C Band StoryAt the beginning of the 20th Century, the US Army was finding it increasingly difficult to manage its bases in the Territory of Alaska. (Alaska became a State in 1959.) Because the only communication to the contiguous states was by ship, it could take many months for Army Headquarters in Washington, DC to receive a reply from an order sent to a base in Alaska. In the first decade of the new century, the Army built a telegraph line from Seattle, Washington to Alaska, using an undersea cable between Washington State and Whitter, Alaska. The line continued overland as far as Nome. It was known as WAMCATS, the Washington-Alaska Military Cable Telegraph System. A Lt. Billy Mitchell, later a General of notoriety in the United States military, was recruited to salvage the effort, which had become bogged down in its early phases. WAMCATS is well documented in periodicals of that time and in Lyman Woodman’s three-volume
- Duty Station Northwest, The U.S. Army in Alaska and Western Canada, 1867-1987.</ul?
One interesting feature of WAMCATS was the early use of a radiotelegraph link. It was across a portion of Norton Sound on the West coast close to Nome. Rough terrain made it impossible to string an efficient landline, so a relatively short underwater cable was laid from Unalakleet to Port Safety, approximately 200 kilometers. Shifting ice constantly severed the cable, forcing the military to resort to radio. This may have been the first operational use of Marconi’s new technology, circa 1906.
WAMCATS evolved as technology was developed and the territory grew. Radiotelegraph replaced wire line and telephone service was introduced. Civilian use was allowed and WAMCATS became ACS, the Army Communications Service and, later, the Alaska Communications Service. Control was transferred to the US Air Force and, because civilian use was becoming dominate. With growth of the territory and then statehood, the US Congress enacted legislation to transfer the system to a private ownership. The RCA Corporation was the successful bidder and, in July 1969, the government accepted the offer of RCA to purchase the ACS. RCA Globcom and its subsidiary, RCA Alaska Communications (Alascom), became Alask’s monopoly supplier of long distance tgelecommunications RCA agreed to provide new and improved service to 142 remote communities in Alaska within three years of the transfer date as well as make many other upgrades to the states communication system.
During the summer of 1974, Governor Bill Egan of Alaska wrote a letter to Walter Hinchman, Chief of the FCC Common Carrier Bureau inquiring about RCA Alascom’s plans to provide services via satellite to Alaska. Mr. Hinchman subsequently sent a letter to RCA requesting it to provide a comprehensive plan for the Commission to review. In September Alascom submitted an Alaska Communications Plan, the “Red Book.” It set forth detailed information regarding the use of satellites in Alaska as well as the use of other technology.
Gov. Egan then requested several experts to review and comment on the plan. Among them were several Alaskans who had been actively advocating better telecommunications, notably Augie Hebert, a television pioneer and Walt Parker a bush pilot, trapper, social scientist and, later, Commissioner of Transportation. Also Fred Brown, a member of the State Legislature from Fairbanks, with his aides, Professor Robert Merritt and Glenn Stanley, from the University of Alaska. Walter Hinchman, Chief of the FCC, was there and was, of course, an important player in the proceedings. Dr. Bruce Lusignian, from Stanford University was there with several of his graduate students. Because I was in the State working on the ATS-F project, I was invited to attend. We had a few meetings with Governor Egan before his term of office expired, enough to develop a philosophy which guided us for years to come.
RCA Alascom’s Red Book described a plan that placed large satellite earth stations at Alaska’s regional centers. They were to supply telephone trunk service to and from an earth station at Talkeetna, Alaska, which connected to a microwave radio system linking it to Anchorage and Fairbanks. The Talkeetna station was built by Comsat to supply Alaska’s first long distance telephone service through the INTELSAT system. Telephone service to the small communities that were clustered around the regional centers would be carried by VHF radio using mobile telephone equipment of the early 1970s.
The consensus of the governor’s advisors was that the RCA plan was limited because of its use of VHF radio, which could not carry quality telephone service compatible with the North American system. Further, there would be no way to bring television to the small communities by satellite. We had no authority and could only persuade RCA, using the stature of the governor’s office or, possibly, via the FCC. Although the clock was ticking toward 1975, when an RCA satellite was to be launched by Globcom, the RCA plan had not been endorsed by the State of Alaska. We were concerned that Alascom would go ahead with its plan, relying upon tacit approval of the FCC.
