Tuesday 17 March 2020

Squarial (1990)

A Squarial on display
Available March 1990

Direct-to-customer satellite television started in the late 1970s, but back in the early days it required a big and expensive dish to receive the broadcasts which had the effect of turning your back garden into something that looked like Jodrell Bank.

Although technology improved during the 1980s, by the end of the decade a typical satellite dish for Sky in the UK could still measure 90 centimetres across. Typically painted white, the dishes were regarded as an eyesore and when there were lots of them in an area – for example with blocks of flats and terraced houses – it made the place look like a KGB listening post.

Although Sky was popular in the UK, it gained a reputation for being rather lowbrow. A mix of imported US TV series and cheaply-made shows had a certain appeal, but neighbours might judge you harshly if you attached a massive dish to the side of your house to watch American wrestling.

It became obvious in the 1980s that the market could do with some competition, and through a complex mix of government legislation and business deals the idea of creating a company knows British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) was born.

After some delays, BSB eventually started broadcasting in March 1990. It attempted to offer a more highbrow mix of shows including original content, high-quality imports and repeats of popular BBC shows... not to mention a bit of science fiction slash soap opera.

Low-level class warfare is a thing in the UK, and indeed the BBC TV show “Keeping Up Appearances” first broadcast in 1990 satirises just that. And for many middle-class people, the idea of sticking up a huge Sky satellite dish seemed frightful. But how could you differentiate that you were a middle-class BSB customer? BSB thought it had a secret weapon… the Squarial.

A Squarial in its natural habitat

The Squarial looked quite unlike other satellite receivers. Just 38 centimetres across, the Squarial was completely flat and inside was a phased array antenna made up of a large number of tiny individual antennae working together. This different technological approach was possible because BSB’s twin Marcopolo satellites had a higher power output than the Astra 1A satellite used by Sky.

It became something of a design icon, and created a significant buzz around BSB’s launch. Squarials started to appear on hundreds of thousands of homes. It looked like a success. But it wasn’t.

The problem that both Sky and BSB were losing huge amounts of money, a staggering $1.5 billion dollars between them (equivalent to about £2.5 billion today). Subscriber numbers were nowhere near the figures that either company needed to be sustainable. So in November 1990 Sky and BSB dropped a bombshell – these two bitter rivals would merge to become British Sky Broadcasting (BskyB).

Although on paper it was a 50/50 merger, in reality Sky was the dominant partner. And although costs could be saved by rationalising the TV channels, in the end it was inevitable that BSkyB would want only one broadcasting system – and that meant using the Astra satellite and not Marcopolo.

By 1992 BSkyB shuttered the service on the Marcopolo satellites, leaving both the Squarial and attached satellite set top boxes obsolete as they were incompatible with the Astra system. Essentially, for all but the most die-hard tinkerers the Squarial and all the rather expensive equipment that came with it ended up as junk. For owners it was like being on the wrong side of the VHS-Betamax war.

But the Squarials lingered – because of the fact that they were mounted in difficult-to-access places it meant that you’d have to pay somebody to take it down. So they lingered and lingered, a testament to making the wrong technological choice and a reminder of high-profile failure. Even today it is still possible to find a forgotten Squarial on the side of a house. For a few tens of pounds you could even acquire one yourself, and see if it really is “smart to be square”.

Image credits: Alex Liivet via Flickr
CC BY 2.0
pauldriscoll via Flickr
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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