In densely populated urban centers a cable company may need only 1,000 feet of coaxial cable to reach 300 potential subscribers. But in rural areas like Allentown, N.J. (pop. 1,962), a company may have to run a line several miles to service 10 subscribers. Jim Potts lives eight miles outside of Allentown, so the chances that a cable operator would rush to wire his place were slim. What Potts did was invest $3,995 in Downlink, a satellite TV system. Potts, a self-employed contractor and TV addict, spent two days assembling the Downlink components, and now he receives a lot more than any single cable company could provide.
The most conspicuous element of Downlink is a 12' by 12' antenna that looks like an oversized screen door. It sits in Potts' backyard about 10 yards from the windmill he built three years ago. What Downlink can do is pick up anything and everything off the 11 satellites (six domestic, one international, three Canadian and one Soviet) that send TV signals to North America. That means Potts has a choice of some 1,000 different programs every day. Moreover, much of what appears on screen is uncut, uncensored and unedited. "During the hostage crisis, the tapes the networks were showing on the seven o'clock news I had at 4:30," says Potts. "And I saw all that they received, not just the couple of minutes they put on the air."
If, say, there's an NFL game that's being beamed via satellite but is blacked out in his area. Potts can get it. He gets French blue movies ("They show everything"), four channels of Christian broadcasting and live coverage of Congress, as well as the standard fare that Home Box Office, Showtime and Nickelodeon, etc. bounce off a satellite—all for free. What's more, Potts receives no monthly cable bills.
"I've talked to Warner Amex in New York, and I've said to them, 'Look, I've got an earth station, I'm receiving your signal, and I'd like to know what I owe you.' They told me, 'As far as we're concerned, you don't exist.' " Some owners of home satellite receivers have even sent HBO checks for $4, which is roughly what it charges a cable operator per subscriber each month. The checks haven't been cashed.
That's not to say, however, that cable programmers like Warner and HBO aren't concerned about the nation's 30,000 backyard earth stations. On the contrary, these companies maintain that receiving their signals without authorization is a violation of both the copyright laws and the Communications Act of 1934. Although no programmer has sued a home operator, HBO has brought lawsuits against bootleggers of equipment designed to intercept its microwave transmissions and has won each time. "The thought that because our satellite signals are sent through the air anybody should be able to intercept them is outrageous," says Peter Gross, general counsel for the video division of Time Inc., which includes HBO. "It's like saying that cars left parked on a street can be taken by anybody who wants to use them. We are actively developing a method of scrambling our signal to prevent piracy."
Neither the owners nor the manufacturers of home earth stations seem terribly worried. Last year home earth stations were a $100 million business. Microdyne Corporation, one of many companies besides Downlink manufacturing backyard satellite receivers, estimates it has sold more than 150 units for home use in the last six months. Heath Company, a major supplier of electronic equipment, came out with a do-it-yourself earth-station kit last month that costs between $7,000 and $8,000.
At least one segment of the home earthstation industry is on firm ground. Last April the FCC accepted the application of the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) to proceed with the development of its Direct Broadcast Satellite system, (DBS). Unlike existing backyard systems, COMSAT'S DBS will have its own programming and will bill its customers monthly. Also, its DBS dish is designed for rooftop installation; it's much smaller (2½ feet in diameter) than current backyard earth stations. It will cost far less, too, between $200 and $500.
The chief limitation of DBS, which COMSAT expects to have in operation by early 1985, is that it will have only three channels. So who will want to shell out $500 and another $14 to $18 each month for just three channels? COMSAT is betting that the tens of millions of Americans who still won't have access to cable in 1985 will.
Since COMSAT's proposal was accepted, other companies have been lining up at the FCC's door with other DBS requests. CBS, for example, has proposed a three-channel "high-definition" system in which pictures would be about twice as sharp as those now on TV. The FCC will not decide which services to approve until 1983.
Whatever happens, it's likely that the major developments in home video will continue to focus around cable. Already, cable companies are offering home security devices, college courses and even two-way systems that allow subscribers to shop and pay their bills from their living rooms. But for those who live in remote areas and may never have a coaxial cable pass by their house, systems like Downlink—if their legality is resolved—and DBS provide an attractive alternative.