the construction of new cable systems and the development of entertainment programming to fill the new multiple channel systems, there is a lack of applied research looking at the non-entertainment potential of cable television, particularly in the Washington area, where there is virtually no way to demonstrate the technological potential of cable to key federal policy makers.
That is why the Washington satellite connection and the testing program are so important to CTM. The market test, which Schmidt said may be operational later this year, will be done either in Arlington, Gaithersburg, or Annapolis, where the area's only major operating cable systems are functioning.
The experiment will offer a variety of services not previously integrated in a single cable system, and will include home retailing, security services, banking, and will offer access to information from a computer at the CTM office.
"We're building a national network from the start," Schmidt said. "But we have to get the pieces together." Schmidt said he had had conversations with information companies and retailers, who he hopes will participate in the local project. The program will be done in conjunction with M/A-Com Inc., which will manufacture the equipment.
"When we are at a point when we can give them something tangible, they've got to come and want to plug in," Schmidt said. By 1983, the project, viewed by CTM as "developmental laboratory," will also include two other test markets, one in the southwest and one on the West Coast.
But Schmidt also points out that despite the extensive experiment, before the new home services via cable win consumer acceptance, the business world will first have to realize their usefullness and their potential for time and money savings.
"That's where it will happen first," he said. "Small businesses, professionals, in this town lobbyists, and other people who deal in information will realize that they will save money and perform tasks in an expeditious manner.
"There are a whole list of hurdlers that will preclude consumer acceptance of these things despite the novel gadgets, Schmidt said. "We have to make it simple and idiot-proof. That's why we're looking at business applications."