Californians 25 years ago were startled away from an automated high
school science project, missing an opportunity to witness an obscure
piece of history: the world's first private Earth station. Built from
$40 worth of surplus -- including a radar dish from an old U.S. Fighter
-- the demonstrator system proved the feasibility of receiving satellite
signals at home.
The inventor, 15-year-old Charles Colby, finished behind another student
who illustrated cricket leg musculature. The receiver, now celebrating
its twenty-fifth anniversary, has long since been dismantled, but the
imaginative impetus is paying dividends. Colby, chairman of Microwave
General, has broken into the Earth station market in a big way. He built
and installed the first two TVROs in California, for founders of both
Apple and Atari; in fact, Microwave General displayed the first home
receiver at Wescon '79 in San Francisco, two weeks before the FCC officially
made them legal.
"I remember describing the technical and legal details to a particularly
interested man at the show," Colby recalls, "When I finished,
he pulled out an FCC badge and said that if I had misrepresented the
product, he'd have locked me up." The problem implicit in receiving
satellite broadcasts persists: Potential customers fear that they must
be licensed to receive the signals, and that they could be sued for
violating company rights. "Home Box Office has been my biggest
headache," Colby says. The company, which provides 24-hour entertainment
programming to cable TV firms, is trying to protect its clients by selling
its service only to cable, and refusing to accept fees from individuals.
"The practice has cast a shadow over the whole home market,"
feels Colby. "I had an apartment owner call me last month to ask
what a receiver would cost. For about $20,000, we could give him an
antenna and mount, two LNAs and 12 receivers, about the cost of five
months of cable service," he says. But since many of the premium
channels -- which the apartment renters really want -- are still not
accepting individual payments, the sale is in limbo. "We can see
that changing," says Colby, "Why should a programmer like
HBO turn away monthly checks for hundreds of dollars from apartment
owners when it costs only a few cents for billing?"
It's another matter altogether for private residences. Homeowners who
don't charge friends or neighbors to watch programs are not violating
any copyright laws. And, who's going to know, anyway? "We still
provide all our customers with form letters to send programmers if they're
concerned," Colby says, "But the commercial broadcasters like
WTBS in Atlanta, Georgia, and Sports Network, would risk alienating
their advertisers, who are charged a premium for the ability to reach
higher-income viewers. These stations can never really charge viewers,
and they dont."
Direct broadcast satellites, due in orbit in the late '80's, pose little
threat, in Colby's view. He expects his company to be offering competitively-priced
4-GHz systems capable of receiving 150 channels on an 8.5 foot dish.
Anyone who can afford a receiver will be closely comparing the opportunity
to mount the larger system for broader programming with the "two
or three pay stations" of DGS, says Colby.
But home receivers are just a part of the company's strategy. Broadcasters
and even networks are comparing the advantages of satellite transmission
over terrestrial links. In moving to space-based relays, fewer links
mean less noise and lower monthly expenses. With the recent release
of a commercial-quality, quickly-repositioned, five meter system, Microwave
General's sales have recently expanded to more than $150,000 monthly.
A key to the company's Star-Trac system is its simplicity. A remote
control panel is easy to operate, and is backed up by a simple bypass.
If electronic controls fail -- a serious concern for braodcasters --
a technician can plug a monitor directly into a coax feed at the dish,
and aim and tune with push buttons. "All you need is a monkey wrench,
not a digital engineer, to get back on line." beams Colby.
His next project is to design receivers for radio broadcasters. The
systems will be smaller and less expensive, obviously, because the bandwidths
and digital transmissions to be involved are less demanding. But the
market potential is huge. And within five years, Colby predicts, "Every
company with more than 50 employees will need satellite receivers for
data transmission, electronic mail, and teleconferencing."
"People laughed ten years ago when market forecasters said computers
would be in most homes and offices." he recalls.