COMSAT (Communications Satellite Corporation) was a global telecommunications (the transmission of signs, signals, messages, words, writings, images and sounds or information of any nature by wire, radio, optical or electromagnetic systems) company, based in the United States of America from 1963 to 2007.


COMSAT was the historical leading operator of telecommunications satellites (an artificial satellite that relays and amplifies radio telecommunications signals via a transponder; it creates a communication channel between a source transmitter and a receiver at different locations on Earth). It was created in 1962 by the Kennedy administration to develop a private space telecommunications industry. It was a pioneer in the development of international space communications and launched the first geostationary orbit telecommunications satellite, Intelsat I. The Communications Satellite Act of 1962 entrusted a new private company, COMSAT, independent of telecommunications players like AT&T, whose Kennedy administration was wary of, to develop space telecommunications. COMSAT, which became the leading operator of telecommunications satellites, was under the supervision of the US telecommunications regulator, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

It then became a representative of the United States of America and a major player in the international telecommunications organizations Intelsat and Inmarsat (maritime telecommunications). In the mid-1970s, the US telecommunications regulatory authorities opened the telecommunications field to competition, forcing COMSAT to find new markets. The company launched with IBM Satellite Business Systems to give private companies direct access to space communications. COMSAT developed the domestic space telecommunications market with the Comstar geostationary satellite series (a family of four U.S. geostationary orbit communications satellites developed by COMSAT to meet the needs of U.S. long-distance home telephone telecommunications).

In the early 1980s and less successfully, the company began to satellite broadcast television programs. The society then began to suffer from problems of profitability and struggled to keep up with the competition. It diversified successfully in the leisure industry but its profits collapsed in the late 1990s. The company, which had refocused on its initial business, was bought in 1998 by Lockheed Martin (an American global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies company with worldwide interests; it was formed by the merger of Lockheed Corporation with Martin Marietta in March 1995) and dissolved in 2000.

The Communications Satellite Act of 1962

Arthur C. Clarke’s October 1945 article, “Extraterrestrial Relays”, in Wireless World, is generally considered to be the first description of geosynchronous communications satellites. His satellites orbited the Earth in twenty-four hours – the same rate as the Earth revolves – and would therefore appear stationary. Clarke hypothesized that three of these “geosynchronous” (synchronized with the Earth) satellites, each fixed over a specific longitude on the equator, would be sufficient to provide communications services for the entire globe, except for the poles. The satellites would be used for broadcasting – especially television broadcasting.

Several of Clarke’s assumptions turned out to be false – or at least premature. His satellites would have been huge – weighing hundreds of tons rather than hundreds of kilograms. He assumed the station would be manned because the vacuum tubes would have to be changed on a regular basis. Clarke powered his satellite with solar steam boilers, but imagined solar-electric devices (solar cells?) in the near future. Transistors were simply unknown to him and solar cells were not well understood. He also assumed the three basic locations for geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) satellites would be over land masses, rather than over oceans, to maximize broadcast coverage.

Seventeen years after Clarke’s article, on August 31, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed the Communications Satellite Act, which had been debated since the beginning of the year. Just a few weeks before, on July 10, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) had launched Telstar 1. The Act aimed to join together private communication companies in order to make satellites more obtainable. The two most notable commercial entities involved in the build-up to the Communications Satellite Act were AT&T and Hughes Aircraft Corporation.

The Act states that “The Congress declares that it is the policy of the United States to establish, in conjunction and in cooperation with other countries, as expeditiously as practicable a commercial communications satellite system, as part of an improved global communications network, which will be responsive to public needs and national objectives, which will serve the communication needs of the United States and other countries, and which will contribute to world peace and understanding”. Communications satellite system is defined as “a system of communications satellites in space whose purpose is to relay telecommunication information between satellite terminal stations, together with such associated equipment and facilities for tracking, guidance, control, and command functions as are not part of the generalized launching, tracking, control, and command facilities for all space purposes”.

It then declares that “The new and expanded telecommunication services are to be made available as promptly as possible and are to be extended to provide global coverage at the earliest practicable date. In effectuating this program, care and attention will be directed toward providing such services to economically less developed countries and areas as well as those more highly developed, toward efficient and economical use of the electromagnetic frequency spectrum, and toward the reflection of the benefits of this new technology in both quality of services and charges for such services”.

Then it enounces that “In order to facilitate this development and to provide for the widest possible participation by private enterprise, United States participation in the global system shall be in the form of a private corporation, subject to appropriate governmental regulation. It is the intent of Congress that all authorized users shall have non-discriminatory access to the system; that maximum competition be maintained in the provision of equipment and services utilized by the system; that the corporation created under this chapter be so organized and operated as to maintain and strengthen competition in the provision of communications services to the public; and that the activities of the corporation created under this chapter and of the persons or companies participating in the ownership of the corporation shall be consistent with the Federal antitrust laws”.

Finally, the Communications Satellite Act affirms that “It is not the intent of Congress by this chapter to preclude the use of the communications satellite system for domestic communication services where consistent with the provisions of this chapter nor to preclude the creation of additional communications satellite systems, if required to meet unique governmental needs or if otherwise required in the national interest”.

The Act established the Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT). Agencies from different countries joined the COMSAT and formed the International telecommunication Consortium (INTELSAT). INTELSAT established a global commercial communications network. The Act governs all nongovernmental wire and wireless telecommunication. The Act established the Federal Communications Commission.

Intelsat I

Intelsat I (nicknamed Early Bird for the proverb “The early bird catches the worm”) was the first commercial communications satellite to be placed in geosynchronous orbit, on April 6, 1965. It was built by the Space and Communications Group of Hughes Aircraft Company (later Hughes Space and Communications Company, and now Boeing Satellite Systems) for COMSAT, which activated it on June 28. It was based on the satellite that Hughes had built for NASA to demonstrate that communications via synchronous-orbit satellite were feasible. Its booster was a Thrust Augmented Delta (Delta D). After a series of manoeuvres, it reached its geosynchronous orbital position over the Atlantic Ocean, where it was put into service. In April 1964, the company ordered the first Intelsat I commercial telecommunications satellite from the manufacturer Hughes. The utilisation of this new telecommunications system has involved the realization of ground stations (or Earth stations) in other countries, the definition of common technical protocols, and the harmonisation of pricing.

It helped provide the first live TV coverage of a spacecraft splashdown, that of Gemini 6 in December 1965. Originally slated to operate for eighteen months, Early Bird was in active service for four years, being deactivated in January 1969, although it was briefly activated in June of that year to serve the Apollo 11 flight when the Atlantic Intelsat satellite failed. It was deactivated again in August 1969 and has been inactive since that time, although it remains in orbit. The Early Bird satellite was the first to provide direct and nearly instantaneous contact between Europe and North America, handling television, telephone, and telefacsimile transmissions. It was fairly small and weighed thirty-five kilograms.

In August 1964, the International Telecommunications Satellite Consortium (Intelsat) was created with fifteen Member States. COMSAT, which represented the United States of America, supported the construction and management of satellites.