Cruising the Moscow Arc
U.S. TVRO installer provides CNN & MTV to the Communist party central committee's hotel
by Tim Alderman
A Welcoming Experience
The plane shuttered as we descended; at last the clouds were pierced after an eternity of suspension in the dark sky. When the thick cover finally parted I saw my first view of the European continent, and the land of the Soviet Union. A barren landscape covered with a thick frost of snow and ice lay dimly below. My first view of civilization was a single huge building, standing naked against the elements. As the plane landed, I could see the airport building, much smaller than expected for a city of eight and a half million people. It was almost totally devoid of decoration. The airport had a movable tunnel walkway that snuggled up against the airplane's door, and walking down it I saw glass doors at the end, leading into the building. As the weary travelers approached the end leading into the terminal, we received our first dose, of ~ Soviet hospitality, a locked door! It was an omen of many things to come in this closed society. A planeload of people trapped in a walkway.
We were given VIP treatment and escorted to a waiting room which had only one small window. So this was the Soviet Union, bastion of the society that was supposed to "bury capitalism?" After what seemed like a second eternity we were told that all papers were in order. However, the next three hours were spent trying to get our sixteen pieces of baggage through Customs! Upstairs, downstairs, back and forth, first getting this paper and then that. Under my arm was my Avcom PSA65 spectrum analyzer, which I refused to relinquish, as it had earned me a living these past six months since being laid off from MCI. Finally I was told to leave it in a chauffeured car sitting outside. There seemed to be no parking regulations at this airport, as everyone parked right near the door. We finally retrieved two suitcases and had to leave the rest behind. Ultimately it took a week, and several trips to the airport‑‑ to rescue those other cartons. And that doesn't begin to say what happened to the dishes I had ordered.
The drive from the airport to the city felt like the Indianapolis 500, with our driver dodging slow trucks and semi broken down midget cars on the expressway at speeds approaching 90 miles per hour. It seemed we had a right of way over all other vehicles, and later I found out we did‑‑ a large BLACK limo was assumed by other drivers to be some sort of party dignitary, and neither they, nor the Police, ever bothered us. The driver was the ONLY driver of that car, which he kept in immaculate condition. The streets were filthy. Not from litter, but MUD; piled high on the sides where snow plows had left it were piles of dirty, brown un‑melted snow. At points in the piles one could see many auto bodies buried. Behind this roadside scene were some of the dreariest buildings I have ever seen. They were built to last forever, and except for some old buildings from the Czarist era, all were devoid of architectural amenities. Covered with marble, they were stained brown near the bottom where the mud from years of neglect had not been washed away.
Crossing over a barricade to keep out cars, our driver dropped us off in front of the building where my sponsors had their office. Like all buildings, it had a set of double doors, and all the windows were double‑paned. Inside a single guard stood beside a tattered desk with a book that needed to be filled in with descriptions of all who entered. It turned out that getting IN was relatively easy with our luggage. Going back OUT was easy if all you had was a briefcase or special paperwork, or, if the guards were slack that day. The elevators groaned like ancient mechanical monsters. Although there were two pairs, they each worked independently; one went to EVEN floors, the other went to ODD floors. There is no gentleness about elevators, they close swiftly and it's dangerous to try to keep the doors open with a finger. The bare wires above the elevator portal stood in mute testimony to the fact that at one time there was a call lamp, obviously not a necessity any more. On the wall a missing plate of marble exposed the stucco and concrete sub‑structure with bare wires protruding to snag the clothes of those who stood too close.
Barely three weeks before, I had been hired to do the job. They needed someone who knew telecommunications from a broad perspective and specializing in TVRO installations. In 1984, while working for Western Union Telegraph Co., somebody handed me an article about home satellite dishes. I had been working with message traffic via satellite for many years, diagnosing problems when WU launched the first domestic satellite, Westar I. Intrigued, I spent the next six months laying my hands on every possible scrap of information.
While I started out merely trying to become a consumer and dish owner, it rapidly became apparent that my interest and background dictated a much larger involvement. An article from COOP's SATELLITE DIGEST about the Washburn Earth terminals receiver led me to the father of TVRO himself, Bob Cooper. A dealer from Distant Mirror satellite came to my door for a site survey, and I wound up working five month free apprenticeship for him instead. Meantime I continued working for Western Union, directing the work of technicians who diagnosed circuit problems in seven northwestern states. I also wrote an article about my employer in Coop's Satellite Digest shortly before it ceased publication.
In September, 1985 1 was engaged in a new found favorite activity called "Cruising the Arc" for audio signals when I ran across a little subcarrier off the beaten path of Telstar 303 called FM AMERICA. Bingo! I was hooked, this was like short wave, which I loved dearly as a child, and pirate radio, which I built as a teenager. The man was talking LIVE ON THE AIR to callers who were also dish owners. It was a signal I could not ignore, for Keith Lamonica, the host, had real charisma, and talked about dishes and scrambling, that ugly word about denying access to our cherished free airwaves. Ever since a short wave told me about other lands and viewpoints, I had recognized that the laws of radio wave physics didn't recognize borders. I had believed for many years that our principle adversary, the Soviet Union, would be conquered by signals from the West. Little did I dream that I would eventually become part of that process.
