A spike in traffic for BBSes in the early 1990s (from Usenet and the FidoNet's Filebone) threatened to make the process of being a networked BBS a prohibitively expensive one. At that point, a solution presented itself: satellite feeds. For a short, exciting time, services and messages could be delivered to your BBS via a dish outside.
Bob Chapman of Award Winning Web Site Designs mailed in the letter that initiated this entry. From his letter: "BBS via satellite. This was a breakthrough in eliminating the horrendous long distance phone bills to get the FidoNet backbone messages and files themselves (Filebone). It was a critical step that allowed BBSing to hang on longer when internet connections were still rather scarce."
Bob's page on this event and his part of it is located here.
Planet Connect (Joe Overholt) and PageSAT (Norman Gillaspie) Edit
The two companies that seem to have dominated the "Send Usenet and fidonet feeds via satellite dishes to BBSes" market are Planet Connect and PageSAT.
Pagesat's main man appears to have been Norman Gillaspie. He started offering Newsfeeds via PageSAT in 1992. While putting the project together, he put a posting in alt.dcom.telecom that gives a lot of information about himself and his plans:
"I was involved in the television broadcast business from 1970 to 1980. In 1980 I was one of the pioneers of the home satellite industry, and founded GCI (Gillaspie Communications Inc.). We produced over 15,000 satellite receivers and microwave down converters.
"In 1984 I founded a company called ISS Engineering, Inc. ISS has produced and marketed products to cable TV, TV broad- casters, radio stations and satelite common carriers. ISS is also a satellite common carrier and currently possesses apx. 10% of the resources on GE's K-2 transponder 2. ISS designed satellite receivers and components for companies wishing to bypass the telephone company leased lines in point-to-multipoint applications. We have significant capacity on K-2 and we have one of the highest energy density signals from K-2. ISS is currently transmitting data to over 500 sites reliably throughout the U.S.
"I believe ISS has one of the best technical solutions for most applications involving satellite data broadcast. ISS has been basically an RF house, but as a common carrier I realize the possibilities for distributing E-Mail or Usenet news, etc. I believe ISS has the technology and satellite resources to make this a viable service today......
"As an active reader of Usenet news for apx. 18 months, I have found Usenet is a great way to stay current and to get more of a real time feeling of various trends in society. Most of my activities involving the net have been one-way, read-only, much like reading newspapers or magazines. In the future with electronic publishing I see the transmission of electronic newsletters, talking cartoons, requests for bids, patent abstracts, legal rulings, and many other forms of up-to-date information being distribued in a more immediate form via satellite broadcast.
"The proliferation of computers and communication networks will allow electronic publishing to have an increasing acceptance. This should also open up a delivery and distribution method for artists, writers, government and special interest groups,etc. Satellite delivered information is the most direct route to the ultimate user."
There is some roughness between PageSat's marketing person, Len Rose, and some potential customers, but this may just be a matter of squeaky wheels; it certainly seems the case the the PageSat costs were higher than Planet Connect's. It should definitely be noted that both PageSat and Planet Connect had some talented men behind them; it wasn't a case of one doing a proper job and the other being fly-by-night.
PageSat was ultimately bought out by a company called NCIT. From a December 1995 Usenet Posting, Pagesat/NCIT started offering a 115.2Kbps connection via satellite:
"The Pagesat Netnews satellite broadcast service has been upgraded to 115.2Kbps. Cost for this new serive is only $795.00 for the satellite data terminal,antenna and outdoor electronics. The service charge is $40.00 per month billed yearly and we tke credit cards which will allow your site to get a complete newsfeed for a low monthly rate.
"The PageSat HS 2000 satellite data terminal is the smart way for Internet service providers, BBS operators and organizations to receive virtually a complete Netnews newsfeed encluding binaries and foreign groups. Smart because it can take up to 25-30 percent of a 56K circuit just to receive a full newsfeed. Multiple NNTP newsfeeds can take up even morebandwidth. The PageSat service currently receives over 40 NNTP feeds, some of which are major backbone feeds such as DEC-WRL and CERFnet.
