Early Uplinkers: Doing Wheels And Dishes

By | March 1, 2003 | Broadcasting, Feature, Government

By Robert N. Wold

 

There have been differing opinions as to when commercial satellite news gathering-using transportable uplinks-really began.

The first live, remote, transportable-uplinked, satellite-relayed content was indeed "news gathering." On August 16, 1976, America’s three nationwide commercial networks-ABC, CBS and NBC-began several days of news coverage from the Republican Party’s political convention at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, MO.

The uplinking was provided by the operator of the first two U.S. satellites-Western Union (WU) and its Westar 1 and Westar 2 birds-using WU’s own uplinking vehicle named the "Westar Mobile Earth Station" (MES).

All transmissions were in C-band. For domestic commercial Ku-band, TV relays did not become feasible until nearly eight years later.

The first use of Ku-band in commercial mobile uplinking was by Conus Communications in May 1984, to transmit news reports of a tornado’s devastation in the town of Barneveld, WI, to KSTP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul. The satellite involved was Telesat Canada’s Anik C3.

The Pursuit Of ENG

These fundamental accomplishments in August 1976 and May 1984 were milestones in the TV broadcasting industry’s pursuit of electronic news gathering (ENG) excellence, a campaign which had begun in the early 1970s. First came mini-cams and portable VTRs (videotape recorders), then terrestrial ENG microwave frequencies, followed by C-band satellite in 1975-76 and Ku-band in 1984, along with other technological advances. In uplinkers’ vernacular, the use of "Satellite ENG" in 1980 became precursor to 1984′s widely used "SNG" acronym.

At First, A 10-Meter Dish

The Westar MES of 1976 included a 10-meter polar-mounted transmitting antenna because, at the time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was not prepared to license a smaller antenna. In addition, the operator for either uplinking or downlinking was required to be licensed as a common carrier.

During the subsequent 27 years, regulations have softened and technology has improved such that tens of thousands, if not millions, of live-action satellite news feeds have been transmitted in either C- or Ku-band frequencies. In addition to both major and minor news stories, the numerous operators of transportable uplinking also continue to deliver sports events, pay-per-view boxing, horse race simulcasting, videoconferences, press conferences, distance learning and other applications.

A Downlink-Only Predecessor

The first non-military satellite truck to hit the road across the United States was operated in 1973-74 by TelePrompter Corp., which was then the nation’s largest cable-system operator. To assist the growth of its industry, TelePrompter barnstormed Spacecast, a downlinking-only rig featuring an 8- meter TVRO (TV receive-only) at cable-TV shows nationwide, dazzling cable operators and potential investors with the promises of future satellite TV. Because the United States did not yet have an operating commercial satellite, TelePrompter had an agreement to downlink TV pictures and sound from Telesat Canada’s Anik 1 bird.

Western Union executives were impressed with the concept of a mobile earth station, especially one that could uplink as well as downlink. By the time they had it built, the driver-engineer of TelePrompter’s Spacecast had become an employee of WU, making Don Aisenbrey the natural choice to drive WU’s behemoth from New York to Kansas City in 1976.

Driving The First Uplink Rig

Aisenbrey recalls that, "The light weight modified boat trailer, to which I had objected, broke down before we had even left the New York area. We had to change to a 33-foot double-drop trailer to have any chance of making it to Kansas City."

Knowing that assembly of the antenna by a five-person crew would require a full week, Aisenbrey arrived in Kansas City well ahead of the convention’s opening. "Soon," he adds, "the convention center’s officials realized how many VIP parking places we were occupying and ordered us to move to an area that was a full microwave hop away."

Because the pioneering rig was not really fit to be transportable, and WU’s corporate labor agreements made the project very expensive, it subsequently became a fixed antenna for WU in McLean, VA, serving the Washington, DC, market. From there, it took one last journey to a lock-down in the Atlanta market. The project’s cost, according to a former WU executive, was "just south of a million dollars."

WU proceeded to build large, fixed, C-band earth stations near several major cities but did not invest in the ownership of any more transportable rigs.

PSSC’S NASA Vehicles

Beginning in 1973, NASA based a small group of earth stations in Denver, CO, to be used for public service demonstrations. At the time, the U.S. space agency was involved with America’s experimental ATS 6 satellite, to be followed by involvement with Canada’s CTS experimental satellite.

The Public Service Satellite Consortium (PSSC) was created in 1975, and its work included the managing of NASA’s earth station assets at Denver. In 1977, NASA constructed an 18-wheel vehicle sporting a 5-meter uplink antenna to join the Denver fleet. The new truck was known simply as the "TES–Transportable Earth Station."