A parallel concern was the business relationship between Alascom and its parent, Globcom. Alascom was a monopoly carrier in a regulated environment, customarily entitled to a fixed return on its total investment, rates being set by the regulatory authorities to guarantee a reasonable return. Its parent was set up to supply telecommunications services in the competitive market in the contiguous lower 48 states. This type of structure raises a red flag among utility experts because, unless safeguards are installed, it is rather easy for the monopoly business to subsidize the competitive one. RCA’s plan was to have Globcom and Alascom jointly own their satellite system, with the portions based upon usage. A running battle between RCA and ths State ensued, lasting until the December 1975 launch of Satcom F-1, the first RCA satellite. Many issues were contended: estimates of traffic through the satellite which determines the ownership allocation; whether it would be better for Alascom to lease, rather than purchase its transponders; whether the RCA, AT&T or Western Union (which was being used in Alaska at that time) satellite would be best suited; whether Alascom should even be owned by Globcom, whether distance insensitive rates would be feasible, and so on. These issues surfaced in late 1974. Dr. William B. Melody, formerly the FCC’s staff economist and then a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, did much of the initial analysis in this area. I believe that Walter Hinchman solicited his assistance.
Marvin Weatherly was director of the Governor’s Office of Telecommunications (OT) at that time. In January 1975 he decided to hold public hearings in Anchorage at the Captain Cook Hotel. In the hearing room, on one side of a long table was the RCA delegation, a few local managers including Steven Heller, President of RCA Alascom, and several upper level corporate executives from New Jersey. Along the opposite side were the State personnel, Marv Weatherly and me, plus a few of the other advisors. Mike Porcaro, an audio engineer who later became responsible for getting television programming to the bush, recorded the meeting. It was highly contentious, with RCA appearing to feel superior due to their size and corporate strength and acting rather impatiently toward their perceived harassment from the state’s inexperienced amateurs. We may have lacked experience, but our plan proved to be sound. We argued over the practicality of putting small earth stations in the villages and even the feasibility of ever using small earth stations. Costs, timing and schedules were discussed. RCA’s approach was based upon equipment that was in use at that time; this is conservative and relatively risk free. But it was based upon practices used for trunking heavy traffic between international centers, not for thin-line circuits to tiny towns and used the satellite inefficiently. We had spent a lot of time analyzing the small earth station in each village model and knew that it was economically feasible, especially if DAMA were used. I wasn’t bothered that no commercial DAMA equipment was on the market at that time; I thought it could be developed soon enough. I may have been wrong. My insistence on DAMA drew RCA and the State farther apart and helped end any hope of reaching a compromise that all could agree upon. On the second day, we recessed the meetings just before lunch.
Steve Heller invited Marv and me to lunch in the Petroleum Club at the top of the Westward (now the Hilton) Hotel in Anchorage. Marv was a feisty little guy who said, during lunch, “Dammit, Steve, if RCA doesn’t put in small earth stations, the State will!” Steve replied, “Be my guest!” After lunch, Marv and I walked back to his office at 308 G Street, a few blocks away. By the time we got out of the cold we had concluded, “Why not,” starting a chain of events that eventually put a small earth station in every Alaska village. Marv quickly got in touch with selected members of the State Legislature, receiving strong indications of interest and support for state-owned earth stations if that was the way to get communications to rural Alaska. There were well over a hundred unserved communities at the time, we estimated. To get things started we decided to request funds for 100 small earth stations and worry about their location later. Because the legislature is mandated to end its session in the spring, there was no time to analyze needs in a methodical manner. I estimated that an average station would cost US $50,000. We met several times with the interested legislators, mostly from the bush or were sympathetic to Alaska’s rural needs. We prepared a budget request for US $5 million to procure equipment for100 small earth stations, twenty to be operational by yearend 1975! The funding bill wound its way through the necessary committee hearings. As this was at the beginning of the oil pipeline boom, money was easy. After a month or two without final action, I was in Marv’s office when Frank Ferguson, the senator from Kotzebue, a regional center north of Nome, phoned. Frank asked to talk to me, for he wanted to know if these earth stations could receive television as well as supply telephone service. Although we had television in mind, it was not our priority at that time. I made some “back of the envelope” calculations and, by extrapolating progress being made in low-noise amplifiers for a one to two year period, as well as taking some liberties with signal quality, concluded that we could eventually deliver acceptable television, even in the marginal locations. I called the senator back and told him we would be able to do it soon, if not immediately. He said, “You’ve got your five million dollars!” The appropriation bill was passed in May 1975 with House Concurrent Resolution No. 60which called for the establishment of a State owned system of small satellite earth stations. The legislature found that although it did not wish the State of Alaska to become extensively involved in the operation of the State’s long lines network:
“it does find State ownership of satellite earth stations necessary and in the public interest.”
