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A Short History of Satellite TV: From Arthur C. Clark to Miniature Dishes

In 1945 Arthur C Clarke wrote an article suggesting that it was possible to create a worldwide communications network by placing three satellites in geosynchronous orbit, equidistant from each other. A framework of satellites was gradually created over a period of 30 years. The framework was partly inspired by Clarke, as well as the development of space technology.

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The framework allowed television images to be transmitted across the continent, and indeed across the world from broadcast provider to broadcast provider, thus giving us the opportunity to see live action from around the world.

Satellite TV is Born

During the 1960s and 1970s, computerization and miniaturization of control systems and the development of satellite receiver equipment meant that the possibility of mass produced low cost hardware was realized and by 1980 satellite TV was being broadcast by Home Box Office, the Christian Broadcasting Network and other companies.

The increase in Satellite channel offerings generated sales of the "big dishes" for C-Band satellite, and prices began to fall seriously, opening up the mass market for hardware. Growth incited the development of encryption software, which allowed broadcasters to secure payment for their services.

An Industry Starts to Grow

At this point, it was obvious that satellite TV was going to be a serious industry. The drawbacks were the size and complexity of the hardware and the bandwidth needed to broadcast programs.

Research and development was funded by the industry, rather than being a spin-off from the space and defense industries, and dish size began to be reduced. Computing was also making serious strides in development at this stage, and control systems began to be simplified. The user interface was made much simpler and intuitive.

Computerization also started to make an impact on broadcast and recording technique. The idea of digitization of the signal soon followed, making it easier to store, play back, and manipulate by computer techniques, all while using smaller bandwidth.

Compression of the satellite signal became a major area of development and the MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) standards started to be defined. All of these changes laid the foundation for standardization across technologies and manufacturers. Signal compression now allows the large amount of channels to be delivered by a relatively narrow beam, thus making it possible use a smaller satellite dish.

Satellite TV Reaches Maturity

From 1992, when encryption techniques were sufficiently secure to allow the development of pay-per-view, the satellite TV industry really took off. Over the last 12 years more than 20 million satellite TV subscribers have encouraged providers to offer a range of TV channels.

Satellite equipment has become small enough to be able to be used by all households - the 18" dish can be attached to walls or roofs, and it is probable that further miniaturization is on its way.

The Future of Satellite TV

The entertainment industry is being revolutionized by the merging of computing, telecommunications and the networking industries. Satellite TV is one of the biggest winners in this revolution, and as two way communications begin to allow the viewer to interact with the medium, so new types of television are beginning to be developed. What kinds of entertainment emerge from this revolution remain to be seen, but there is one thing for certain - it will be exciting.
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