The concept of broadcasting via microwave signals from earth to a satellite in geosynchronous orbit 35,786 kilometres above the equator was first proposed in 1945 by Arthur C. Clarke, the British radio expert and author of the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. Satellites were developed to meet national military and strategic needs, but ultimately have revolutionised global communications.
The first television pictures were transmitted by Telstar between the United States and Europe in 1962, and in 1965 the US INTELSAT satellite broadcast live coverage of Gemini 6’s return to earth. In 1966, it became technically possible to send television pictures using Intelsat IV from the United States to an Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) earth station in Carnarvon, Western Australia.
Prior to the launch of the first AUSSAT satellite in 1985, Australian broadcasting licences were allocated according to the technical reach of their terrestrial transmitters. Australian governments funded broadcasting as a public utility and an essential service, but used private broadcasters where commercially viable. The prohibitive cost of broadcasting across the vast Australian continent was unattractive to commercial broadcasters and resulted in very basic service delivery for regional and remote residents. Major capital audiences received 20 radio stations, three colour commercial television channels (Seven, Nine and Ten), and public service broadcasters, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and from 1978 the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). In contrast, regional radio and television services offered ABC radio and television and limited commercial and community broadcasts. Remote communities remained unserved by any television. In 1969, OTC established four earth stations and the Department of Communications launched the Remote Area Television Scheme (RATS) using the US INTELSAT in an experiment to equalise services for people in the ‘bush’. Although RATS and later the SelfHelp Television Reception Scheme broadcast into approximately 85 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal remote communities, neither scheme provided real access to remote viewers, apart from fortuitous reception by groups living on the fringe of larger settlements in the broadcast area.
The possibilities of satellite communication fuelled widespread global debate, analysis and revision of existing broadcasting regulations for bureaucrats, and the beginning of ‘satellite fever’ for entrepreneurs keen to exploit the new technology. Widespread global bureaucratic concerns surfaced over the capability of satellites to beam unregulated direct-to-home (DTH) or direct satellite broadcasting (DBS) across national borders to individual receivers. Issues surfaced over regulation of national and international broadcasting, national sovereignty and security, media ownership and control, national cultural identity, and how to differentiate established broadcasting services from program distributors. In the developing world, concerns focused on the boundaries between a free flow of potentially developmental information and developed world propaganda, creating a rift sufficient for the United States and the United Kingdom to withdraw from UNESCO for 19 and 12 years respectively.
In 1977, in response to concerns, a World Administrative Radio Conference commenced ongoing global coordination and regulation of satellites, including reserving national ‘parking spots’ in geo-stationary orbit and orbital locations within specific frequencies (Ku band 14/12GHz) to registered locations (152o, 156o, 160o and 164o east for Australia). The conference distinguished between direct program broadcasting, received directly from a satellite by a home television set with appropriate equipment, and programs distributed by a licensed broadcaster.
Also in 1977, Kerry Packer, the powerful head of Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL), successfully lobbied the prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, for a satellite justified by its benefits for remote residents, and privately commissioned a feasibility study on the use of satellites to distribute television programs on a national basis. The Bond Report, as it became known, concluded that the primary beneficiary would be the television industry. Packer sent the report with a covering letter to the Coalition government on 15 August 1977; together with Packer’s conversation with Prime Minister Fraser, the move is widely considered responsible for initiating political support for Australia’s acquisition of a domestic communications satellite. The letter suggested that all four existing television networks use satellites to broadcast to areas currently without television, and recommended that networking restrictions imposed by the existing Broadcasting and Television Act 1942 from major capital city stations to other regions be abolished. Despite unresolved fierce and lengthy debate over the merits, technicalities and impact of satellite broadcasting options, the hope for social as well as economic benefits, and resistance from a Labor opposition, the government remained firm in its plans to acquire a satellite.
Australia was one of the first to adopt a domestic communications satellite system in 1981 in the face of continuing opposition, with planned 51 per cent government and 49 per cent private ownership. Aussat Pty Limited was the new public corporate authority created to manage and operate the satellite. Aussat paid the Hughes Aircraft Company A$20 million as an early payment just days before Australia’s 1983 election to purchase three HS376 satellites (with 15 Ku band transponders, four 30w transponders and eleven 12w transponders). The new Hawke Labor government, unable to break the contract with Hughes, changed the satellite’s ownership to 75 per cent government and 25 per cent telecommunications carrier Telecom (now Telstra), in line with its own ideology.
In a 1984 government-commissioned Satellite Program Services Inquiry, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal (ABT) observed that unless existing ownership and control rules were altered, national distribution of programs, although clearly cost effective, would increase the power and influence of the commercial television networks. Arguments for national broadcasting contended that it increased viewer choice by equalising television services, rebuffed foreign ownership and facilitated a pan-Australian identity. Opposing arguments maintained that the flexibility of satellite technology could preserve local cultural identities, remove barriers to entry for regional stations, maintain responsiveness to local information, content and audience needs, and prevent regional viewers receiving programs and advertisements created for city-based audiences.