The appropriation was subsequently signed by Governor Hammond and I was reminded of the saying, “Be careful of what you ask for, because you may get it.” We got what we wanted and the real work began.
Now, to design, specify hardware, contract for, procure, integrate, select sites, and install one hundred earth stations in an arctic environment. Also, licenses to operate the earth stations would have to be obtained from the Federal Communications Commission. We did it, however, although not in the anticipated manner, and we missed our self-imposed deadline by six months. Marvin Weatherly realized we needed legal counsel in Washington D.C. to handle our applications before the FCC. Terry Steichen at OTP, recommended Jack Pettit, who had been General Counsel for the FCC under Chairman Dean Burch. He and an associate, Joe Dixon (Dick) Edge, became our representatives and carried the application work forward. The first twenty sites were selected, using criteria such as the size and need of candidate communities, availability of reliable electric power and, most importantly, the prospects for easily building and operating these first earth stations. Dan Boyette, of the Office of Telecommunications, visited the various sites, explaining the project to the residents and their governing authorities, paving the way for permits to locate and build the earth stations.
When we started to apply for licenses at the FCC, RCA realized we had become a serious threat to their monopoly. There was no precedent for a State government to become a long-distance telecommunication carrier, but it was beginning to appear that might change, regardless of the House Resolution. Some of us working for the State had qualms about creating a state-run utility, but those concerns dimmed in the enthusiasm of forging ahead to get the new system built. RCA, however, couldn’t sit by and allow the State to go ahead, so they filed competing applications for the same locations we had chosen. Our attorneys said this would delay the project by several years, and likely wreck it because, when radio licenses are contested, full evidentiary hearings are required to determine which party is best suited for ownership; this is extremely expensive and very slow. The state’s efforts were driven mainly by the need for acceptable communications in rural Alaska; at the beginning it was a given that this was RCA Alascom’s responsibility. We still would still meet our original objectives, even if Alascom built and operated the system. It was hard for some to accept this as they were caught up by the tension and rivalry between the two organizations. We first decided to let RCA use the site information we had prepared for each of the twenty locations so they would be up to speed with minimum delay. We wanted to expedite the process which was taking longer than we had estimated. Pettit and Edge arranged for RCA and the State of Alaska to use the good offices of FCC Commissioner Abbot Washburn to work out a compromise and avoid lengthy hearings to determine who was best qualified to serve the public. On July 11 an agreement was reached in which the State would own the earth stations with RCA Alascom installing them and operating them as part of its system on an interim basis, pending ultimate resolution of all issues. Thus, we were spared the job of setting up a duplicate organization in the bush, yet would eventually earn revenue from our investment in the hardware or be reimbursed for its cost. That would be addressed later, we assumed, thankful that an impasse had been averted. Further, Alascom already had experienced installation and operation organization, something the State would have otherwise had to form. In retrospect, that would have been nearly impossible. Steve Heller’s exclamation had initiated a chain of events that got Alascom to put small earth stations in the bush! Still, many of us were somewhat saddened not to be doing the whole thing, even though it probably would have overwhelmed us. Jack Pettit and Dick Edge deserve all of the credit for implementing this strategy, which kept the project alive. It looked as if the way had finally been cleared for Alaska’s rural communities to have decent telephone and television service.