In March, 1986, Chuck Dawson, another articulate man with strong entrepreneurial urges emerged. As the evening talk shows progressed, Chuck became an increasingly familiar voice on the FM AMERICA talk show. In June of 1986, Chuck launched his own talk show by contracting with an uplinker and leasing a telephone line to the uplink. In July I called Chuck, who lived in Gilroy, California, and offered to examine his technical problems. Eagerly he accepted my offer and the resulting relationship laid a foundation for changing my life.
My expertise in telephony resulted in my donating equipment to interface between caller lines and his broadcast board. My knowledge of audio, having built bootleg radio stations and recording studios before becoming an audiophile, proved indispensable in the interface. The technical challenges were in getting callers from all across the country to sound good, even though some called from rudimentary telephone exchanges with very weak volume. I learned more about democracy in the three years that K‑SAT was on the air than I ever did in school. I refrained from being political myself, keeping to my technical chores instead. A "perk" turned out to be a volunteer talk show host with two hours weekly. My topics covered both audio and video and were mainly tech‑talk.
I continued to work for Distant Mirror doing dish installs, but turned down more work than I accepted because I was doing volunteer work for the "good of the dish owner". Changing jobs from Western Union to WTCI during this period, I pioneered many technical innovations to further professionalize K‑SAT's sound, despite severe financial limitations. K‑SAT folded in April, 1989 when Chuck Dawson finally tired of begging for money.
In January, 1990, TO repurchased WTCI stock and merged top level management back into the cable fold. Eleven days later I was fired, no doubt for my volunteer efforts in fighting cable. I soon discovered that my dish background and audio background could be put to good use. Having read industry trade publications for years also helped me educate a gentlemen who needed help installing a SMATV system in Moscow. He became my sponser and sent me overseas. It seems that cruising the arc was going to pay some handsome dividends shortly.
The streets of Moscow resembled some third world country and weren't what I expected for a superpower nation. Although the streets and buildings were dirty, I saw no graffiti except 'near the McDonald's restaurant downtown. The dreariness lead to an atmosphere of depression in my mind and it measured so much why people seemed to lack enthusiasm for work. The traffic is light, however, and things do move quickly on the subway system which is also free of surreptitious art.
It seemed that everything American was cherished. The radio in the car that took us from the airport was playing Cat Stevens as well as heavy metal tunes, all with a Russian disc Jockey. When I arrived at the Communist Party Central Committee's hotel, the extent of foreign influence was all too pervasive. It appeared as if they had been technologically frozen in time, some twenty years before. The hotel telephone exchange reminded me of Siemen's telex exchange which I had worked on at Western Union many years before.
The Soviet television sets, all SECAM D/K standard had only six preset pushbuttons. Local TV off air stations, all five of them, were translated in frequency from one VHF frequency to another. This was necessary because of the crude directional couplers that their distribution system used, as well as absolutely no R.F. shielding in any TV set. A finger put into the antenna socket of a set revealed a strong signal within any room when the set was tuned to a local channel. The big expanse of empty space between buildings, coupled with their unbroken facades produced reflected waves of unbelievable power. Naturally these contributed to "ghost" reception which made on‑channel distribution impossible. The TV antennas on the roof would have sent Bob Cooper into a tizzy if he had seen then while publishing his DIGEST magazine. Almost everything was hand‑wrought, and I saw many cases of quality and attention to detail in the MATV setup, so the system was surprisingly reliable considering the technology.
There were six presets on the TV's and only five off‑air stations, which presented an opportunity. They wanted CNN, that bastion of U.S. cable's viewpoint, on their last pushbutton. Ironically, it was my job to install it, and later on add other impulse pay movie services as well. It seems that CNN was already being bootlegged over the air a few hours a night locally, but these folks wanted it legally.
In preparing for my journey, I was assigned to assemble, on short notice, equipment for providing CNN. I insisted that we take two of everything, including dishes. My sponsor produced footprint data showing that CNN was available from Intelsat VI‑F2, located at 27.5 degrees west, somewhere over the Atlantic. I determined that those signals were approximately equal to G‑STAR signals available on the West coast of the U.S., and so ordered two 10 foot VERTEX prime focus reflectors, which I had been told were a version of the Harris Delta Gain reflector that had gained notoriety back in 1983. This turned out to be totally untrue.
In addition to providing signals at the Hotel, I was assigned responsibilities to activate a dish donated by Unimesh, an American dish manufacturer, to a non‑profit organization. This was on the roof of the office building which served as headquarters for the firm serving as my sponsor. The building was typical of Moscow, eleven floors high and those pervasive mud stains gave it a dim, dank institutionalized look. On the roof was a Unimesh dish. The Soviets had assembled it and ultimately it needed to be re‑done, for the satellite arc is as unforgiving of sloppiness as their winter weather.
