The Intelsat Story
Satellite Communications was first conceived by science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke in 1945 after observing the power of German V1 and V2 missiles during World War II. In his paper Extra Terrestrial Relays – Can Rocket Stations Give Worldwide Radio Coverage?, Clark described the Geostationary Orbit
, and the role it would play in providing global communications in the future. The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched into space by the Russians in 1957, and soon later, satellite communications was born.
In the early days, it was apparent that no single corporation or nation could carry out the development of a space based global communications system independently. Realizing this, 11 nations worked together to form the Inter-Government Organization, Intelsat, in 1964. Intelsat launched its first satellite, Early Bird, in 1965 and went on to dominate satellite communications for the next 50 years.
Often when the public interest is best served by a single entity rather than several competing entities, regulating science calls for the allowance of a well regulated “natural monopoly.” In some cases, such as gas or electrical distribution, a single entity will be given the right to serve all of the people in a region, and then that entity will serve that region until its services are no longer required. In so much as telecommunications is to be considered a public utility, then it is fitting that regulators should allow a monopoly to develop, for at least as long as it takes for a particular sector of telecommunications mature. This is the story of INTELSAT, a multi-national organization created by inter-governmental agreements to further the pursuit of Satellite Communications as a global communications system to benefit all of mankind.
By the mid-twentieth century, there were several competing global communications networks, ranging from undersea telegraph and telephone cables to long range short-band radio. These networks were operated by private corporations and governments alike, all competing for dominance in a post-imperial world.
The advent of the Communications Satellite promised to rapidly speed the development of global communications. At the same time, resources were scare, and the necessary technologies were just blossoming. Many recognized the need to develop space based communications in an organized fashion, so that all of the peoples of the Earth could share in its miracle.
In order to maintain control of a newly budding industry, and ensure the efficient allocation of resources for the maximum benefit of the public, the world’s governments organized the inter-governmental organization INTELSAT. INTELSAT was charged with developing satellite technology, launching satellites, and managing the radio spectrum used to operate satellites communications.
Once created, INTELSAT grew rapid, launching series after series of increasingly powerful satellites. For over 30 years, INTELSAT operated free of competition. During this time, it developed technologies and funded a growing space industry. Many related industries, from rocketry to spacecraft construction blossomed during this time.
As such, it is evident that INTELSAT is a classic example of a natural monopoly summoned to meet the needs of a fledgling industry, and this paper tells the story of its birth and explains its operation.
Satellite Communications saw a faster adoption process than perhaps any other previous communications technology, and perhaps any since. While nearly one hundred years passed between the laying of the first undersea telegraph cable and the laying of the first submarine cable used to carry telephone traffic, the first geostationary communications satellite was launched just five years after that. With the launch and orbiting of that single satellite came the possibility to instantly link any two points within its footprint, covering one third of the entire earth. Such a rapid development of a technology with such profound global impact demanded a governing body to regulate it.
The first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid by British entrepreneurs led by Cyrus West Field in 1858, but was operational for only one month. The first successful cable was not laid until 1865. It was not until 1903 that the first trans-pacific cable was laid, linking Hawaii to the US mainland. By the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the entire world was tied together by telegraph, but most of the lines were owned and operated by British companies, which were nationalized after the war (Submarine Communications Cables, 2013). In summary, it took approximately 50 years to build a global telegraph network using undersea cables.
An alternative to undersea cable was developed in the 1920’s, with effective long distance communications carried out using short wave radio. These radio systems used directional antennas to bounce signals off ionized portions of the atmosphere to deliver messages to receiving stations half the world away. This method was unreliable, however, due to constantly changing atmospheric conditions. (Pelton, 1974)
In 1946, the US Army Signals Core, operating out of Fort Monmouth, NJ, was able to successfully bounce a signal off the moon. This method of sending signals to distant places around the world was slightly more reliable than short wave radio, but only worked while the moon was above the horizon for both the sender and the receiver. Moon bounce communications was also severely limited to a short portion of the spectrum capable of traversing the extreme distance. (EME (Communications), 2013)
In 1956, nearly one hundred years after the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph line, a partnership between AT&T, Canadian Overseas Telecommunications Corporation, and the UK General Post Office laid the first successful undersea telephone cable. This first cable could support only 36 telephone circuits. A cable from the US to Hawaii was laid in 1957, and a cable from Hawaii to Japan was laid in 1964, finally crossing both oceans and enabling global telephony via undersea cables (Pelton, 1974). It took 8 years for telephone technology to finally span the globe; 88 years after Alexander Graham Bell filed his first telephone patent, and 106 years after the first undersea cable.