Simultaneously, the technical design of the earth stations began. We enlisted the aid of William B. Pohlman, a retired Army Colonel with a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT. Bill had been in the aerospace industry and had an outstanding reputation, not only as a brilliant engineer but as an exemplary alcoholic. I had known him from my days at Hughes Aircraft company when he was at Aerojet General Corporation, in charge of building a large INTELSAT earth station for the Algeria n Government. Fortunately, by the time Bill joined us, he had permanently quit drinking. He guided Richard Dowling, who had become Chief Engineer at OT, me, our legislative consultants Bob Merritt and Glen Stanley who were working for Rep. Fred Brown, through the process of specifying and selecting components for the earth stations. We had many meetings with the RCA Alascom engineers, who knew far more that we did about the telephone network. We were the satellite experts and the Alascom personnel knew the telephone business from A to Z. (They enjoyed embarrassing us over our ignorance, but we learned a lot.) Our knowledge and experience complemented each other, if not always smoothly, but we made progress, and a complex system was designed very rapidly. Under the circumstances, it was a remarkable performance.
Never before had earth station antennas smaller that 10 meters diameter been proposed. Satellite spacing was based on the narrow beamwidth of the larger antennas and it was assumed that earth stations with small antennas couldn’t discriminate between adjacent satellites because their beams would overlap. Proving that this isn’t a problem in the Alaska case required complex mathematics due to the many earth stations, each potentially contributing a bit of interference from the ground to a nearby satellite. Bill Pohlman’s calculations in this and other areas not only enabled our application to be successfully filed and processed, it paved the way for the plethora of small earth stations now seen everywhere.
When time for hardware procurement arrived, Glen Stanley, who was a contracts administrator at the University of Alaska with paranoid tendencies, insisted that we have a formal vendors’ briefing to ensure all bidders were properly and equally informed. We held the meetings in a conference room at the Seattle Washington airport. Glen arranged for minutes of the meeting to be taken to reduce misunderstandings and properly document the meeting. The minutes were taken by a retired court reporter, who was hard of hearing, requiring that his elderly wife accompany him as his “ears.” Bruce Lusignan, who has a sotto voice, asked numerous questions and made many statements, mostly inaudible to our court reporter so that his wife was constantly saying, “Speak up, Bruce!” This is one of countless fond memories of the past.
Amidst all of this, Governor Hammond promoted Marvin Weatherly to become a member of the Alaska Public Utilities Commission (APUC), possibly because of the grief his Office of Telecommunications had inflicted upon RCA Alascom. This was in early 1975. As I had been consulting to OT, it seemed logical to fill the vacancy left by Marv and finally fulfill Bob Arnold’s plan, hatched in the ATS-F days, although for a different objective. Charlie Northrip, who had left the TV station at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks to work at OT on the ATS-6 education experiment, was in a holding pattern as the satellite was on its way to India. It seemed to me that Charlie would be interested in the OT position, as he was already on the payroll and lived in Juneau, so I asked him if he wanted to become its director. He said, “Not unless drafted.” That was good news, so I tossed my hat in the ring. Then I learned that Charlie was knocking himself out to become drafted! Next, George Shaginaw, a brilliant technician at OT told me he had good connections with the Governor and would get me the position if I agreed to make him Deputy Director. I agreed. I did become director but, to this day, am not sure whether George helped or hindered me. Then, as I had agreed, I made him Deputy Director. He had a strong will, was self motivated, looked upon RCA as an enemy, and held a “take no prisoners” attitude. Still, he could be quite charming.
The State and RCA teams reviewed bids and worked on details for the procurement of hardware. We chose the Andrew Corporation to supply the earth station antennas, to be 4.5 meters in diameter. Hughes Electronics would construct 20-watt traveling wave tube transmitters and Amplica Corp., run by a protégé of Bill Pohlman’s, was selected to supply the low noise amplifier for the earth station receiver. California Microwave, Inc. supplied the very complex electronic equipment for converting the satellite signals to voice band and connecting to the external telephone system. This was a first, and we ran into many obstacles, which were overcome by skilled and tenacious engineers. One unsuspected difficulty surfaced when reviewing a commitment to supply a medical channel to replace the ATS-1 circuit. The medical aids at the remote sites were accustomed to their party line hook up and wanted to keep it that way. They didn’t want privacy as they wanted listen to the other aids as they discuss their problems with doctors in the clinics. For decades, however, a prime objective of the telephone industry had been to eliminate party lines. Creative engineering solved the problem by setting technology several decades back in time, and the party line was implemented.