According to Lou Bransford, the PSSC chief at Denver who would later become the non-profit organization’s president at its headquarters in Washington, DC, hundreds of C-band uplink and downlink demonstrations were completed between 1977 and mid-1979, when the ATS 6 and CTS programs were both discontinued. PSSC was then enabled to market transportable uses in a commercial fashion and the TES design was acquired by Southern Satellite Systems (SSS) for a CNN transportable that would begin service in mid-1980.

The original TES was sold in the mid-’80s to a New England horse racing track, presumably to receive and transmit simulcast race programs.

Bransford is now the chairman and CEO of Esatel Communications in Alexandria, VA.

WTCI’S Blue Ribbon

Of the handful of pioneering mobile uplinks during 1976-79, the truck acquired by Western TeleCommunications Inc. (WTCI) was clearly the blue ribbon winner.

It was readily accepted by the TV broadcast networks, in part because WTCI was indeed no stranger to the networks. Since 1956, it had been a licensed interstate common carrier and for years had relayed affiliate feeds of all three commercial networks, as well as those of major radio networks, from Omaha westward through Nebraska into Colorado, the western Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Utah.

Beginning on August 22, 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter with his wife and three children spent eight days vacationing in Idaho and Wyoming. The President wanted privacy but 100 reporters and photographers tried to follow him and his family throughout a three-day rafting trip down the Salmon River, followed by a stay at a rustic lodge at Jackson Lake in the Grand Teton National Park.

NBC was in charge of arranging pool transmission facilities for all three networks. When AT&T and Mountain Bell could not provide needed terrestrial facilities at a reasonable cost, the networks agreed to depend on the new transportable uplink truck owned by WTCI.

Other than WU’s work in Kansas City two years earlier, it was the first-ever commercial satellite news gathering effort that used a transportable uplink.

WTCI’s parent was TeleCommunications Inc. (TCI), which became the nation’s largest cable-system operator and was eventually sold to AT&T for $44.57 billion. In addition to its terrestrial facilities, WTCI had for years been interested in expanding into satellite communications.

In the early 1970s, when the FCC was inviting qualified applicants to own and operate domestic communications satellite systems, WTCI applied. Its financial and technology partner was to be Rockwell International, but according to Larry Romrell, who was WTCI’s executive vice president, "Rockwell had to back out. They had just received a huge government contract involving the future space shuttle program, and they felt they should put all their concentration on that. So we at TCI decided not to proceed with the satellite plan. Rockwell made us whole, financially, but we withdrew our application to the FCC."

In The Cool Of The Night

In WTCI’s next gig, less than two months after the President Carter odyssey, Romrell realized it was very late, very damp and very chilly on an October Friday night in North Carolina’s Elizabeth City. It was an early-to-bed town with a population of less than 15,000, located 30 miles south of Norfolk-Portsmouth, VA, and less than 20 miles west from the roaring surf of the Atlantic Ocean.

The folks at Elizabeth City State University were told that their home football game against Winston-Salem State University would be televised by a small cluster of ABC’s TV affiliates in the southeast region of the United States.

What they did not realize was that Saturday, October 21, 1978, would also provide another milestone for the nascent domestic satellite communications industry: the first-ever live, revenue-producing transmission of a television sports event using a mobile uplink.

(The first domestic satellite transmission of a live sports event, using a fixed uplink, occurred on August 9, 1975-a major league baseball game in Milwaukee that was televised in the Dallas-Fort Worth market. It was arranged by Wold Communications, using the Westar 1 satellite.)

In the Friday night darkness at the parking lot that adjoined an equally dark Roebuck Stadium, capacity 5,000, stood a patient Bill Hynes, the director of telecommunications for ABC-TV, and WTCI’s equally patient Romrell. They awaited the arrival from Colorado of WTCI’s uplink truck.

The program production crew from ABC, having finished their equipment setup, scattered before dark in search of a local restaurant. Meanwhile, Southern Bell telephone technicians, disappointed that they wouldn’t be handling ABC’s football telecast, stood by for a frequency coordination with WTCI’s still-on-the-road truck.

"Where’s That Truck?"

Having watched ABC’s production folks head off to restaurants and what Hynes describes as "a taste," he growled at Romrell for the fifth time, "Where’s that damn uplink truck, Larry?"

Life was different 24 years ago when cell phones and pagers had not yet been invented. Furthermore, the drivers en route to the rendezvous site did not know the unlisted numbers of the phones in ABC’s production truck.