While economics would eventually drive submarine fiber optic cable to be the preferred choice for fixed global communications, satellite communications had a much faster start. In 1957, the same year California and Hawaii were linked by telephone cables, the Russians launched world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, broadcasting a simple radio pulse. The US responded in 1958 with the launch of SCORE, which broadcast a series of pre-recorded messages from low earth orbit. (Pelton, 1974) Neither Sputnik nor Score were true communications satellites, but proved that man could put an object into space.
In 1960, NASA launched ECHO 1A, a simple gas filled balloon that inflated in orbit to a diameter of about 100 feet (Project Echo, 2013). While ECHO had no electronics onboard, it served as a giant reflector in space that signals could be bounced off of, similar to the moon. ECHO satellites had advantages over boon bouncing because they were much closer, and placing several of them in orbit eliminated the problem of the moon’s rotation.
In 1962, just 5 years after Sputnik shook the world, AT&T launched TELSTAR, the first satellite with non-delayed active repeaters, demonstrating promise by linking earth stations in the US, Britain, and France (Pelton, 1974).
Finally, in 1963 NASA successfully launched SYNCOM II. The SYNCOM project marked the first communications satellite placed in geosynchronous orbit. This allowed it to “hover” over a fixed spot on the Earth’s surface, eliminating the need for tracking earth station antennas. A single satellite in geosynchronous orbit can provide a coverage footprint of approximately one third of the surface of the earth, making it possible to provide global communications with only three satellites. It was now possible, for the first time ever, to link any two points on the surface of the earth wirelessly. Even better, unlike with cable technology, the same communications channel being used one day to connect Washington and London could be used the next day to connect New York and Paris.
The fact that this technology evolved so rapidly is significant. While it took 50 years to cover the earth with undersea telegraph cable, it only took 6 years to cover it with satellite footprints. This break-neck deployment of a global communications system was immediately recognized for the impact it would have on political, economic, and military balance around the world, but in 1963, there was no guarantee the new technology would be planned out either peacefully or efficiently.
From the beginning, the United States dominated satellite communications. The US was the only Western power with the technological and economic capability to build satellites and launch them into geostationary orbit. To some, this was an opportunity for American Capitalism to do what it does best. Many, however, in the US and around the world saw the fledgling industry as an opportunity to build a truly global communications system capable of bringing the peoples of the world closer together. There was also a pre-dominant feeling that for a system to be truly international, it must be built and managed by an international agency, and not private enterprise protected by a superpower. Finally, there was precedent from the telegraph industry that the most efficient and effective way to build and manage a global communications industry was to commission one single agency to do the work. All of these factors played a critical role in bringing about the formation of INTELSAT.
Although the Russians had put the first satellite into space in 1957, by 1963, the US was way in the lead. The launches of TELSTAR, RELAY I, and SYNCOM II were each major milestones in the development of satellite communications. Aside from the Soviet Union, no other nation was even close. In the 1960’s, Europe and Japan were still recovering from World War II, while the US economy was booming.
The US had a major advantage over other western countries in the 1960’s. NASA was locked in the Space Race to put a man on the moon, and in 1963 commanded 2.3% of the US Federal Budget. By the end of 1963, NASA alone had sunk $48 Billion into the space industry. (Budget of NASA, 2013). NASA was not only supporting Satellite Communications indirectly through the funding of technological research, but was also emerging as the world’s biggest buyer of satellite communications services. When eventually launched, the INTELSAT II series of satellites would depend heavily on NASA as a customer to make their launch and operations economically feasible. (Snow, 1987) Finally, NASA held the world’s finest launch facilities, which heavily benefited the early private US Satellite Communications industry.