"PageSat will be adding more incoming feeds over the next few months. This saves your site from having to manage all these feeds while providing a fast up-to-date realtime feed that will out perform your competitor or get you that item someone posted for sale for sale faster than virtually any other means. Newsgroups are added constantly as more become available, which eases administration time and costs. Imagine having news maintenance done automatically rather than tracking down new groups and manually requesting them from your provider!
Planet Connect's President was named Joe Overholt, and he made a sizeable effort to post in Fidonet Echoes and Usenet boards to answer various flareups and accusations that bounced back and forth in Planet Connect's history. Planet Connect opened a service called "Planet Connect Europe" in about April of 1996 (a Usenet posting by Overholt mentions the service being up for six months, in December of 1996).
The FidoNet Connection Edit
Besides the natural "feeds" available of Usenet/NNTP material, another constant stream of text came from FidoNet echoes and FILEBONE, which the satellite companies made sure to support. Since one of Fidonet's biggest issues was pushing the mass of mail, messages and files coming through its network (a network that consisted of phone-based modems), satellite was as groundbreaking for Fidonet traffic as it had been for Internet traffic. Bob Chapman stresses the name of Sal Lizard (Fidonet 1:372/0) as that of being a pioneer in the wedding of Fidonet and Satellite, and being the first successful test case of the Planet Connect system. Sal Lizard's BBS (The Mailbox, located in Charleston, South Carolina) therefore went from being Node #39 to the Mail Hub for Charleston Net (372). According to the FidoNet Nodelists, this happened between January and October of 1993. Bob says "Joe Overholt specifically recognized Sal at the ONE BBSCON Awards Banquet in Atlanta in 1994. Hey, someone had to be PC's Guinea Pig! It is hard to imagine the massive flood of attention that brought to Charleston Net from other local Fidonet groups wanting to know HOW we did it. Sal was extremely helpful to anyone/everyone interested.... I did my thing for my own system and my users, but Sal did the same for our whole local network and actually everyone in Fidonet!"
PageSat Goes Dark (December, 1996) Edit
In December of 1996, PageSat/NCIT's feed went down and callers to PageSat/NCIT's number were told that the company had gone out of business. The recording supposedly mentioned that they had 400+ customers at the time of closure.
Norman Gillaspie of PageSat posted this message on a PageSat mailing list:
"The investors and shareholders today decided to liquidate the NCIT. This was a complete shock to me as I thought we had an agreement in place to purchase the company over a period of time out of the receipts of the company.
"I did not own any part of and was not an officer of the company but had certain buy out rights that I could exercise.
"In any event after the transition to GE-1 the required power to operate the service doubled and other various business reasons on the investors side precipitated them into shutting down the company. The operation of the teleport and space segment and salaries were part of the problem. In addition new software and encryption would need to be implemented in January to assure that payments would be made towards the operation. I could not convince them to continue on.
"I have worked for the past few months without any payments and have not had a vacation for 3 years. The company owes me a fair amount in back salary, vacation pay etc.
"As you might not no or be aware of. I started the USENET news broadcast almost 4 years ago when the news feed was only 30 to 50 megs a day. It is now well over 700 megs just for the domestic groups and not the foreign groups.
"There are well over 350 sites that were receiving their news feeds via the satellite system."
This closure caused Joe Overholt to make an offer of a special deal to the now ex-ed PageSat/NCIT members. The posting he sent out on Usenet (on alt.usenet.satellite and other groups) is very informative for his version of history and the state of Planet Connect in December of 1996:
"Planet Connect presently operates three satellite data services that specialize in BBS, Usenet, and commercial data services. The 19.2 baud service as been operating since 1993 and has approximately 500 subscribers in North America. This service provides Fidonet, weather, UPI news, TV Listings, Sports, Stocks and a limited amount of Usenet data to subscribers. This feed as a capacity of about 150 megs per day of compressed data.
"We also supply two identical 128K data services, one to North America and one to Europe. These feeds include the same data as the 19,200 service but concentrate mainly on Usenet. About 90 per cent of the traffic is Usenet. The Usenet feed is a near real-time feed with a T-1 news server feeding the uplink constantly with the latest postings. The delay between posting and sending over the satellite is normally a few hours. At times when the Usenet feed becomes very busy the delay may be longer since the satellite feed is limited to 128K at this time. We receive our news from UUNET, BBNPLANET and we are presently testing others. We send all the conferences we can find which is presently over 22,000. We do not edit binaries or make any attempt to edit the feed unless the amount of USENET traffic is to too large to pass through the 128K feed.
