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Science Fact or Fiction? The Birth of the IIC

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The birth of the IIC

In 1945 Arthur C. Clarke posited the idea that three geostationary satellites could transmit messages across the planet

At the time, his suggestion was dismissed as fanciful. But 23 years later, in 1968, the UN General Assembly approved the establishment of a working group to report on the technical feasibility of communication by direct broadcasts from satellites. Drawing on expertise from Europe, the USA and Asia and including academics, economists, government and industry, the group formed the beginnings of the International Broadcasting Institute (IBI), later to become the IIC.

The original purpose of the IIC

The group, led by Chairman, Olaf Rydbeck, examined four broad areas:

  • Technical feasibility and economic factors that would drive success or failure of satellite broadcasting
  • The impact of satellite broadcasting on society
  • The legal position and regulatory requirements for the future of the industry
  • The need for inter-governmental and non-inter-governmental collaboration between stakeholders

Mixed views on regulation

Within the group some wanted to build on existing principles and legal instruments, some felt it was too soon “and might hinder rather than promote international cooperation”. We can see in this a reflection of the decisions faced by policy makers today; how best to strike the balance between innovation and protection.

At the end of 1969 the Working Group had commissioned further studies aimed at closing the gap between existing international law and the new technology in space communications. Legal committees were formed in Britain, France, Japan and the United States to look at spectrum management, the rights of performers and broadcasters, and protection of individuals from defamation and the invasion of privacy.

Their early conclusions were reported in a newsletter that became the forerunner to the IIC’s quarterly journal Intermedia, and represented the first attempt made by an international inter-governmental body to explore the potential of satellite broadcasting.

Fake news is not a new fear

From the outset the Working Party had concerns about the quality and consistency of news that that would be available as a result of the satellite broadcast industry. In a decision foreshadowing the modern concerns over ‘fake news’, they recommended a symposium to evaluate “the unique power of the audio visual medium and the state of social tension in the world, both of which stimulated public and governmental demands for tighter controls over the presentation of news.

In the conclusion to the first year’s findings, the Executive Director of the IBI wrote,

the IBI’s aim is to stimulate and assist where necessary in supporting comprehensive long-term research projects as well as conferences, confrontations and studies in aspects of mass media not adequately understood.

These early discussions set the scene for the next 50 years of discussion facilitated by the IIC. Events today examine the immediate future presented to us by technology, how do we best understand its impact and what policies will provide the best outcomes for society.

A look back at five decades of satellite communications

1960s: First communications satellites launched

  • 1962: Communications Satellite Act
  • 1962: The world’s first active communications satellite, Telstar 1, is launched.
  • 1963: The Communications Satellite Corporation (Comsat) is formed in the US with the objective of creating a national communications satellite system.
  • 1964: Comsat recruits other nations to form the global communications satellite network Intelsat, starting life as an inter-government organisation of 11 nations.
  • 1965: Intelsat’s first satellite nicknamed ‘Early Bird.’ is placed in geostationary orbit.
  • 1965: Yoshinori Maeda, president of NHK the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation and one of the original joint chairmen of the IIC, announces a plan to provide satellite broadcasting directly to individual homes
  • 1969: Japan initiates a full-scale national plan to develop a practical satellite by establishing the National Space Development Agency of Japan (NASDA)

1970s: Rapid advances in satellite performance

Satellites are mainly used for international and long-haul telephony and for the distribution of select television programming
  • 1973: The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation begins distributing video programming to Canadian customers.
  • 1975: HBO begins distributing its video programming to US customers by satellite. The commercial and technical success of these ventures leads to greater use and acceptance of satellite broadcasting.
  • 1977: Eutelsat is formed as a European inter-governmental organisation to provide infrastructure for 17 European countries.
  • European satellite television plans begin in the late 1960s when plans are first laid for an experimental satellite. The Orbital Test Satellite (OTS) is launched in May 1978.
  • The World Administrative Radio Conference (WARC-BS) 1977 takes the decision to assign broadcast satellite orbit locations and frequencies to each country.
  • 1979 Inmarsat is formed at the behest of the International Maritime Organisation, the maritime body of the United Nations.