On the hallway leading to the third floor office of my sponsor, the carpet displayed rectangular bulges where hatch doors were in the floor. Used to cover cable conduit pull boxes, they showed evidence that everything fit, except that it didn't fit well. The door to the office had, in addition to a lock and handle, a set of knobs with a hole through them. One was on the door itself, and the other on the door jamb adjacent. A piece of wire thread through both and it was twisted together with a wax seal in the middle. Obviously this was not intended to keep people out, rather to show evidence of an attempted breakin. Inside the office was a special container used to make such seals. Each authorized person had their own copy of a symbol that was imbedded in the wax, and the user sealed the door against tampering. The zealousness of my hosts in maintaining, with pride, this seal system, spoke of the mentality of where mistrust of one's fellow man was evident. The enthusiasm for locks, seals, guards and security were explained a means to prevent pilfering in a society where there were shortages of everything.
Although I saw no evidence of them, I was told that there were bugs for listening in almost every location. These factors led us to wonder how the people ever manage to rise above a state of depression, given the dreary existence of life in buildings that never had their walls washed. Yet, survive these folks do. Their spirits are alive, and smiles were evident on faces seen on the streets. Each employer seemed to care for his employees beyond what is considered normal in the West. In the office building there is a small "canteen" where workers are fed a lunch, gratis. I never saw a "brown bag lunch" during my stay there.
The Hotel was full with a Communist‑party function and was unavailable for our first night's stay. So we were put up in an apartment in the south end of town. The woman who rented this apartment had emigrated to California, however had she kept her apartment in Moscow. It was, I was told, a luxurious unit, with two tiny bedrooms, bathroom, hallway, kitchen and "living room" which doubled as a third bedroom. The walls were lined with Moose heads and art objects. The heat was involuntary, no way to turn it up or down. A pipe came up through the floor, went through a steam heater, and continued up to the apartment above. No attempt was made to conceal this plumbing, which was powered by a coal fired steam plant a mile or so away. Moscow has central planning carried to an extreme. On the bathroom door hung a huge poster of a Caribbean or Mediterranean beach, complete with Bikini clad women. It seemed everything was in English. A lady‑friend of my sponsor was in attendance, and she cooked us a dinner that was, in retrospect, one of the two best meals we had during our 16 day stay.
The following morning the sun rose to reveal a scene outside on the tiny balcony. It showed that the building we were in was just another giant building separated by huge space from the next one. In between snaked a pot‑holed roadway with a bare‑essentials bus shelter. The workers stood in line dutifully waiting for busses, which seemed to be everywhere at an early hour. It seemed to me that their infrastructure was in good shape, in terms of getting people around. The collapse of their food distribution system, shown so widely in the U.S. media, was not apparent to me as a foreigner. But then again, I didn't have to wait in line. The apartment I had stayed in was in a building with perhaps 700 units, and it was small compared to others. I guessed that the ones on the horizon contained upwards of 5,000 units each, and they stretched across the horizon in never‑ending groups.
We arrived at our hotel to find a massive brick structure with a 700 unit apartment complex for the Communist Party cadre next door. These were unlike the rest of the city, they were exquisitely maintained. The marble floors, the carpets on the stairs were in fine shape. It was small wonder why, for this hotel had 400 employees for 220 rooms. We checked in at a massive, marble "management information center" which served as front desk. There were no bell boys in this particular hotel.
The Communists had done well
The Communists had done well. The rooms were tidy and wood panel lined. Each had a spacious bathroom with tub, bidet and shower. We were cautioned against drinking the city water, and at first bath discovered why‑‑ it was brownish in color more than three inches in depth. The steam heat for the bathroom also served as a towel rack. The beds were tiny, and covered with a two‑part sheet that separated in the middle, sort of like a sleeping bag. Inside was a thick heavy blanket that made me feel as if I was sleeping under a leaded sheet. Each day we were presented with two bottles of carbonated water on the small table. I grew fond of stashing these bottles in the refrigerator. One was plain mineral water, the other was a soda pop I came to call "Russian holy water".. Amenities included laundry with ironing services, as well as a "free" breakfast. Actually there was a plate where guests were supposed to leave a few rubles to pay for the meal, but few in fact did so.
We had the misfortune of arriving only two days before "Women's day" which was on a Friday. Women's Day is the ONLY day of the year that women are treated well, despite the myth that Russian women are treated as equals to men. On the Thursday before the holiday we discovered that most of the hotel staff somehow managed to disappear in the afternoon. It seems that it is expected, that people take time off frequently, mostly to stand in lines. But on holiday eves it is also customary, like on our Christmas Eve, to depart work around noon. With 22 holidays a year, I was told, such days are planned to ease boredom. Our crusade to rescue our baggage from the airport customs ran right into the middle of Women's day, and so we lost three more days in even getting started. I did have the good fortune of meeting BORIS, who was the manager of the hotel's telecommunications and TV departments, on that day. Boris would later turn out be a real close ally in helping knock down barriers to bringing in our promised "gold" of CNN & MTV.
