1994: BFBS's Own Satellite Uplink

© IWM NA 10540

An aerial view of the satellite farm behind BFBS’s headquarters today.


The 1990s was a pivotal decade in BFBS's pioneering technological developments.  

It was a close race between BFBS and other broadcasters, such as MTV, as to who would become the first broadcaster to deliver broadcast services using DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) over satellite.  

But several forward-thinking engineers at BFBS saw the benefits of satellites, and at the start of the Gulf War – following an announcement by a Defence Minister in 1990 saying the "troops will have TV for Christmas” – BFBS was forced to quickly establish an infrastructure to enable them to do so.  

However, changing from analogue transmission to the leading-edge digital DVB transmissions in 1994 to provide services from Belize and Canada, and across to Norway and Cyprus, was a big step in BFBS's broadcasting history.  

Satellite distribution provided a paradigm shift in what was possible with TV and radio distribution. BFBS could now provide services to any location under the satellite footprint, meaning BFBS could respond to the needs of the military quickly – no matter how remote.  

If they could access electricity, BFBS could provide live TV and radio. This innovation enabled future service expansion to isolated detachments in places such as the Balkans. At the end of 1992, Britain had sent 2,400 troops to Bosnia and Croatia under Operation Grapple.  

By 1994, British troops were still there in Warrior armoured fighting vehicles painted in white to identify them as United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) vehicles. They were also conducting foot patrols, rebuilding schools and distributing aid.  

During this time, BFBS reflected the constant shift in the military focus and needs of the forces, as British Armed Forces helped to stabilise the volatile situation in Bosnia, Croatia and later, Kosovo. 

Meanwhile, the size of the UK's military had reduced significantly since the Falklands War just 12 years before – from 328,000 in 1982 to 255,000 in 1994.  

In that year, our forces were in Rwanda on Operation Gabriel after an estimated one million people died when tensions between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups turned to violence. The genocide wiped out about 20% of the country's entire population.  

The British Army of the Rhine (BOAR) had been disbanded and replaced by British Forces Germany (BFG). And 1st Battalion The Queen's Lancashire Regiment became the last British unit to leave Berlin and British Forces Belize withdrew, leaving behind just a handful of personnel.  

However, while there were fewer service personnel, BFBS was still determined to provide the best services possible for the military community.  

They knew the forces audience relied on them to provide that feeling of home with familiar sounds such as their favourite soaps' opening credits on BFBS TV or listening to broadcasting legend John Peel on BFBS Radio.  

BFBS offered a vital boost for the morale of the men and women who were deployed and those left at home, sometimes thousands of miles away from their extended families.  

For BFBS, the contract for the analogue service on Intelsat 601 was coming to an end and the microwave link that sent television to Germany was failing and needed fixing regularly. It was time to take on this future broadcasting challenge ourselves.  

In 1994, BFBS set up its own satellite teleport to uplink its services using a 9m Earth Station – or more commonly known to the less technically minded, a large, white satellite dish – based in our headquarters in Buckinghamshire to a NASA Tracking and Data Relay Satellite (TDRS) over the Atlantic.  

BFBS took full advantage of the deregulation of the UK telecoms sector in the early 90s to do this, which, in turn, helped to bring in commercial revenue to the charity. For example, BFBS provided the BBC with a downlink during the 1994 FA Cup and occasionally provided video links for other broadcasters.  

For all of this to work, about 100 downlink sites had to be installed across the world in places such as Norway, Canada, Belize, Cyprus, Germany, Balkans, Gibraltar and Turkey. However, BFBS faced a problem in Turkey that some quick thinking dealt with swiftly.  

The country's rule at the time was that all satellites could be no wider than three metres but the ones BFBS used were larger than that at four and a half metres.  

In a move that echoes the can-do attitude seen over and over again in BFBS's history, one of the engineers simply painted '3 M' on the back in the hope that no-one would notice. The plan worked and, to this day, satellites are still the only way to get live services to ships at sea. 

BFBS engineer fitting a satellite in Nepal.

A BFBS satellite dish being installed in Nepal – today our media services are distributed worldwide via satellite and internet technology.

Satellite television can survive natural disasters, political upheaval, local infrastructure disruption and is not reliant on third-party terrestrial services. BFBS has satellite coverage of Europe, Africa, Middle East, Central/Eastern Asia and part of the Americas.  

We also serve the civilian population in the UK-protected territories of the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island, Tristan Da Cunha and Diego Garcia – areas that would otherwise be unlikely to have access to UK broadcasters.