Sun Sets on C-band

It reached its peak less than 25 years ago, but it seems more like light years since the era of huge backyard C-band satellite dishes captured hundreds of channels of free television for several million people in a span of only a few years that today is the stuff of communications folklore.
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'BigUglyDish' disappears from backyards

WASHINGTON: It reached its peak less than 25 years ago, but it seems more like light years since the era of huge backyard C-band satellite dishes captured hundreds of channels of free television for several million people in a span of only a few years that today is the stuff of communications folklore.

Those big fat dishes were hard to miss. Behemoth C-band disks measuring up to three meters wide, rising out of rural backyards (and often hidden in ingenuous places in the big city), pointed toward clusters of distant satellite signals in space.

Today, their numbers are dwindling rapidly in the digital age, yet it's not uncommon to spot the perhaps 200,000 C-band receivers that remain--the mostly weather-worn TVRO1 and TVRO2 dishes (TV receive-only)--especially while driving through the back roads of rural America.

Historically, the widespread emergence of the iconic backyard dish in the 1970s and early '80s represented some of the same resourcefulness and independence reminiscent of the 19th century Wild West, when a relative handful of tech-savvy consumer pioneers decided to stake their claim for capturing television signals from space, for free, whether the powers-that-be in Washington liked it or not.

For veteran broadcast engineer, consultant and industry historian Mark Schubin, involvement in commercial satellite projects began in 1973. For the past 30 years, he's also been media consultant for New York's Lincoln Center.

"Back when TV was typically transmitted by satellite only to 100-foot-diameter dishes, Westinghouse had 3-meter earth stations for the high-power NASA Applications Technology Satellite-6. I borrowed one from Westinghouse, and ATS-6 from NASA, for an exhibition I put together in January 1975 called 'The Performing Arts and the Future of Television.'

"The idea was to set up an earth station on Lincoln Center Plaza and pick up images of the Colorado Concert Ballet performing live in Denver. A regisseur [dance master] in New York would critique the dancers and his comments would be sent back to them. We set up the earth station and got nothing," Schubin said.

"We checked the pointing with NASA and still got nothing. The NASA person asked if I'd used a compass or an architect's benchmark. I said I'd used the compass. He did a quick calculation of magnetic deviation and then said, 'Give it a good swift kick to the left.' I did, and the pictures locked right in!"

The Communications Act of 1934 stipulated that no one could receive transmissions, other than broadcast or amateur, without the express permission of the senders. Anyone with an earth station who didn't have such permission was committing an illegal act. When a third program source, Trinity Broadcasting, went to satellite and gave blanket permission to all dish owners, the physical possession of an earth station suddenly was not automatically suspect.

C-band had been designated the first commercial (nonmilitary) frequency band set aside for general satellite use in the United States. But C-band was shared with terrestrial microwave services, so there were limits on how much power satellites could transmit so they wouldn't interfere with microwave towers.

"This satellite power issue had limited the degree to which smaller dishes could be used at C-band, as opposed to Ku-band, which is not shared with the terrestrial microwave service," according to satellite engineer Sidney Skjei of Skjei Telecom in Falls Church, Va. "This is one reason the typical backyard C-band dish is so much larger than the Ku-band dishes now used by DirecTV and EchoStar."

WTCG in Atlanta, destined to become a national "Superstation," went up on satellite in 1976, and PBS began broadcasting over C-band two years later. And while NBC, ABC and CBS came to C-band in 1981-83, the birth of the C-band backyard dish movement began a few years earlier in October 1979. In response to hundreds of formal requests from the public that C-band dishes be allowed to operate without licenses, the FCC, in its collective wisdom, agreed.

And then C-band really took off, according to Bob Cooper, the legendary C-band proponent who is given much of the credit for tapping the imagination of millions of America's would-be techno-pioneers. Cooper (widely known as "Coop" in C-band folklore) had taken full advantage of national media attention from such venues as the "CBS Evening News" and TV Guide (where he wrote firsthand about his own backyard dish).

Cooper was soon besieged with thousands of inquiries. As a way to get the word out, he began publishing C-band news, dish owners' comments, research and other aspects of the growing revolution. Proud C-band dish owners began lovingly referring to their dish as BUD (BigUglyDish).

"Prior to the FCC's approval, a complicated, time-consuming and expensive licensing procedure was required for a 'legal' dish," Cooper said. "Now we had the real possibility of privately owned, inexpensive C-band dishes. Already in '79 there were thousands of unlicensed terminals. But with licensing gone, it became a wide-open market allowing 'respectable' firms such as Channel Master, Panasonic, Uniden, Drake, and even Sony, to create hardware for C-band. By '85, you could set up a dish for as little as a thousand bucks."

TUNING IN THE WORLD

Cooper said the years 1979-86 were the best of times for C-band dish owners (although he knew time was running out). While the majority of typical terrestrial-only viewers could count the total number of channel choices on one hand, these newly legal C-band dish owners were now tuning into the world far beyond their local markets, and for free.

Skjei said C-banders could tune into HBO, Showtime, and The Movie Channel, as well as WTCG, WOR and WGN.

"But there were also basic network feeds, too, along with PBS, and a PPV channel called 'People's Choice,'" Skjei said. (PBS still provides its Schedule X feed for C-band dish owners.)

"For a while, even most national cable channels were distributed in the clear--with no scrambling--fed directly to cable headends and to backyard C-band dish owners," Skjei said.

When some scrambling finally did begin, it led to some newsworthy mischief by that era's equivalent of today's computer hackers.

Several years before the FCC gave its blessing to C-band dish owners, Schubin remembers addressing the NCTA Executive Committee in Arizona: "I told them satellite signals were not secure and that the FM 'capture effect' could allow someone to knock a programmer off the air.

"Ralph Baruch of Viacom asked me if I was saying that HBO could knock Showtime off the air and said he'd take his chances with that, getting a big laugh. Sometime thereafter, the self-styled 'Captain Midnight' knocked HBO off the air doing exactly what I'd said."

Schubin said what had angered Captain Midnight was HBO's decision to scramble its signals, thus leaving C-band dish owners in the dark.

"The programming was FTA [free-to-air] only because an economical, dependable scrambling system had not yet evolved," Cooper said. "This FTA situation continued for seven great years, through early 1986, allowing aggressive sellers to roll out more than 3 million home terminals at numbers approaching 75,000 monthly.

"Yet it was a house of cards doomed to fail, and with each passing month prior to scrambling's launch, the cable industry became increasingly paranoid as they found themselves disconnecting thousands of homes each week from their cable lines because folks were buying their own home dish systems," said Cooper, who lives in New Zealand where he continues to publish his magazine, "SatFACTS Monthly."

While NBC uses the Ku-band to distribute its programming to affiliates, the remaining commercial networks still use C-band to transmit their programming to hundreds of affiliate analog dishes already in place. Economically, however, digital content is less expensive to transmit via satellite. A transponder typically accommodates one or two analog TV signals, while the same transponder could accommodate more than 10 digital signals.

The backyard C-band BUD owner lives on, but his days are numbered along with his program options. The latest example was this summer's announcement from Starz Entertainment Group, which said simply, "We are grateful to the C-band customers who made it possible for the satellite industry to launch 20 years ago. But digital technology is clearly the wave of the future."

On Dec. 31, Starz will end its analog transmissions to all its C-band consumers.