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 group, led by Chairman, Olaf Rydbeck, examined four broad areas:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve captured some of the landmark events and trends in story of communications regulation in our IIC 50 Whats timeline.
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
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