Did DIRECTV make a mistake with its satellite fleet?

As telecommunications companies go, DIRECTV has always been unique. In its first twentyish years as an independent company, it mapped out a plan that’s completely different from anyone else. In fact DIRECTV is so different from competitors — DISH included — that it would be practically impossible for it to merge with any other service. AT&T bought DIRECTV. The integration is still going on, and keep in mind that it’s been three years give or take. This is a company that always did things differently.

Yeah but was it different-good, or different-oh-boy?

Understanding why DIRECTV and DISH will probably never merge will also really get at the kernel of how DIRECTV has been so different. That will let us decide whether that difference is a good thing.

In the 1980s, direct-to-home satellite service fell under one of two categories. For those who actually wanted it, there were these massive dishes, 6 feet or so in width. They pointed at one satellite at a time and you were pretty much on your own if you wanted to use them. The other category was the stuff of dreams: a dish under 2 feet in width, easy to install and able to get hundreds of channels without being reaimed. Unfortunately it was literally the stuff of dreams, since it didn’t exist.

Throughout the early 1990s satellite services with 18″ dishes sprung up all over the world. Many of these were taxpayer-funded services that enhanced or replaced TV broadcast services on earth. In the US, a few companies got exemptions from federal law to create for-profit satellite services. Today you know them as DIRECTV and DISH, of course.

In those early days, DIRECTV was fairly similar to other services. It wasn’t until the 2000s that it started taking a hard turn. Changes in US communications law made it possible for the company to offer local channels in every market, and that meant thousands of new broadcasts. Even in those days we were talking about high definition, and that meant broadcasts that were up to 10 times more complex than older ones. DIRECTV needed breathing room.

The plan that took them to the top

The big gamble for DIRECTV was licensing a completely different set of frequencies and a completely different pair of locations from anyone else. While the entire world uses the Ku satellite band, DIRECTV licensed a large chunk of the Ka band as well. They also procured licenses for satellite locations at 99 and 103 degrees, giving them the ability to serve the entire US with one satellite fleet. These two moves opened up so much satellite capacity that decades later there is still room for more broadcasts, even in 4K.

Will DIRECTV eventually fail because of the Ka band?

The Ka band has technical issues that the Ku band does not. Its smaller waves are much more affected by humidity and small water particles in the air. The water drops don’t block satellite broadcasts, but they do disperse and weaken them. This is the reason you sometimes get rain fade on DIRECTV satellite when other services seem a bit more robust.

It’s been over a decade since those Ka-band satellites have gone into service and guess what, DIRECTV hasn’t failed. It’s the largest satellite service in the world and a lot of that has to do with its unique technology. Yes it’s true that the satellite market isn’t growing explosively like it did a decade ago. Still, AT&T remains at the top of the pay-TV heap because its Ka-band technology allows it to deliver hundreds of national channels, thousands of local channels, and a mix of HD and 4K content that no one can beat.

Doubling down

AT&T continues to double down on the Ka band. In the future, they could possibly use that frequency range in the 101 location as well as the 99 and 103 locations, and plans are well underway (almost complete actually) to retire all the other satellite locations, all of which used Ku-band technology. That leaves 99, 101, and 103 in an easy-to-aim constellation that may even lend itself to smaller dishes. More likely future dishes will be the same size but more sensitive electronics could come close to eliminating the difference in rain fade between Ku and Ka band signals.

It’s still an incredibly exciting time in the world of satellite. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. And in all that excitement, there’s one clear market leader and they made the right decisions all along.