Romrell explained recently that the WTCI truck had been the prototype for a multi-unit contract that Rockwell had with Saudi Arabia. "The Saudis had tested the prototype and decided they wanted Rockwell to build sturdier versions because of their desert terrain," he said. "So we bought the prototype, which we simply named "Transportable Earth Station." (TES had also been the choice of NASA and PSSC.)

It was a unique rig: a standard pickup truck towing a 40-foot flat-bed, low-boy boat trailer on which were mounted a collapsible 4.5-meter satellite uplink dish plus a large oblong fiberglass container filled with ground control equipment (GCE) that included a pair of high power amplifiers with their own drivers and exciters.

The truck’s expedition had begun in Denver and wound eastward through six states covering some 1,800 miles. The drivers, who wondered whether they were Lewis and Clark headed in the wrong direction, used phone booths as best they could to report to their Jefferson, who was in reality Romrell.

First, the trailer’s tires were too small for the load and began to blow. Romrell replied, "Buy several spares, tie them down in the pickup and keep coming."

When they reported being stopped in various states for possible wide-load violations, Romrell fired back, "Pay the fees and move out. Let’s roll."

Among appreciative TV network technicians, the truck became known as "the Bozeman," in honor of numerous WTCI technicians who, like TCI founder Bob Magness and Romrell, had all grown up in Bozeman, MT.

Southern Bell Waits

Of utmost importance for the telecast to be delivered to New York, for distribution to ABC’s affiliates, was a frequency coordination to solve potential terrestrial interference problems. C-band (4-6 GHz) was then the only frequency for U.S. satellites and was also widely used for microwave links of local telephone companies and others.

ABC notified Southern Bell Telephone Co. (now BellSouth) of its plans and a need for Southern Bell to measure the mobile uplink’s C-band signals for any frequency conflicts. Hynes recalls the curiosity of Southern Bell’s people questioning why ABC had hired a Colorado company to transmit a television signal to New York. By satellite, for heaven’s sake! What happens if it falls out of the sky? Furthermore, since ABC had not ordered a Long Lines backup feed to New York, they would have no route out of Elizabeth City if there proved to be any interference with Southern Bell’s local facilities. "The Southern Bell guys were missing dinner and a taste, like us," Hynes recalls, "and they were becoming unhappy."

Midnight Approval

As the night wore on, Hynes used every scheme except bribery to keep Southern Bell at the parking lot site. Eventually, the WTCI truck rolled in at a time that Hynes now says, "must have been at the stroke of midnight. We were ready to be pumpkins."

Before long, Romrell’s team was transmitting test signals and, thankfully, Southern Bell’s people said their scopes were finding no interference. All concerned shook hands and departed the now-darkened parking lot.

When Hynes and Romrell were asked 23 years later to recall some details for the record, Romrell first thought he had been in Norfolk. Hynes, amazingly, had kept his 1978 daybook with "Elizabeth City" scribbled in it. Neither had a recollection of who had played whom, and who won. (For the record, Via Satellite learned that Winston-Salem’s Rams defeated Elizabeth City’s Vikings, 28 to 6.)

Following the North Carolina experience, Romrell authorized an upgrade of the hauler truck to a diesel tractor with a sleeper cab. Both cab and trailer were equipped with air- ride flotation devices to protect the human and electronic valuables.

Hynes is now with Pacific Media Technologies in Studio City, CA. Romrell is a member of the board of directors at Liberty Media in Denver.

What’s Next?

There should be no further questions as to when commercial, mobile satellite news gathering and uplinking had its actual beginning. Following WU’s "MES" in August 1976 came WTCI’s "TES" in August 1978, to be followed by a continuing series of WTCI jobs.

It was in late 1979 when the FCC relaxed many of its satellite rules, including the ownership and operation of a backyard C-band TVRO. For 1979, Neiman Marcus in its Christmas book featured a TVRO from Scientific Atlanta for a nifty $36,500 if you acted by February, 1980.

The overall amount of broadcast traffic escalated in 1979 and became very large in 1980. On the cable-TV front, ESPN launched in September 1979 and CNN launched in June 1980, with both becoming major new traffic contributors.

During the year 1980, mobile uplinks were extremely busy with the Winter Olympic Games at Lake Placid, NY, and the political conventions at Detroit and New York. Among the new providers of mobile uplinking services in 1980 were Greater Starlink, Trinity Broadcasting and this writer’s former company, Wold Communications.

Contributing Writer Robert N. Wold is based in California. His E-mail address is robertnwold@cox.net.

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