AT&T, having developed the TELSTAR satellite, was on the track to build its own monopoly in space communications. In the 1960’s, AT&T owned majority shares in each of the submarine telephone cables linking the US and Canada to Europe and Asia. AT&T indeed carried most US telephone traffic and would be a major user of satellite communications going forward. Many in the US were okay with AT&T assuming a dominant role in the new industry. In a 1960 speach on the subject, President Eisenhower explained that the US “policy of conducting international telephone, telegraph and other communications through private sector enterprise subject to governmental control, licensing and regulation” had helped to achieve “communication facilities second to none among nations of the world.” (Pelton, 1974)
Not all agreed, however. Many felt that in order to fully benefit all of mankind, the growing industry had to be seen as a single system, and all nations must be able to participate in its development. Among these forward thinkers was President John F. Kennedy, who invited the world to share in the development of satellite communications:
Science and technology have progressed to such a degree that communication through the use of space satellites has become possible. Through this country’s leadership this competence should be developed for Global benefit at the earliest practical time… I again invite all nations to participate in a communications satellite system, in the interest of world peace and closer brotherhood among peoples through the world. (Kildow, 1973)
Also in 1961, the United Nations adopted Resolution 1721 on International Co-Operation in Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN General Assembly, 1961). The resolution called satellite communications to be “available to the nations of the world as soon as practicable on a global and non-discriminatory basis.” The document specifically addresses the development of satellite space communications in the following way:
4. Invites the Special Fund and the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance, in consultation with the International Telecommunication Union, to give sympathetic consideration to requests from Member States for technical and other assistance for the survey of their communication needs and for the development of their domestic communication facilities, so that they may make effective use of space communication;
5. Requests the International Telecommunication Union, consulting as appropriate with Member States, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and other specialized agencies and governmental and non-governmental organizations, such as the Committee on Space Research of the International Council of Scientific Unions, to submit a report on the implementation of these proposals to the Economic and Social Council at its thirty-fourth session and to the General Assembly at its seventeenth session;
6. Requests the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, as it deems appropriate, to review that report and submit its comments and recommendations to the Economic and Social Council and to the General Assembly.
There was also strong precedence, by the 1960’s, for the monopolistic and intergovernmental handling of telecommunications. Perhaps the best example is the British Telegraph Industry. At the outbreak of World War I, Britain had already developed a powerful and dominant global network of undersea telegraph cables which gave the vast empire tremendous economic, political, and military advantages. Prior to the war, the network was owned and operated by four private corporations, overseen by the Post Office of the United Kingdom. After the war, in order to consolidate power, the system was reorganized. All international telegraph cables now fell under the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Telegraphs Agreement, entered into by all members of the commonwealth. Each member then appointed either a government agency or a private entity as a signatory to the international governing body (Pelton, 1974). This also sets the precedence for the interesting relationship that occurs when some nations are represented government agencies while others are represented by private entities with the rights and privileges of a government agency.
Many nations at the time also recognized the advantages of allowing for a natural monopoly to control a public utility industry if economies of scale could benefit the public interest. In the 1960’s, there were relatively few entities in the world that possessed the technological ability to deploy a global satellite communications system. There were even fewer, if any, entities with the economic means to do so. Natural Monopoly theory dictates that in such a scenario, the public interest is best served by a single operator channeling all available resources for the maximum benefit of all customers, rather than multiple operators wasting resources by duplicated services. (Snow, 1987)
In conclusion, resources and knowhow for building a satellite communications system were extremely scarce. There was mounting pressure from around the world that any such system should be built for the maximum benefit of all mankind. There was strong precedence for the successful and efficient management of a previous global communications system by a single international monopoly. There was evidence that private and government entities could effectively work together across international borders. Finally, there was solid economic theory supporting the development of satellite communications as a Natural Monopoly. Taking these factors into consideration, the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (INTELSAT) was created by international treaty in August of 1964.