Cruising the Frozen Arc
On Monday, March 11 th, my work began in earnest. Having my spectrum analyzer under my arm during the airport customs fiasco turned out to be a real benefit, for at least I was able to LOOK at some signals. At my sponsor's office building, I was able to do some preliminary arcing. On the top of these buildings there was no protection against freezing temperatures once the winds started. But with triple the amount of clothing I normally wear, I was at least able to finally latch onto a satellite signal, in ARABIC! I had no idea that such signals were this far north, but what I saw on C‑band was evidently some Arabic backhaul from New York to the Saudi Arabian peninsula. At least it was NICE to be able to be somewhat productive. We had to wait another two whole days to even get our baggage out of the grips of the customs at the Moscow airport. In addition to baggage on the plane, there was cable, 3000' of TVRO ribbon cable, left over from a previous trip that had not made it through customs. But even these two were not our MAJOR concern. We had shipped separately two VERTEX dishes. It would take an additional TEN DAYS to retrieve those. By Wednesday a decision was made to "borrowil one of the donated Unimesh 12' dishes from 22nd Century Foundation. So, on Wednesday the 13th, construction on the roof of the Hotel began.
In the morning, after not being able to sleep most of the night, due to jet lag, the first hour AFTER BREAKFAST was spent waiting for someone to show up in the hotel lobby. My translator and journeyman technician, named Mark, would dart here and there, trying to find Boris, who had control of access to the roof An additional 45 minutes were spent waiting for keys, so that we could begin. First order of business for any TVRO installer is to assemble a mount and there was no exception here. Mark had arranged for a stand and four legs to be welded and transported to the hotel, prior to my arrival. When I first saw them, I was amazed how crude they were, with bits of welding debris covering every inch of surface. Yet they were engineered well and appeared to be sturdy, with black paint hurriedly applied. Officially they would have taken six meetings and six months to build, but these were done in a day by other means. It seems that even the inevitable lines could be avoided if there was adequate compensation given.
It was next that Boris came up with his first stroke of genius, why not use left over elevator ballast for weight? Since this was to be a non‑penetrating roof mount, that seemed like the way to go. But how to secure them to the legs? A few hours spent in the hotel's MACHINE SHOP finally provided the answer. Six workman and Mark together came up with rod that was cut and threaded, along with tie‑down plates at either end of the rod to act as support. By now it was Thursday, a week on site and no Hotel CNN pictures. Next came the problem of having the legs stand off the roof, so as to not attract moisture and rust. The hotel's carpentry shop swung into action and came up with several pieces of roughly 2 x 12's coated with the Russian version of water seal. The carpenters grumbled about not being allowed to let the wood cure for a few days but were told not to worry about having their "green" work put into service right away. When we needed a saw to cut a piece that was too long, two carpenters took 10 minutes, using a two man hand saw, to cut the pieces. Back home an electric saw would handled this in 30 seconds. In the USSR, I learned, there is no shortage of manpower, and each man has his own specialty.
Next came the electrician. I had requested 220VAC on the roof dish site, and after a 45 minute wait, the hotel's electrician showed up and wired into a power box in the boiler room next to the roof,area. This took him 20 minutes or so. The next day the process had to be repeated all over again, as he had evidently removed the power cord the evening before. This procedure of waiting 45 minutes continued for the start of a third day when I convinced Mark of the waste of time it was causing. The electrician's sockets on the end of the cord were wall outlet types mounted on a small wooden plate and tagged with an inventory number. I guess that he removed the cord because he was afraid of somebody stealing it, eventhough it was behind locked doors.
"Psst, Want Some Terrestrial Interference?1I
At last, after spending nine days in what would have taken nine hours at home, the "borrowed" Unimesh 12' dish was in place. Using one of Jim Robert's ARC‑SETs, the tracker 180 Horizon mount was set to 5.1 degrees above the horizon. In freezing weather on a clouded afternoon, with light snowflakes drifting down, I turned on my spectrum analyzer to find nine nice BIG carriers present. "OH BOY, finding pictures", I thought to myself, "in this area is even easier than back home. " Like a little kid I immediately tuned in the Drake receiver we had brought in our "baggage", rescued only two days before from the iron grip of the airport customs, only to find RUSSIAN TV. That enemy of all TVRO installers, TERRES7RIAL INTERFERENCE was present, on Ku band no less! With all those carriers it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack for something in the sky. The T.I. appeared to be coming from everywhere... The wind, snow and numbness of my fingers started to take it's toll, and I headed inside to warmth and rest. The following morning, having a clearer mind and renewed dedication to proper dish alignment procedures, the arc was again attempted. First the source of T.I had to be located, which was easy. It turned out that the hotel was in the microwave path of the TV studio in the southern part of town towards the OSTRANKO tower, once the world's tallest structure. Using only a single polarity feedhorn, it was quickly determined that the T.I. were video carriers 5 divisions high on the analyzer. A bit more signal and we could have roasted a turkey, except that the outside temperature was still below freezing..
The dish was placed behind a copper facade that only echoed a cacophony of reflected signals, causing the T.I. to come and go, much like satellite signals, when moving the dish. This was due to knife edge diffraction around the sharp edges of the dish cutting across various scattered wave fronts. The Unimesh 12' couldn't have been a poorer choice, given the .4 F/D shallow surface, and diamond‑shaped mesh which allowed T.I. in through the back of the dish, and contributed to a high antenna noise temperature which was critical at such a low look angle. However, armed with correct compass readings (a cheap compass had mis‑aimed south due to the amount of metal in the building's facade) and strict adherence to installation procedures, CNN was finally located. The ADL feedhorn was substituted for a Chaparral and additional signal strength was given to bring in the picture out of the sparklies. The only telltale sign of a satellite signal was DITHERING, which was a welcome sight, as T.I. doesn't dither.
