Intelsat, one of the world’s largest fleet of commercial satellites, is a communications satellite services provider. Intelsat was founded in 1964 to own and operate the worldwide commercial satellite communications system. Originally formed as International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (ITSO), it was from 1964 to 2001 an intergovernmental consortium owning and managing a constellation of communications satellites providing international broadcast services. President John F. Kennedy instigated the creation of INTELSAT with his speech to the United Nations on the 25th of September 1961. Less than a year later, John F. Kennedy signed the Communications Satellite Act of 1962.

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.

The International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (ITSO)

The International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (ITSO) is an intergovernmental organization today charged with overseeing the public service obligations of Intelsat. The International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (ITSO) began on August 20, 1964. The 1964 agreement was an interim arrangement on a path to a more permanent agreement. The permanent international organization was established in 1973, following inter-nation negotiations from 1969 to 1971.

It incorporated the principle set forth in Resolution 1721 (XVI) of the United Nations General Assembly which states the following: “The General Assembly, Believing that communication by means of satellites should be available to the nations of the world as soon as practicable on a global and non-discriminatory basis; Convinced of the need to prepare the way for the establishment of effective operational satellite communication, 1. Notes with satisfaction that the International Telecommunication Union plans to call a special conference in 1963 to make allocations of radio frequency bands for outer space activities; 2. Recommends that the International Telecommunication Union consider at that conference those aspects of space communication in which international co-operation will be required; 3. Notes the potential importance of communication satellites for use by the United Nations and its principal organs and specialized agencies for both operational and informational requirements; 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. 1085th plenary meeting, December 20, 1961”.

Originally established in 1973 as Intelsat, the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization was restructured in 2001. The restructuring led to the creation of a private entity, Intelsat S.A. and to the continuation of the intergovernmental organization with a new acronym (ITSO). Today, ITSO’s mission is to “act as the supervisory authority of Intelsat Ltd.; ensure the performance of Core Principles for the provision of international public telecommunications services, with high reliability and quality; and promote international public telecommunication services to meet the needs of the information and communications society”. The Core Principles of the Organization include, maintaining global connectivity and coverage; providing public telecommunications services, including capacity and price protection guarantees to “Lifeline Connectivity Obligation (LCO)” customers; providing domestic public telecommunications services between areas that are isolated or separated by geographic or natural barriers or high seas; and ensuring non-discriminatory access to Intelsat, Ltd.’s communications system.

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.