The need for organization did not result immediately in the consortium that would become INTELSAT, but rather it was a multi-step, tumultuous matter. The United
States was quick to act first, creating the Communications Satellite Corporation through an act of congress. When the US began attempting to make individual deals with nations in which it wanted to do business, Western European nations countered by forming the European Conference of Post and Telecommunications Administration (CEPT). This organization, along with actions by the United Nations and the ITU, forced the US into the set of multi-lateral agreements that formed INTELSAT. Even at that, the resulting organization was not truly international, but largely a US company that collected funding from its partners. One thing was certain about INTELSAT, and that is that it had tremendous power as a monopoly, in the US and abroad.
As the future of satellite communications looked more and more promising, the US government began debating how to best achieve its regulation. Some, such as Senator Kerr of Oklahoma, strongly proposed the authorization of a wholly private entity, owned by the various common carriers. Kerr’s stance was lauded by private enterprise proponents, such as AT&T, RCA, and ITT, all of whom would benefit by this course of action. The strongest argument in favor of this plan was that if the common carriers owned the satellite company, they would favor keeping prices low rather than making a profit, which would benefit the consumer.
Others were completely opposed to private control over the space communications sector. The public had already invested billions in research for space technology, and it seemed unfair that corporate giants should benefit from that effort. A satellite communications industry controlled by the common carriers also meant even more power for AT&T, already the strongest monopoly in the United States (Pelton, 1974). There was also worry that private industry would make an initial investment in new technology, but then protect that investment by avoiding future development (as was often the case with common carriers.) Congressmen Ryan and Celler formed an alliance with Senators Morse and Kefauver to fight for an entirely public entity to control satellite communications (Parks, 2013), much like the Post Office or the newly created Interstate Highway System.
The middle ground was represented by the Kennedy Administration, whose plan offered a compromise. The Vice President and the Space Council proposed a corporation that would be privately owned, but heavily regulated by various government agencies, including the FCC, White House Office of Telecommunications Management, and the State Department. This proposed agency would be managed by a board of six industry directors, and six directors appointed by the above agencies. In the end, congress chose the compromise and Comsat was born with nearly 50% of its stock split between AT&T, ITT, LT&E, and RCA and under the direction of NASA, the FCC, the Small Business Administration, and the State Department. (Pelton, 1974) The stated goals of Intelsat were as follows:
- Plan, initiate, construct, own, manage, and operate itself or inconjunction with foreign voernments or business entities, a commercial communications satellite system;
- Furnish, for hire, channels of communication for the United States common carriers and to other authorized entities, foreign and domestic; and
- Own and operate satellite terminal states when licensed.
The initial groundwork for international cooperation actually begin in 1959 at the ITU Administrative Radio Conference, during which the ITU set aside frequency bands for use in satellite communications, and committed itself to meet again in 1963 to carry out more serious work on the matter. (Pelton, 1974)This action by the ITU was endorsed by the United Nations adoption of Resolution 1721. The follow up meeting in 1963 resulted in the allocation of 2800 MHz of spectrum for satellite communications, including 2 blocks for up-linking, 2 blocks for down-linking, and one for future development. The most aggressive proposal before the ITU was an Israeli push to create a Space Communications Administration to oversee all satellite communications, but this was defeated. (Pelton, 1974)
During its work on the Telstar and Relay projects, NASA had actually made agreements the governments of Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Japan, and Scandinavia to build earth stations in those countries. During this time, many successful experiments were carried out transmitting signals from one nation and receiving them in another.
The flip side of this period was growing resentment among Western European powers looking to defend their own interests. In response, they formed the European Conference of Post and Telecommunications Administration (CEPT) in 1962. This move strengthened the position of European nations, which began a series of closed door talks with Australia and Canada before they would even have informal discussions with the United States. To some, it appeared that the Europeans were attempting to move forward without the Americans, but this was totally illusory, as no European nation had any ability to construct or launch a geostationary satellite. (Pelton, 1974)
Only when the US was convinced that Europeans would make it impossible for Comsat to operate entirely on its own did they commit to forming the International Telecommunications Satellite Corporation (INTELSAT.) Accepting US dominance, Europe then submitted that the new corporation would be managed by Comsat. Following the model set up by the Commonwealth Telegraph Agreement, discussions focused on two separate agreements: one between governments, and the other between operating entities; whether those entities are private or public was up to each nation.