On the 14th floor the Communist party had installed a special conference room, and next to it, in the foyer, behind beautiful wood panels that lined all the hallways was a door to a hidden room that was only 38" wide, and 20' deep. At the end of this headend room was the hotel's Hetrodyne processor shelf. This Hetrodyne processor was out of 1950's U.S. technology, but was meticulously installed and regularly maintained. Not only did this MATV system feed the hotel, but the Communist Party's apartment building next door. Thus some 900 sets, each with six button presets, were fed from this tiny room. Our job was to install CNN on that 6th, unused, button.
The modulator I was supplied with, supposedly good for SECAM D/K standard, was inadequate. It was supplied by some MATV supplier in London, but when it was unpacked it looked like one of those cheap 1980's Pico modulators that had been withdrawn from the U.S. market due to poor signal quality. To top it off, it was UHF. After two days, including trying to translate it through an unused Hetrodyne processor to VHF, the unit was packed up. Here we had beautiful CNN on our monitor in the headend room and no way to distribute the signal! A local modulator was borrowed from the hotel, however it failed to work as a power supply was dead inside. A second consumer modulator was tried which was tunable between channels 7 & 8. Channel 7 was a translated frequency whereas channel 8 was another frequency used offair. With my spectrum analyzer, and the help of a booster amplifier, we used a 20 dB protected monitor test point backwards to inject signals into the system in their passive combining network. I suspect that this test point was only resistively coupled at who knows what impedance. Nevertheless the system worked, sort of. When channel 8 was off the air the CNN picture was relatively clear, but when that station was on, the ingress produced only wavy lines on the TV set. My early AM hours were now spent watching that bastion of U.S. cable interests, CNN Intemational.
Customs Loosens their White Dish Grip
Meanwhile, my sponsor was hard at work with customs, and eventually produced the proper paperwork to reduce the $16,000 duty that customs wanted for the two Trump reflectors to something affordable. Four days prior to our departure, the dishes finally arrived. During dinner at the hotel, there was a visitor to our dinner table. Boris was insisting that we unearth the cartons late at night, and handed us the bolt kits. It seemed strange that he would go to such lengths to give me just a package of parts at that hour. The Hotel must have been buzzing with word of what was going on up on the roof by now, as a small crowd of "volunteers" seemed to assemble every time we needed "extra" help. The workers, many of them in three piece suits, were obviously curious as the parts were first hauled to the roof, and then assembled. To top it off, the shipper had neglected to send instructions and so here I was, "super installer" with two dishes and no paperwork. Ironic justice, after all the papers that were generated to free these crates from the hands of Customs. Fortunately, I had assembled ribs to a central hub before, and that's what these dishes turned out to be. It was even more fortunate on the second trip, for this construction saved me from embarrassment. The gang of six who had gathered to "help" were helpful, alright. Perhaps a bit too much. Language was difficult enough with a translator, but without one how does one convey "don't over tighten?" The first dish was, in fact, way over tightened, and looked like half a clam‑shell and half satellite dish to my eyes as I sighted the lip from the side. So, after the crew had dwindled down to two, the second dish was assembledl while the first was turned face down on the roof over extra cardboard. It turned out that saving the warped dish was fortunate thinking. The second dish was mounted in a corner next to the false copper roof facade and the first dish. This location was chosen so that it could be as far away from the copper facade on the far side which acted like a billboard reflector for the T.I. coming in from behind. Using the formulas I had saved from an old issue of COOP's SATELLNE DIGEST I was able to calculate the focal length and determine which screws on the reflector surface had to be removed so that the feed support legs could be attached. After all, what good is a dish without a feed?
By this time it was getting more and more snowy, and the clouds were gradually thickening overhead. The crowd of curious was gone, so I at last had the roof to myself, free of guards and employee/tourists. The nine spikes of T.I. were still there, but not as huge as seen on the Unimesh 12 footer which was just to the right of this new 10 foot solid white reflector. I had chosen these dishes well, for the Chaparral feed seemed to be okay on this dish, unlike it was on the Unimesh. About 20 minutes after starting, with the wind starting to blow wisps of snow, a slight dithering of a spike was noticed. Cruising the arc in Moscow had some real strange twists, like detecting a TVRO signal from T.I. by it's dither, but that is in fact how it happens..
The Ukraine, another hotel in town, had been using signals from Eutelsat F4 at 13 degrees east, and so we settled on that satellite, which was just barely above threshold on the vertical side, and just below on the horizontal. This produced a signal strong enough to bring in Superchannel, which the Russians were already used to, as one of the local off‑air stations was taking the second rate rock videos from it and overdubbing the V.J. into Russian for three hours nightly. It seemed that everything "western" in culture was in big demand. Having failed to find the ubiquitous MTV, which I had thought for sure was available, we settled on this hodge‑podge channel and stuck it on a second, borrowed, consumer modulator. I was most disappointed in my reflector performance, but justified it by thinking that the signals were weak.