"Our satellite receiver is a very advanced commercial quality receiver which features built in error correction capability, automatic LNB tracking, and advanced addressibility. Unfortunely these extra features add to the cost of the receiver which sells for $888.00 with the computer interface card.
"Most of the dishes and LNBs used with the Pagesat system will also work with the Planet Connect System. We recommend a 3 foot (90 CM.) or larger dish. You should be able to connect the Planet Connect data receive to the same cable as your Pagesat system used and continue to operate. The satellite for our 128K system is Galaxy 4 which is located at 99 degrees in the satellite arc. This is about mid way between the old and new Pagesat satellite locations. The Hughes satellite provides a strong signal to all 48 states and southern Canada. For better quality reception we recommend a 1 meter or 1.2 meter dish although many of our subscribers use the 3 foot dish.
"Presently our software is DOS based but Linux and Unix software is about ready for beta testing. To use the Dos software, subscribers connect a Dos based 386 or 486 to their network and copy the satellite files into the News machine for processing. The files are compressed with a PKZIP compatible format and the uncompressed files are in the raw UUCP format.
"Planet Systems, Inc. is the parent company of Planet Connect and has been incorporated since 1993. Prior to this company I started a TV Shopping channel called Shop At Home in the same building and took the company public. I have been operating from the same location in Newport, Tennessee since 1985. Shop At Home is now on the Nasdaq stock market under the symbol of SATH. I remain on the Board of Directors and still own a sizable amount of stock. The company is in line to do about 100 million in sales during their next business year. Planet Systems, Inc. is not associated with Shop At Home, Inc. Planet Systems, Inc. is operating with no bank on other outside debt. Payables are normal and sales have grown ever year since the company started. We have 12 employees and also operate an ISP in 13 local counties. I own all of the stock in Planet Systems, Inc. at this time.
"Although Planet Connect gained a good reputation for furnishing Fidonet to BBS operators, we have constantly upgraded our Usenet feed to include a near real-time feed and all groups. When we first started sending Usenet a couple of years ago we had delays of 1 to 3 days and other terrible problems. That is all behind us and we have a very good feed at this this time. With the addition of our new Linux/Unix software, we believe our Usenet feed will match or exceed the quality of any land line feed without using up your landline bandwidth.....
"We presently have about 20 receivers in stock with more being shipped to us in about 2 weeks. They sell for $888.00. We offer a money back refund in 60 days if you are somehow not happy with the service. The Usenet service can be purchased for $50 per month or $400 per year...."
The mention by Overholt of his founding of "Shop at Home" is interesting on a trivia angle because of the resourcefulness of its approach. Here's how a 1997 Associated Press article described Overholt's beginnings with Shop at Home:
"Though still dwarfed by QVC and the Home Shopping Network, Shop at Home has grown steadily, from $21.7 million in revenue in 1994 to $40.7 in 1996 and $100.5 million this year.....It's a far cry from the company's early days in 1986. Back then, founder Joseph Overholt taped shows at the Newport, Tenn., police station -- the only place in town with a video camera -- broadcast them to satellite dish owners, then took calls on his home phone. At first he only sold satellite equipment, but expanded to include real estate, novelty toilet seats -- even his neighbors' used cars.
"In 1993, the company -- by then under its second owner -- moved to Knoxville and tried to expand. Instead, Shop at Home nearly went bankrupt, racking up a $1.8 million loss in fiscal 1994. That's when Lillie, vice president and general manager of Fox's Atlanta affiliate, took over. Overholt, who now owns and runs a software development company, remains on the board of directors.
It's interesting to note how Overholt tapped very quickly onto the power of Satellite connectivity and has used that medium to approach various methods: commerce, Usenet, Fidonet, Internet. (Overholt remained on the board of directors of Shop at Home into the 21st century, until the company was bought out by Scripps).
Planet Connect was inducted into the Shareware Hall of Fame in 1997.
- Scott, Jason. The BBS Documentary Library.