The struggle between the State and RCA over the many aspects of satellite ownership and operation had been continuing. There was a continual flow of letters, statements and other documents from the parties to each other before and to the FCC. Hardly any statement, such as number of circuits through the satellite at a given time, allocation of ownership, the economics of lease vs. buy, etc., could be made without someone contesting it. Most of the following was taken from a condensed chronicle of events uses 90 legal-size pages to cover events from September 1974 to March 1975. It covers many conflicts that appear unresolvable; and they were, right up to the last minute. Ignoring earlier events, the standoff between RCA and the State came to a head in late October 1975 when the State petitioned to deny the launch of the RCA F-1 satellite, planned for December 12. The State contended that the RCA applicants had not demonstrated compliance with requirements of the ACS purchase agreement, that the joint satellite proposal would adversely impact cost and quality of communications service in Alaska, and that the proposed ownership arrangements appeared more expensive that a lease arrangement and that RCA Globcom was apparently attempting to use the joint ownership arrangements as a source of cross subsidy for its competitive services. The State did point out that it did not oppose launch of the satellite should Globcom elect to proceed in its individual capacity and would not object to a lease arrangement pending resolution of issues raised in its pleading. AT&T then filed its petition to deny a few days later. Both petitions were opposed by RCA almost immediately. The FCC has issued an order on November 6, stating conditions for RCA to launch their F-1 satellite. It set out conditions that would prevent unnecessary investment by Alascom and preclude cross subsidization from Alascom to Globcom. There was no guarantee of Alaska traffic, however. On November 14, 1975, in what was becoming a high-stakes poker game, RCA asked the Commission for immediate reconsideration the decision to defer a resolution of the issue of whether the AT&T or the RCA satellite should be used for Alaska service. Of many paragraphs, RCA’s petition said:
“The RCA applicants will not risk the adverse economic effects inherent in the possibility of an unfavorable Commission order requiring them to transfer the Alaskan MTS and other traffic to the AT&T proposed satellite system. The RCA applicants have therefore concluded that they cannot undertake to launch these new satellites which have been specially designed and dedicated to serve Alaska while that basic issue is unresolved by the Commission. This decision has been reached with great reluctance and without any desire to place the Commission or any other party in a difficult position.”
In other words, “We won’t launch!” More:
“Before the RCA applicants con irrevocable commit this investment by launching their first satellite on December 12 the basic question must be favorable resolved as to whether RCA Alascom will be authorized to continue to keep its interstate and intrastate MTS and other traffic on the RCA applicants domestic satellite system.”
The reader should not give RCA much sympathy for a review of the entire record would show that they had turned down many opportunities to work out differences in joint meetings between the various parties, and that they habitually failed to properly respond to requests and pleadings of others.
As launch date approached, RCA was still attempting to force its will upon the FCC and the State, as well as ignore AT&T’s pleadings. In a November 20 letter, Howard Hawkins invited Governor Hammond to meet in Washington to resolve outstanding differences, to no avail. He sent a letter to FCC Chairman Wiley on November 24, restating the RCA position and, in the process, demonstrating that satellite ownership by Alascom is drastically inferior to leasing. Hawkins contended that leasing would foreclose the possibility of its earning a rate of return on that portion of the system, which is understandable, but the allocation scheme employed is based upon future needs, not present, so that Alascom would pay for unused transponders for several years; this may be to RCA’s benefit, but as the State pointed out many times, is certainly not consistent with the public interest. The State noted that during the period when RCA was utilizing the Western Union satellite without the “essential” investment of a satellite in its rate base, it was able to pay RCA Globcom a $3 Million dividend in one year. In the next ten days, at least seven letters by the various parties addressed the issue; this included the State, Western Union, AT&T as well as several from RCA. Finally, on December 10, FCC Chairman Wiley sent a letter to RCA, to the attention of Eugene Murphy, President; Howard Hawkins, Executive Vice President and Stephen Heller, Alascom, President. It found that a series of letters from RCA on December 8 constituted adequate acceptance of conditions set forth in the FCC November 6 Satellite Order, and that launch of RCA’s Satcom F-1was authorized. For December 12. A real cliff hanger!