We left on the 19th of March, and the airport customs was meek compared to our arrival. Their attention was on the mass of Jewish immigrants, all trying to realize a departure they'd dreamed of for years. The frozen ground was not quite so foreboding as the plane winged it's way. I was glad to have some real AMERICAN FOOD, even if it was only airline food, shortly after we took off. Having only modest success at the hotel, mostly due to a lack of decent modulators, we departed on a flight back to the United States. I had a long time to reflect upon my own successes and failures. Never in my life had I the opportunity to go so far from home to deliver so few signals to such an appreciative audience.
Boris the Gracious Host
The highlight of my second trip, however, had nothing to do with dishes themselves. I was invited,, together with my companion Mark, to Boris's apartment for dinner on a saturday night. Boris had been, as I understand it, the chief protocol officer in the hotel. This meant giving weekly pep‑talks to employees and maintaining bulletin boards posted everywhere in workshop areas, which extolled the virtues of Communism. Having exited one of the narrowest elevators I had ever been in, we were welcomed to a small yet cozy apartment by Boris, his wife and daughter. A mother stood off in the background. The dinner table was set and friends were already there, partaking of hear. CNN was on the TV set with distortion from the local station attempting to override the satellite fed signal. Our hotel signal, it seems, was also fed to the 700 unit apartment next door! I was enjoying a light dinner, when a toast was made. Translated, it was to the success of our adventure in bringing U.S. cable programming to the U.S.S.R. Afterwards, a whole feast was served, which tasted as good as anything I'd ever had, home cooked. There may be differences between the "western" and "eastern" palates, but I couldn't tell it at that point.
The conversation, through an interpreter, was of my opinions on their country. I said I was a guest, when asked about Gorby, and said I thought he must have done something right, for he had received a Nobel prize a year earlier. Fortunately, that was the only overt political question I faced during my two trips. The conversation then turned into four and twenty questions about the U.S., and comparisons of daily life. The tone was of real friendly curiosity, not at all of the bitterness I thought that they would feel, after all those years of indoctrination. Boris, the chief of Communist idealogy, living in a Communist party apartment building next door to a Central Committee hotel, was extending kindness to a capitalist worker far beyond the bounds of mere duty. At the end of the evening, he presented me with a hand painted picture, in oil, as well as a bottle of Cognac. Thus, the thoughts I had were not of politics, but rather of people. Boris himself, it turned out, was something of a Capitalist, with that Superchannel TVRO signal we left on the air..
Evidently I had impressed them with my personality enough to be invited to go with them, sans interpreter, to visit the famous "Moscow McDonald's. The very next day I went off with my hosts to visit a 16th century cathedral, complete with gold domes, that stood next to the Communist apartment building. I found it odd that such splendor, now displayed as a museum, had survived 70 years of neglect, and had, I guessed, recently been reopened. It had old world charm and was heavily guarded by old women who watched tourists' every move. Heading out, we next ventured underground into the maze called the Moscow Metro. Even though it was damp and dusty, there was not a spot of graffiti to be seen, and beggars were few and far between. Evidently they roll the sidewalks up EARLY in this town. Two hours and six stations later we ascended to the park where the "Pectopah," or restaurant, was located. I had heard that there was a three hour line to get in, however our wait was only about two hours long. This is definitely the world's largest McDonald's, the counter inside is at least 100 feet long. It was so crowded, once inside, that a place to eat was hard to find, only Boris' wife got to sit down. They had simple hamburgers, while I had a Big Mac, which I found better tasting than those served on this side of the planet. I suppose it's the lack of preservatives, and fresh lettuce (obviously imported, there wasn't a green leaf to be seen in March in Moscow). I grabbed a second one for take out as we headed out the door, past the ever‑present security guard. Would there ever be a place where there was more trust and less security?
During April, we heard that the snow storms had taken their toll on our CNN signal, and that they were unusable. Thus, I was prepared to find, upon my return on May 5th, that the Unimesh 12 footer had been somehow blown off the arc. It turned out that this was simply untrue, as I was unable to improve its' performance on the start of my second day back in the U.S.S.R. My sponsor had obtained three CADCO modulators which made all the difference in the world. The SECAM D‑K standard is 8Mhz, with 6.5Khz audio offset, the widest of any current world standard. This combined with their lack of adjacent channel programming provided some opportunities for signals to be injected into the existing frequency plan. Bob Cooper had dwelled on this topic for many issues of his magazine, and I found that following his ideas was of real benefit here.
Boris, that promoter of Communist idealogy, had evidently been taping the second feed we "left behind" on our first trip, of Superchannel I couldn't believe the ragged signal that I was seeing could possibly be salable, but evidently the Russians had a real depth of western signal starvation going on, and he was able to capitalize on this fact, horrid signal quality or no. Evidently anything you need can be found, for a price, if one is willing to look far enough. To my K‑SAT SCRAMBLING / copyright indoctrinated mind this was a travesty of unspeakable dimensions, but being a guest, and a "supertech", I decided my thoughts best be kept to myself on this one.
