Chuck Colby

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  First Home Satellite Earth Station

"Mini-Track Station"

Chuck built The Mini-Track Station in1957 at the age of 15. It is the first Home Satellite Earth Station. It picked up signals from Sputnik, the Russian Satellite. He won the Central Valley Science Fair with it. In 1979, he co-founded Microwave General in Mountain View, which was the first company to build Satellite Earth Stations that picked up TV signals. Steve Wozniac was their first customer.

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.


This is the Sony project Chuck worked on which is the world's largest earth
station. It was built in 1997, exactly 40 years after the world's 1st Earth Station Chuck built in 1957. Read more about the Sony Project.