Welcome to the Slow Death of Satellite TV in America


During an earnings call on November 29th, CEO of AT&T Communications John Donovan effectively signed the death warrant for satellite television in the United States. Just three years after spending $67 billion purchasing the nations’s largest satellite TV provider, DirecTV, he made a comment which left little doubt about the telecom giant’s plan for the service’s roughly 20 million subscribers: “We’ve launched our last satellite.

The news might come as a surprise if you’re a DirecTV customer, but the writing has been on the wall for years. When the deal that brought DirectTV into the AT&T family was inked, they didn’t hide the fact that the actual satellite content delivery infrastructure was the least of their concerns. What they really wanted was the installed userbase of millions of subscribers, as well as the lucrative content deals that DirecTV had already made. The plan was always to ween DirecTV customers off of their satellite dishes, the only question was how long it would take and ultimately what technology they would end up using.

Now that John Donovan has made it clear their fleet of satellites won’t be getting refreshed going forward, the clock has officially started ticking. It won’t happen this year, or even the year after that. But eventually each one of the satellites currently beaming DirecTV’s content down to Earth will cease to function, and with each silent bird, satellite television (at least in the United States) will inch closer to becoming history.

Internet Killed the Satellite Star

If there had been any doubt about what the future of home video content delivery would be when AT&T bought DirecTV back in 2015, there certainly isn’t anymore: on-demand streaming. Every year more and more consumers are streaming content over the Internet from services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu; and traditional television service providers are in big trouble, playing catch up to spin up their own streaming services. Consumers want to decide on their own when, how, and what they’re going to watch. The idea that they should “tune in” at a particular time is becoming increasingly antiquated, especially for younger customers who’ve never lived in a world without YouTube and other instant gratification video services.

At least “cable” providers (which today can take many forms including fiber optic to the premises) can fall back on providing Internet services to customers. You might not want to watch their branded TV service, but you’re still on the hook for buying Internet access from them because your home is physically jacked into their network. But the satellite providers don’t even have that golden parachute; satellite Internet is comparatively so slow and expensive, with only a handful of companies still offering it.

DirecTV’s Android streaming device

In this light, it’s really no wonder AT&T doesn’t want to invest in launching any more television satellites. They can’t provide competitive Internet service, and who wants to gamble on traditional TV service even being around over the next 20 years? There simply isn’t enough value in it. But of course, that doesn’t mean they are abandoning the idea of delivering video into consumer’s homes.

Just over a year ago the existence of AT&T’s Android powered set-top box, designed to provide television service over the customer’s existing broadband Internet connection, was revealed via an FCC filing. Carrying DirecTV branding, this device is currently being tested internally by staffers in what’s generally referred to as “dogfooding”; in other words, testing your own product internally before letting consumers at it. A full roll out of this new TV-over-IP service is expected in 2019, and a marketing push attempting to get satellite customers to switch over to Internet-based programming likely won’t be far behind.

Taking Inventory of the DirecTV Fleet

Let’s say you’re receiving your daily dose of flickering digital opium from one of DirecTV’s geostationary satellites currently 35,786 kilometers (22,236 miles) over our heads, and aren’t too keen on replacing that setup with yet another Internet streaming device. How long do you have before the option is taken away from you?

DirecTV-15 during testing

The short answer is, quite some time. The last satellites to join the fleet, DirecTV-14 and DirecTV-15, went up in 2014 and 2015 respectively. With a nominal lifespan of 15 years, these two satellites should still be functioning into the 2030’s assuming nothing goes wrong. The other eleven satellites which currently make up the DirecTV fleet are considerably older, and we’ll likely start to see them get retired one by one over the next several years.

Due to the altitude at which these satellites operate, it takes far less energy to send them deeper into space than it would to slow them down enough to force them to renter the Earth’s atmosphere. Accordingly, none of the DirecTV satellites will ever come crashing back down to Earth; instead when they hit the end of their operational life they’ll expend their remaining propellant to position themselves in a so-called “graveyard orbit“.

Interestingly, it was reported that AT&T had placed an order for two additional satellites (DirecTV-16 and DirecTV-17) with Airbus, the manufacturer of DirecTV-15. In fact, DirecTV-16 was even given a tentative launch date of August 2018 according to the Space Assigned Numbers Authority (SANA) registrar. Given the lead time on building a major geostationary communications satellite, one wonders how far Airbus had gotten building these satellites before they were canceled, and what might become of them now that AT&T has decided to exit the industry.

End of an Era

Safe money is on DirecTV still beaming TV from at least some of their satellites for another decade, but much beyond that is anyone’s guess. There are of course other companies offering satellite television, and they may even rush in once DirecTV officially moves all of their operations back down to terra firma, but who’s to say what condition those smaller companies will be in by then.

There are simply too many factors competing against satellite TV for it to survive in the long term. Broadband is getting faster and more readily available, even in rural areas, and content consumers are increasingly disinterested in hundreds of channels playing thousands of advertisements. Given its long history and intersection with the hacker community, it will be sad to see satellite TV slowly fade into the past. But at least we can take some small comfort in knowing that there’ll be no shortage of disused satellite dishes we can use for all manner of projects and experiments.



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