It still wasn’t over for there were continuing wrangles about transfer of Alaska traffic from Westar to either Satcom or AT&T. That finally occurred sometime in the first quarter of 1976. [WHEN?]
[Who paid for the village TV transmitters?]
With the RCA satellite in orbit and in service, and the small earth station program making solid, if slow, progress, it became time to work on getting television to the bush, a major issue in itself. We knew it was technically possible to get acceptable signals with the satellite and earth station combination we would have. To start with, there was no funding to pay for a satellite transponder to carry a television signal. Naturally, RCA had no incentive to donate one; after all, the satellite had to earn revenue. Then, there were four television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, all wanting to get their programming on the system. Next, there was the problem of getting television to Alaska in the first place, since the only way at the time was to “bicycle” videotapes from outside. (For extraordinary events, such as the first moon landing, a link could be set up via the former Comsat earth station in Talkeetna.) If the networks didn’t have their programming brought in live they said that they wouldn’t be able to release it to the bush. To get over that hurdle, we decided to use the not yet funded transponder to transmit TV to the bush during afternoon and prime time; then, it could be used to bring television to the State from the lower 48 over the remaining hours. Programming would have to be recorded before transmission to the bush as it wouldn’t be possible to simultaneously import it from the lower 48 and transmit it to rural Alaska.
While logistics issues were being attacked, we tried to find a way of paying for a TV transponder. With a chance of funding from the state, the broadcasters discovered they were too poor to make any contributions, even proposing that they be paid for supplying their programming to the bush. Negotiations went on for a long time with OT trying to get a low transponder price from RCA (zero was rejected) while reasoning with the broadcasters. The networks were no help, either, maintaining that TV in Alaska wouldn’t appreciably increase their advertising revenue. Finally, the legislature came to our rescue again, appropriating [HOW MUCH?] for a year’s use of a dedicated television transponder. Governor Hammond wasn’t happy to have the State to pay for the commercial networks’ programming, nor were we, only the Governor was far less happy and didn’t want to sign the funding bill. He convened a meeting with the broadcasters, some legislators and a few advisors. The governor asked for statements from all, hoping to find a way to get television without State funds. Pressure from all over the State for live TV was growing and the bush, especially Senator Frank Ferguson, was adamant. The commercial broadcasters had implied that they could eventually support the system, just not now. The meeting wasn’t going anywhere until Representative Fred Brown from Fairbanks made an eloquent plea, citing the importance of timely news, education and culture in the bush. And I assured the Governor that before long State funding would not be needed because the broadcasters would eventually find a way to contribute. Governor Hammond reluctantly agreed to sign the bill. Everyone was happy now, except for the Governor and a few radio broadcasters who watched the State prepare to subsidize television but not them.
Next, we needed a system to select programming and schedule its transmission to the bush. It had to be insulated from the Governor’s Office ; otherwise it would become a political nightmare. It was the end users who should pick their programming, so we established the Rural Alaska Television Network, drawing members from each of the geographic or native regions. It became known as RATNET and it worked out very well. Once Ratnet was formed, however, all types of special interests appeared, including programmers of religious, weather, educational, shopping, health, adult entertainment, etc., requesting time on the system. Ratnet did very well without participation of government bureaucrats.
Large earth stations could be used in Alaska to import television from the lower 48 and, because they have greater receive sensitivity than the small stations, it is possible to carry more than one television signals per transponder. However, at that time it had not been done because the complex TV signals create intermodulation products, generating untenable interference. Richard Dowling, OT’s Chief Engineer and Guy Beakely, a young RCA engineer jointly developed a means for eliminating the intermodulation problem and it became possible to bring two programs into the State at the same time. Doubling the amount of programming for the broadcasters made them happier.[Ratnet lasted for ?? years; the broadcasters never paid and State funding continued until ?? when a substitute approach was implemented. Mike Porcaro? RPD?]