Remote Indigenous communities raised concerns about the impact of city-based commercial television and advertisements on their children, language and cultural maintenance. A landmark Taskforce on Aboriginal and Islander Broadcasting and Communications report acknowledged for the first time Aboriginal people’s right to be catered for in broadcasting. In a move to settle the debate the Communications Minister, Michael Duffy, announced the establishment of a Remote Commercial Television Service (RCTS) in October 1984, creating four regional commercial television licences using ‘spot’ footprints. Duffy’s solution, however, was quickly massaged by his own party to appease the networks by announcing a policy of equalisation in 1985 using the national beam, and aggregation, increasing commercial television licences from one to three.
Satellite AI was launched from Cape Canaveral in the United States on 27 August 1985, A2 was launched on 27 November 1985 and A3 launched at French Guiana on 16 September 1987. In addition to national beams, the satellite was configured for remote broadcasting to create the new RCTS licences, one of them won by the pioneer Aboriginal commercial television channel, Imparja Television. In 1987, entrepreneur Alan Bond purchased the Nine Network from Kerry Packer to transmit a pub and club direct satellite service with horse racing and sports broadcasts on Sky Channel, using the AUSSAT K3 satellite. K3 was delayed following the explosion of the US space shuttle Challenger, and Bond requested permission to use the space on AUSSAT K2 already in orbit while awaiting Imparja Television’s launch.
In the 1990s, in the face of mounting satellite debt, the Labor government privatised Aussat and merged telecommunication providers OTC and Telecom. SingTel Optus Pty Ltd has been the operator since 2001. Optus retired the original A1/A2 and A3, and B1/2 satellites, leaving five satellites in orbit, B3 (in inclined orbit), C1, with 20 digital transponders, D1, D2 and D3) with footprints in Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Norfolk Island, Lord Howe Island, Cocos Island, Christmas Island and McMurdo Sound, in addition to parts of Asia and Papua New Guinea. A sixth Optus 10 satellite is planned for launch in 2014. NewSat will launch its Jabiru 2 satellite in 2014 with powerful media and broadcasting services to high-demand enterprise and government markets.
As envisaged, satellite broadcasting has resulted in greater concentration of media ownership and a decrease in regional news, information and program content. Positively, it has fuelled and extended the reach of a diversified media industry, enabled the equalisation of rural and remote reception, and enhanced users’ number, choice and quality of programs via a variety of platforms. The development, innovation and convergence of communication technologies has been accelerated: outback travellers with a satellite dish attached to their vehicles can receive radio and television programs; independent media producers create content for carriage by networks; Hollywood filmmakers securely transmit digital films direct to cinemas; supermarkets distribute in-store videos nationally; and audiences can watch media via the internet.
In 2013, Australia completed its shift from analogue to digital television. While many Australians still view free-to-air terrestrial television services, digital television delivers quality public, commercial, community and narrowcast services, pay television (Foxtel) and remote area broadcasters (Imparja and Southern Cross Central 7) to all Australians, regardless of location. The government mandated for digital pay television delivery and Foxtel acquired pioneer pay television operator Austar in 2012. Satellites broadcast DTH programs across and beyond Australia using Intelsat8 and AsiaSat4. ABC News 24 is broadcast live throughout Australia, but other public and commercial networks download and re-schedule news programs to protect children from harmful material, insert regional news and advertisements and accommodate three different time zones (five during daylight saving). Satellite services are defined by footprints, and audiences adjacent to state borders can receive metro, remote and repeat content from two or more sources. Remote communities unable to access terrestrial or wireless broadcasting are assisted to receive digital television via the government-funded satellite-delivered DTH Viewer Access Satellite Television (VAST) scheme, a significant innovation crucial to enabling the government to shut down analogue terrestrial television and continue promised services to remote Australia. Major radio networks broadcast digital alongside existing analogue services in association with pay television.
In 2015, Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), using fibre networks in populated areas and fixed terrestrial wireless in nearby rural areas, will launch two communication satellites to reach areas unable to be served by terrestrial broadcasting alternatives. The tender to construct two multiple, high-capacity Ka band (updating the existing Ku band) purpose-built satellites has been awarded to Ariane Space, with planned launches from French Guiana in 2015.
REFs: ABT, Satellite Program Services, Inquiry into the Regulation of the Use of Satellite Program Services by Broadcasters Report, vols 1 and 2 (1984); W. Bell, ‘The Totem of the Clan’ (PhD thesis, 1984) and A Remote Possibility (2008); MIA, no. 38 (1990) and no. 58 (1990); S. Paltridge, ‘The Social Shaping of a Satellite’ (PhD thesis, 1989).