Cheap satellite Dishes

Neatorama is proud to bring you a guest post from Ernie Smith, the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. In another life, he ran ShortFormBlog.

(Image credit: Bmag32)

For a short period in the early 1980s, giant satellite dishes ruled the land. It was a rare moment when big telecom wasn’t in control. That quickly changed.

As a whole, the most interesting time for television was the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was an era when most networks were still willing to experiment and the technology wasn’t so locked down that an enthusiast couldn’t get around it. Comcast existed back then, but it wasn’t the juggernaut it is now; DirecTV and Dish Network hadn’t yet taken their current forms. The result was that satellite dishes—which were really freaking massive back then—were only starting to take off, and there was nothing really stopping people willing to buy a dish from investing once and getting all their shows for free after that. Today’s Tedium is about the rise and fall of the 10-foot-wide satellite dish during its glory days—before cable networks learned how to encrypt their feeds.

They weren't cheap in the beginning

The price of a backyard satellite dish advertised in a 1979 Neiman Marcus catalog was $36, 000 —the first such dish sold commercially. Soon, the prices went down significantly, especially after the Federal Communications Commission deregulated the usage of such dishes, which used the open-air C-Band range of wireless signals, so they could be used by more than cable companies. A 1981 New York Times article noted that dishes could be had for as low as $3, 000; a 1985 piece cut that price down to $1, 500.

The guy who built his own satellite dish on his kitchen table

In the 1970s, the odds of seeing a television program designed for another country were extremely low—especially if you didn’t live near that country’s border. But when British man Stephen Birkill heard that NASA was delivering educational literacy programs to rural India via satellite, he had a hankering to see what they were like.

Birkill, fortunately, was the kind of person who could figure out such a task. He was a tinkerer who already managed transmitters as a BBC employee. Inspired, he decided to attempt to build his own dish and point it in the general direction of the satellite broadcasting the program.

Because satellites often have a huge amount of reach, this was actually a lot easier than it sounded. It just required him to spend his weekends building a homemade receiver of his own that could pick up the signal.

“I knew there was a future in satellite television, ” Birkill told The Star. “It was a gut feeling that gave me the inspiration. I had done the sums and I knew that it was technically possible, I just had to prove that it was practically possible.”

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