The result was a private corporation with an initial 5 year charter. Ownership was distributed among its signatories: US 61%, Western Europe 30.5%, Canada, Japan and Australia 8.5%. To make an allowance for developing nations, stock could be diluted so that new partners could purchase up to 17%. The agreement also established the Interim Communications Satellite Committee (ICSC) to oversee technical and commercial operations of the consortium, with voting rights distributed just as ownership. While the ICSC would make guidance decisions, actually operational management would be performed by Comsat. (Pelton, 1974). Over the next 5 years of the test period, many key issues were to be scrutinized by various parties, in particular:
- Whether the development of satellite technology would undermine European, and particularly British, holdings in submarine cable, and whether this concern would cause Europeans to hold back in its commitment to satellite communications
- Whether procurement would be fairly distributed among all member nations or if most funds would land in the pockets of American industrialists.
- Whether Europe would have a fair say in the development of the system, or end up being a US puppet. (Pelton, 1974)
A distinctive and important feature of INTELSAT is that the nature of each members participate was different. The United States and Italy would be represented by private enterprises, Comsat and Telespazio respectively. All of the other nations would be represented by government entities, namely their Post, Telegraph, and Telephone offices (PPTs). This arrangement gave Comsat and Telespazio authority as private corporations that most nations reserved for governments. As such, the creation of Intelsat had to be done by two distinct agreements. The first was between the various nations, the second between the signatories that would be representing them.
One significant point of view ignored during the talks and afterwards were the concerns of the Soviet Union, which feared US dominance. The Soviets argued, to no avail, that UN Resolution 1721 require non-discriminatory access satellite communications, and that the only way to achieve this was for the system to be managed by either the ITU or the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. (Pelton, 1974)From the Russian Perspective, INTELSAT was a private satellite club owned and operated by the United States and its allies.
Something that was for sure was that the new organization was an immediate and powerful monopoly. In 1966, the American Broadcast Company planned to launch its own satellite to relay television signals, but the process was held up for years by Comsat’s influence through the FCC. Even AT&T was at the mercy of Comsat. When AT&T planned to lay its fifth transatlantic telephone cable, it was forced to counter Comsat’s objection before finally gaining approval. (Kildow, 1973)
It is debatable whether INTELSAT was truly an international endeavor, or indeed a US corporation. The other member nations contributed funds and participated in the procurement process, but the entire consortium was managed by Comsat, which in turn was heavily influenced by the United States Government (Kildow, 1973). With its 61% ownership at the outset of the agreement, the US was guaranteed to always maintain majority ownership, even if the full provision for 17% ownership by developing nations was realized. This meant that the US would always have a controlling vote in important matters facing the ISCS.
In light of the developments during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was a serious need for some kind of international regulatory body to govern satellite communications. The United States was taking a leading and dominant role in establish the Communications Satellite Corporation and using it to enter into bi-lateral agreements with other nations government owned communications entities. While the United Nations was calling for an international approach, the Western European powers took it upon themselves to form their own consortium, leveraging their combined bargaining power against the US. This forced the US into an multi-lateral agreement to form INTELSAT. Partially because the Soviets chose not to participate, the US possessed an overwhelmingly dominant position in the new international corporation, which could be seen from some points of view as an American-run company with foreign investors. With little competition and billions of dollars invested, Comsat would build INTELSAT into a powerful monopoly.
The new organization had a number of basic policy areas, but four particulars stand out as the most interesting. The ownership of space segment, INTELSAT’s primary asset, was to be based on the amount of capital invested. Awarding of procurements contracts and subcontracts would be based on cost, quality, delivery time, and fair geographic distribution, when possible. The revenue model for selling access to space segment would be based on the ROI model. Finally, construction of earth stations was to be under the jurisdiction of the signatories. All of these policy areas would come with a set of problems.
Aside from its offices, INTELSAT’s only real assets were to be its satellites, known as space segment, as all earth stations, even those used for command and control, were to be owned by the signatories and not counted as INTELSAT’s property. Ownership of space segment was to be distributed according to the investment of capital, and likewise, revenue would be redistributed according to the same distribution. This put members on unequal footing, with conflicting policy objectives. If a member invested more capital than they paid in revenue for use, then it suited that member for INTELSAT to adopt higher operating fees. However, if a member used more of the system than they invested in, they obviously favored lower operating fees (Snow, 1987).
