Bargain dishes at $12,000 apiece?

Now that UFO sightings have died down, are we in for a rash of UROs (unidentified receiving objects)? Someone called to report that he had just seen an amazing sight near his home in West-chester County, N.Y.: a man had parked his pick-up truck, mounted a huge dish on the back, and proceeded to pick up TV transmissions from all over the world.

I called the man -- Ken Schaeffer -- and discovered the dish [actually a type of antenna] was 12-feet in diameter and sells for $12,000.

While I was not ready to plunk down my $12,000, I chatted with Mr. Schaeffer, who had been responsible for the Westchester turmoil, and he turned out to be the head of his own company, the Ken Schaeffer Group.

Direct Broadcast Satellites has been in the news these past weeks since the Federal Communications Commission moved to authorize an interim DBS system. Satellite Television Corporation, a Comsat subsidiary, filed an application which was approved by the FCC. If Comsat goes ahead with its plans, viewers may soon be able to buy or lease (for as little, perhaps, as $25 per month after a $ 100 or more installation charge) a receiving dish. This new subscription-TV system would eliminate a need for cables.

Mr. Schaeffer's alternative -- your own dish -- would make it possible to pick up satellite transmissions from all high-flying transmitters.

Mr. Schaeffer says he is trying to keep a low profile as he develops his own dishes -- he does not believe it will ever be possible to mass-produce his 12 -foot model, and doubts that the price will ever be much lower. He believes that Comsat plans to mass produce a cheaper three-foot model with limited receiving capacity.

Mr. Schaeffer's company started out as an audio engineering firm and is now providing ground pickups for business teleconferences.

How does the average consumer fit into his picture?

"Right now for an individual to make a successful downlink you need a 12-foot dish which must be able to to go about 15 degrees over the horizon with no obstructions in the south/southwest direction. We think we will sell our dishes to people who want alternatives to commercial network broadcasting."

I was afraid to ask for further information, since I was not certain I had digested what he had just fed me. But he persisted: "By 1984-5 there will be more than 200 stations available to anyone with a big enough dish."

How will the dish owner know what, where and when to tune in?

"There is already a magazine like TV Guide for dish owners. It is called Satguide.

"It's all a very third-wave kind of thing," he continued enthusiastically. "It will alow people in one country to watch local programming from another country. Just the other day I watched a Calgary-Alberta ball game transmitted via a Canadian satellite, then turned the dish around and watched the Russian news from the Kremlin. . . ."

Will we soon be yearning for the good old simple d ays when choices were limited?

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