When Whitehorse businessman Rolf Hougen received CRTC approval for Canadian Satellite Communications (CSC) in 1981, he had spent nearly three years promoting and developing Canadian satellite television. But Hougen had already had a lengthy career in the Yukon as a cable system pioneer, a department store owner retailing television sets, and a radio pioneer with his station CKRW, housed on the second floor of his department store.
Cancom, as CSC became known, was the first national satellite television and radio service provider to remote and underserved Canadian communities, a population at the time estimated at about 1.8 million people. Cancom was licensed in C-band, the 6/4 GHz. frequency that required large 10-12-foot satellite receiving dishes.
By the time Cancom won the competitive application process for a four-year term in April, 1981, Hougen had, of necessity, gathered a number of heavy-weight Canadian broadcasters to back the company. These partners included Ray Peters, head of BCTV, owner of CHAN-TV (Vancouver) and CHEK-TV (Victoria), Dr Charles Allard, Allarcom Broadcasting Ltd., owners of CITV-TV in Edmonton, and Stuart Mackay, Selkirk Broadcasting Ltd., owners of CHCH-TV in Hamilton, Ont. Philippe de Gaspe Beaubien brought his Quebec media company, Telemedia Communications Ltée, into the partnership – Telemedia eventually provided Cancom’s second president, Andre Bureau, who subsequently became chair of the CRTC.
Cancom promised to be operational 90 days after receiving its licence and in July 1981, after a tremendous feat of engineering, it was. Cancom began transmitting four Canadian television signals, CHAN-TV Vancouver, CITV-TV Edmonton, CHCH-TV Hamilton and TCTV Montreal, from uplinks in Vancouver, Edmonton, Hamilton and Montreal, along with eight radio signals – four English, two French, and two native signals uplinked in the North. Although the company was technically operational in 90 days, that didn’t mean anyone was watching. By September, 1,000 applications had been filed for cable operations to distribute Cancom signals, but not until the last day of the year did the CRTC approve the first 20. Operating costs ran far ahead of regulatory approvals and it was the following year, 1982, before Cancom was commercially operational. By September, 1982, Cancom had spent $11 million and taken in only $550,000 (according to a Cancom history), with uplink transponder costs running at $1.25 million a year per transponder.
Continued enhancement of Cancom’s service was necessary in order to equalize viewing choices for under-served and rural communities with those available to Canada’s urban citizens and to entice viewers away from proliferating illegal satellite dishes tuned to U.S. television signals. In April, 1983, Cancom added new signals, its enhanced package including three U.S. commercial networks, ABC, NBC and CBS and PBS, along with VOCM-FM of St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Cancom was the first satellite television operator to distribute its signals scrambled, to ensure payment and deter piracy. But while customers began subscribing to the service, the company ran into increasing opposition. Broadcasters were wary of this new entity re-transmitting their signals, and were concerned about potential loss of local advertising revenue and market fragmentation. Cable operators saw Cancom as a competitor because the company was applying to build cable systems, albeit in small communities, to receive and distribute television signals. As early as 1979, the Canadian Cable Television Association criticised Hougen’s proposal for satellite television distribution, at an Association Board luncheon to which he was invited. Both the broadcasters and cable operators took their concerns to the CRTC, in submissions over a number of years, from the 1980 Therrien Committee report on extension of distant signals right up to the Commission’s 1985 Distant Canadian Television Signals policy hearing. By that point, however, the cable industry had realized that satellite television distribution could significantly enhance the offerings of its members to cable subscribers and became strongly supportive of satellite-delivered television.
Cancom’s early years were extremely difficult in terms of finances, terrestrial operations and the effort needed for the company to establish itself as a new player in broadcasting. In the fall of 1983, the company decided to go public with stock offerings on the Montreal and Toronto stock exchanges, to deal with an estimated $38 million debt.
As more and more television channels were approved by the CRTC for start-up and carriage, Cancom’s distribution services increased for home viewers and also for broadcasters. Cancom became a national satellite distributor, in effect a carrier for television stations and for broadcast networks as well, adding to its business services. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the CRTC actually gave an official designation to the broadcast transmission services Cancom had developed, and the industry it had pioneered. That year, the Commission issued a licence to both Cancom and its satellite competitor Star Choice to carry on what would then be called a Satellite Relay Distribution Undertaking (SRDU) for Cancom’s licensed broadcasting activity, that being the distribution of television services to terrestrial BDUs (Broadcast Distribution Undertakings) (cable operators) and direct-to-home (DTH) BDUs.
By 1999, however, the competitive licences for both DTH and SRDU operations became redundant, as Cancom and Star Choice merged in the face of competition from the other new DTH operator, Bell ExpressVu.