My plan of attack, this second time around, was to pull out all the stops, and really get comfortable with some serious arc cruising, with my sponsor's blessing, of course. My plan was simple. Using techniques I learned from a true TVRO pioneer a year earlier, I had brought some of those rare items to Moscow; flat washers, with me to insert between the center hub of that third dish left laying on the ground and the ribs. Three days after arrival, on a beautiM sunny Saturday morning, I got my chance. It turned out to be the turning point of the trip, technically speaking. First I removed the eight stamped steel panels and outer ring, leaving only the ribs attached to the center hub. Next, I had a Russian borrow some thread from a seamstress deep within the bowels of that building. With the dish birdbathed, I laid the thread across the face of the dish at the tips of the ribs, four opposite pairs. This clamshell looking dish, having spent 60 days face down on the roof, had evidently relaxed somewhat to where two of the string pairs were barely touching, while one was 1/4" low and the last was 3/8" high. "Hum, maybe that's why there are no signals worth a dam on this Moscow Arc", I thought to myself.
Laying a straight piece of rusty old pipe across the ribs adjacent to the lowest string, my partner Mark, and I were able to determine which rib was lowest. A flat washer was added, after we discovered that aluminum shims I had saved from the previous visit weren't going to be enough. My audiophile knowledge about turntable geometry played a big part in choosing the right thickness washer to align that string to the pole to where it just barely touched. We proceeded on to align three additional ribs in a similar manner, and checked to see that all four strings just barely touching. My partner Mark, always wanting to reason why I choose this point as "true", couldn't understand that I was using my innate trust in dead reckoning in such a delicate matter. But I knew what I was doing was attacking that hidden enemy of every inexperienced TVRO dish installer, V.S.W.R and NOISE TEMPERATURE. Like water seeking it's own level, a dish reaches a real quiet spot when all of its majorarea curves line up.
With the help of some of Boris's helpers, we managed to swap the white 10 foot dish out for this barnburner brethren. As soon as I put the Avcom PSA65 on the dish, I noticed a difference, the T.I. was not quite as wide at the bottom of the screen, meaning it had a bit less energy. But even more importantly, I could see that something else was different here. The noise floor was a whopping 5dB lower! Now, maybe, a few signalized fish might be found in this pond..
You don't cruise the arc in Moscow like installers do in the U.S. Yanking the dish across the sky won't reap you much except enough T.I. to roast a turkey with. To begin with, all their signals are Ku, which means three times smaller beamwidth. Coupled with that is the fact they don't have a standardized FCC friendly frequency plan either. Maybe the U.S. is a good training ground for folk who really do have a knack for this sort of stuff.. With Boris and a helper, along with Mark all watching, I cruised slow and steady. 1/8th turn of the elevation rod, and just barely nudge the bottom of the reflector. Stop, look at the pattern of signals memorized as to the T.I., and move on again. T.I. is a real cagey enemy. Because of knife edge diffraction, it spreads out like a rainbow of signals from a prism. Thus a signal chaser might think he has something, only to discover that the analyzer blip was just another image of Moscow TV relay service, in SECAM. The only way is to cruise and ignore 90% of the signals. About 20 minutes later something different, a data signal, came up. I zeroed in on it and then popped on the receiver and TV set. YIPES, there was a sparkle free golf game, open mike. I knew it must be a backhaul because of the lack of an announcer, and the excessive amount of time the players took meant it had to be real time. "LORD, I said to myself, now this is arc cruising!" It turned out that this was RAI UNO from Italy. We had ourselves a NEW BIRD, previously thought extinct this far east, Eutelsat F2.
The very next day, Sunday, I decided to get down to the nitty gritty, now that I had something decent to cruise with. My Avcom showed only 1dB additional strength, but with so much less noise to deal with, both in terms of T.I. power, as well as a quieter sky all around, things really started to make sense on this opposite end of the planet. My reward was not long in forthcoming. Cruising east of Eutelsat, I spied some dithering not more than a quarter turn up on the elevation rod. It was a lonely signal, no others could be found. Zeroing in, I found the nirvana of all signals, the one REAL THING that Moscow craved, especially those under age 30. There it was, sparkle free, MTV. Checking the other side of the orthomode feed, there were scrambled video, SCPC and data signals. But back on that horizontal side, it was a dream come true. Just wait until I tell my sponsor!
My not having paid strict attention to the basics in March had jaded me into thinking that this arc was indeed barren, that's simply untrue. The signal chart here shows that, compared to gluttonized U.S. standards, there isn't much, but for a signal starved superpower, there are some 40 signals to choose from, plus much more in the way of digital audio and S.C.P.C.
The arc having been conquered and T.I. somewhat abated, the next step was getting the signals processed and downstairs. By July we had erected a third dish and fed signals to the headend room on the 14th floor. They had subsequently widened a small portion to allow us to move in two back‑to‑back equipment racks. From this we were able to choose 9 satellite signals from 5 LNB's, which allowed us to choose a wide variety of programming in several languages, in addition to CNN & MTV.