1980s: Direct to Home becomes a reality

  • September 1981: Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns fight it out for the Welterweight Championship. The event was the first major pay-per-view sporting event. It was broadcast live by Viacom Cablevision in Nashville.
  • October 1981: SATV (the forerunner to Sky) begins test transmissions on the Orbital Test Satellite (OTS).
  • May 12, 1984: the world’s first full-scale direct reception satellite broadcast service (BS) is launched in Japan. Coming approximately fifty years after the start of broadcasting, NHK’s BS service overcame the difficulties of providing a TV service to remote areas of Japan. Over twenty years had passed since President of NHK Yoshinori Maeda presented the satellite broadcasting project plan in 1965.
  • 1982: Eutelsat begins operating its first TV channel, the first satellite-based direct-to-home TV channel in Europe. During the 1980s it rapidly expands its services and its geographic reach.

1990s: The pay per view era

  • The 1990s:  great advances in satellite technology and fundamental changes in the commercial industry.
  • Originally satellite communications had connected businesses to businesses via calls where no undersea cables existed. However, by the 1990s television networks such as ABC, NBC and CBS were using satellite to transmit programmes to their affiliate stations (point to multi-point) and helping the satellite industry grow.
  • 1994: sees the introduction of high-powered direct broadcast satellite (DBS) services using new digital compression technology. Consumers can receive hundreds of channels of digital-quality programming on a dish the size of a frying pan.

2000s: Liberalisation

  • By the early 2000s nearly 40 million homes around the world are subscribing to direct to home (DTH) satellite services.
  • The decade sees the general liberalisation of the telecommunications sector and in 2001
  • Intelsat becomes a private company, 37 years after its formation.
    In the same year Eutelsat is also privatised. (Inmarsat had been privatised in 1999).

2010s: The New Space Race?

  • 2018: The US Federal Communication Commission approves proposed satellite constellations from four operators: SpaceX, Telesat, Kepler and LeoSat. This authorises around 8000 small non-geostationary orbit satellites (NGOS) which will operate in a “very low Earth orbit” (VLOE). The first constellations are anticipated to be in orbit by 2025.
  • OneWeb and SpaceX both have stated aims of connecting large, unreached populations to the internet as a central purpose of their constellations.
  • Facebook also has plans to launch its very own LEO internet satellite, ‘Athena’, in early 2019. They are positioning the device as a way to “efficiently provide broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world”.

The decade ahead: A new era for satellite?

Geo-stationary satellites are likely to be replaced by constellations in Low Earth Orbit
While geo-stationary satellites help people in remote corners of the globe connect to the internet, they are a very long way away and are significantly slower than fibre-optic alternatives. Demand for ever-faster broadband internet connections means today’s large geostationary satellites have reached capacity, setting off an industry-wide stampede towards increasingly powerful high-throughput satellites (HTS).

A geo-stationary satellite requires an investment in the region of $200m and can last for 15 years. However, if they take two to four years to build, then they risk being out of date before they get anywhere near orbit. These “big beasts” work for transmitting television broadcast signals but doubts exist as to whether they are up to the job of broadband. As a result, demand for the geo-stationary Satellites is dropping, and the economics are changing the traditional value chain.

The Constellations of the Future

A host of companies believe the better way to connect the estimated half of Earth’s population that’s still offline is to launch “constellations” of smaller satellites into low Earth orbit, around 100 to 1,250 miles above the earth’s surface. The Low- and Medium-Earth-Orbit broadband satellites being built today are cheaper and promise speeds close to the performance of fibre-optics.

What is the market for the new VLEO?

Whilst the stated aim of new operators is to reach the unreachable individuals in remote, poorer rural areas, analysts doubt that the future is dependent on consumer broadband. They recognise the laudable objective of closing the digital divide, but anticipate the first market as backhaul to help cellular networks increase coverage and improve service.


The future mirrors the past

As the satellite industry pivots to LEO broadband as “the next big thing”, no one knows for sure what’s in store for tomorrow’s constellations. The questions being asked today mirror conclusions raised by the original Working Group of 1969.

  • How fast will the broadband market evolve and how cheaply can satellite receivers be put into the hands of the world’s least served?
  • What new regulatory approvals will be needed from the nations where companies want to do business?
  • What are the new business models?
  • Will demand match expectations?

We’ve captured some of the landmark events and trends in story of communications regulation in our IIC 50 Whats timeline.

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The IIC was founded in 1969 after the UN General Assembly approved the establishment of a working group to report on the technical feasibility of direct broadcasts from satellites. This working party was the birth of the IIC

Infrastructure and Spectrum: 5G and next generation networks, Privacy, Safety, Security
IIC at 50
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