The revenue model that was ultimately chosen was based on Return of Investment. Under the ROI model, prices were based on cost, with a reasonable return on investment. Most years, INTELSAT aimed for an ROI of about 14%. Prices were based on a unit of 4 KHz, or a single 2-way telephone quality circuit. Each unit, regardless of the cost to produce it, was priced at the average cost for all units of that size, primary fluctuations depending on which satellite it was operating on and which earth stations were sending or receiving the signal.
A greater conflict arose from the practice of distributing procurement contracts. According to the official policy, procurement was supposed to be based on cost, quality, and delivery time, witch special consideration given to the equitable geographic distribution of contracts. The US, with its early technological advantage, favored awarding based on the first three criteria, while the European members, who would pool their 30.5% ownership, favored the later criteria. The developing nations, with little opportunity to procure awards for themselves, favored the US to keep costs down. (Snow, 1987)The ICSC was to make the decisions on procurement, but in early practice, Comsat acted on its own.
The first satellite, INTELSAT I, was launched as Early Bird by Comsat, and thus INTELSAT had no say at all in its design, construction, or launch. The ICSC then began contemplating the next series of satellites to be launched. The INTELSAT I design already had more capacity than any existing undersea cable, and would seem to meet the needs of common carriers, but there were also new customers to consider, including television, which could be broadcast across oceans for the first time. NASA was also demanding more and more bandwidth, and when it placed an order that could not be met by satellites of the INTELSAT I design, nor could wait for the new design under development to be ready in 1968, it forced INTELSAT to act. Hughes, who had designed and built Early Bird, quickly proposed a modification to satisfy the NASA RFQ, which Comsat, operating under temporary authority from the ICSC, quickly approved (Pelton, 1974). Thus, the second generation of INTELSAT satellites had been designed and would be procured and launched with little input from the ICSC and entirely by US contractors.
While it would be a long time before satellites were built or constructed outside of the US, the European consortium was able start winning bids for sub-systems and other support roles starting with the INTELSAT IV series. This was due in large part to pooling of their 30.5% ownership, as well as government subsidization of the European Aerospace Industry (Snow, 1987). To be fair, most of the US contractors furnishing and winning bids were also huge defense contractors which could be accused of receiving government subsidies themselves.
The final major area of concern for INTELSAT in the early years and beyond was with the authorization of Earth Stations. According to the interim and permanent agreements, authorization for the construction and operations of earth stations to access the INTELSAT network was at the sole discretion of the signatories (Snow, 1987). In many cases, the signatory was the local Postal, Telegraph, and Telephone Company (PPT), which presented a conflict of interest. For example, if an American oil and gas company wanted to build an earth station at one of its facilities in Africa, it required authorization from the local African telephone company, which would not be too keen to allow the oil and gas firm to bypass the local phone network (United Nations ICT Task Force Working Group on the Enabling Enviroment, 2005).
Over the next half century, INTELSAT would grow to include over 100 signatory members. The organization would launch 109 satellites, 53 of which are still operating today. These satellites now provide service to over 600 earth stations in 149 countries. The former Inter-Governmental Corporation has since been privatized and competes with a variety of other private enterprise satellite operators, including Eutelsat, SES, and Inmarsat. While nearly all the earth’s major land masses and islands are linked by undersea fiber optic cables, satellite remains the only way to provide service at sea or in remote or difficult terrain. Satellite is still the fastest way to launch new services anywhere, and provides corporations and governments with a viable option in nations or regions where the local infrastructure cannot be trusted. Today, satellite even competes in industries traditionally dominated by wireline companies.
All of this is owed to the successful creation of INTELSAT as an international commercial monopoly. Government oversight promised that the global agency would fulfill the public interest, while commercial ambition drove it grow nearly without bound. International cooperation helped to secure fair access to communications to all of the people of the world.
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 The 1962 World Series was transmitted over satellite, sparking a demand for more international programming around the world.