Look, it sounded like a good idea. In the early 2010s, DIRECTV executives expected a massive jump in the number of 4K channels in the next decade. After all, they’d seen this happen in the 2000s with HD channels. They wanted to be ready.
So, they worked with the FCC to open up a whole new range of broadcast frequencies. DIRECTV already had licenses to use these frequencies, but they were classified only for transmissions up to the satellites, not down from them. By using clever electronic trickery, they proposed to use these frequencies for both upstream and downstream communication. They called this plan “reverse band.”
After several successful tests, DIRECTV (and by this time, AT&T) launched three massive satellites, their biggest ever. These satellites not only contained massive capacity on their regular frequencies, but were equipped to offer tons of channels on the reverse band frequencies as well.
And then, streaming
While we all knew streaming was coming a decade ago — and some of us were already doing it — its impact on the traditional TV landscape wasn’t understood. The widespread availability of fast internet meant that people could get what they wanted without DVRs and without cable TV. Streaming, quite simply, changed everything.
At the same time, the mania that manufacturers wanted to whip up over 4K didn’t materialize. Although all but the cheapest TVs today are 4K, there is still practically no 4K programming. And that, you would think, might have left DIRECTV with a lot of capacity and nothing to do with it.
Relax, the reverse band isn’t going anywhere
Instead of filling up those satellites with 4K programming, AT&T pivoted to a different strategy. These satellites are used for the company’s four full-time 4K channels, including its pay-per-view movies. They’re used for special events in 4K which need that bandwidth.
More importantly to the day-to-day, those satellites now house all of the international channels offered by AT&T and DIRECTV. This has allowed the company to consolidate its programming on its three main satellite locations. For international users, they have a single-dish solution for the first time. For people in the west, they have better reception and less chance of problems.
These satellites have also taken over some of the heavy lifting from several generations of older satellites that were well past their expected lifespans.
In other words, DIRECTV’s reverse band investment is paying off just fine for them.
What will happen when AT&T spins off DIRECTV?
I don’t claim to have a crystal ball. And, if I were in the room in some of those meetings, I wouldn’t be telling all about it here in a blog. But, I have some instincts about where things are going.
If it turns out that all of the capacity on those satellites isn’t needed over the long term, there are a lot of options, some of which could actually make the company money. And, that’s not a bad thing. Extra satellite capacity can be leased to other companies, for example. Both DISH and DIRECTV have operated off leased capacity in the past.
There are a lot of companies that will pay for this kind of thing. Yes, we have the internet. Yes it’s a good way to get information from place to place. But, satellite transmission is still more reliable and it’s more secure. This attracts organizations from military leaders to movie theaters who want a direct line to information without the possibility of a hack.
There’s also the possibility of improved picture quality. At one time DIRECTV’s picture quality was considered to be the best in the business. It still is, especially compared to traditional cable. Cable companies have to squeeze TV signals down to fit their limited capacity. With so much more capacity, DIRECTV could choose to deliver HD picture quality that was virtually identical to 4K, using advanced encoding and decoding techniques.
The future looks bright
The “New DIRECTV” will start its life with a robust satellite fleet and every opportunity to capitalize on it. All of their licenses, including the reverse band frequencies, are here for the long haul. They’re not going anywhere.