The world's headlines were shattered on August 19th when a Coup‑deetat occurred in Moscow and Gorby was arrested at his summer Crimean home. The plotters were all top Communist party officials, and since they lacked the iron fist of control, they plotted their moves NOT in the Kremlin, but. in a nearby hotel. Not just ANY hotel, mind you, but "our" hotel. By this time Mark had erected a stand containing twelve 21 " color TV sets in the hotel's three story marble‑lined lobby. This impressive sight was gathering small crowds to view the goings on, LIVE, via satellite on several channels. It so happened that CNN was blocking the Russian speech when showing Moscow events and translating into English. Mark soon discovered that Galavision was also providing translation, in Spanish, but AFTER the Russian speaker had finished his commentary. This allowed something unheard of in that society‑FREE FLOW OF INFORMATION that was blocked off air locally by the plotters. Needless to say, the crowds grew as word spread that uncensored coverage of events unfolding locally was available in the Communist Party Central Committee's own hotel lobby!,
Vladimir Kurchikov, one of the "Gang of 8", and head of the KGB, noticed this crowd on the second day of the coup, and ordered the hotel management to SHUT IT ALL DOWN. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the hotel's management REFUSED his order, wanting it in writing first. Well, the next day the coup collapsed and Kurchikov was arrested. One never knows, but that stand of TV sets, fed by a design I helped construct, may have MADE A DIFFERENCE in the events that occurred.
As individuals, most of us never seem to participate in events that change the course of human events, we only observe. My Sponsor was interviewed by CNN on that first eventful day at our San Mateo office. They ended the broadcast by showing a picture of a dish I had erected in Moscow, which was picking up CNN!
My only hope is to be fortunate enough to continue to spread the free
flow of information where ever it needs to be spread, and to teach those willing
to learn the fine art and science of cruising the arc.
ARCING‑ Aligning the path a dish travels to the path of satellites
across the sky.
DISH‑ Parabolic shaped antenna for recieving microwave
signals from satellites orbiting in space.
REFLECTORS‑ A more accurate term for dish
tvro‑ TVRO- TeleVision Recieve Only‑‑the name used to differentiate
us from those who Uplink.
Spectrum Analyzer‑ An expensive piece of test equipment used to see what
is going on with the electrons. Most TVRO dealers
cannot justify $2,500 ‑ $5,000 to own one.
Receiver‑ The most visable part of a home satellite system
indoors, modem receivers are called IRD's which
handle everything from menu selection to timed dish
movement so that the consumer's VCR can record that
late night movie.
LNB‑ Low Noise Block downconverter. Out at the dish, this
piece of equipment, and it's steady price decreases
over the years caused economic justification to turn
TVRO from a curiosity into a real cable competitive
threat. Cable companies use 'em too.. Like all the rest
of the hardware.
Telephony‑ The study of the modem practices used to get calls
BIRD‑ Jargon for geo‑sychronous satellite, one that appears
"stationary" from the dish on the ground. They are
actually "flown" by a master control uplink.
SMATV‑ More Jargon....... Satellite Master Antenna Television,
used in multiple unit dwellings such as apartments and
hotels. Competes with cable TV.
Modulators‑ Low powered television transmitters that generate the
channels the TV's in hotels actually tune to.
Ingress‑ Unwanted signals leaking into TV sets and distribution
Scrambling‑ Encryption ensures payment but causes signal degrada
tion & piracy.
Uplink‑ The "other end" of the chain, the earth station which
transmits up to the satellite. The TV news trucks with
dishes pointed at the sky are a new kind of uplink.
Terrestial Interference‑ Hated interfering signals from ground sources in the
same band of frequencies used by TVRO's. These
signals can be 100,000 times stronger and talent,
education, proper test equipment and sometimes just
plain luck are used to prevent "TI" from destroying
wanted revenue signals from 23,400 miles out in space.
Backhauls‑ Signals from field reporters going back to the main
studio, network control or news room. Highly praised
by dish fanatics as being a real source of unedited
news. Can be immensely boring followed by seconds of
excitement. Legends have been built around the
unauthorized reception of backhauls.
Vertex‑ A brand of commercial dish made by a company who
wasn't well known because they put on other brand
names instead of their own.
YE OLDE PROGRAMMING LIST
AS OF MAY 12 ~ 1991
INTELSAT V CNN INTERNATIONAL
VI ‑ F4 V BBC (S) WORLD SERVICE
27.5° H DISCOVERY EDUCATIONAL (PART
WEST H KINDERNET CHILDREN'S (PART‑TIME)
H CHILDREN'S CHANNEL U.K.
L (CBAND) WORLDNET CBS, NBC, ABC, CSPAN
EUTELSAT V SUPERCHANNEL U.K.
II ‑ F4 V TV5 FRANCE
130 V EUROSPORT IN LIMBO
EAST H GALAVISION SPANISH
H NORDIC CHANNEL SCANDINAVIA
H FILMNET 24 (S) GERMAN
EUTELSAT V RAIUNO ITALIAN
H ‑ F2 V RAIDUO ITALIAN
100 V MAGIC BOX AUDIO RADIO
EAST H WORLDNET CBS, NBC, ABC, CSPAN
H TVE INTERNATIONAL SPANISH
H TVE2 SPANISH
ASTRA 2V MTV EUROPE VIDEOS
ASTRA H MTV EUROPE ROCK VIDEOS
IA H TV3 (S)
19.2° H TV 1000 (S)
EAST H FILMNET (S)
V SKY MOVIES (S)
V EUROSPORT IN LIMBO
V SKY ONE RADIO SVCS
V SKY NEWS (S)