BT's international satellite communications centre celebrates 40 year anniversary
BT’s main satellite earth station, Madley Communications Centre, is marking 40 years at the centre of international communications. Sixty-five giant satellite dishes dominate the 63-acre site in Herefordshire.
Madley Communications Centre, a giant BT satellite earth station in the Midlands, is marking 40 years at the centre of international communications today.
The centre has played a central role in worldwide broadcasts of some of the most dramatic events of the past four decades – such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the 2017 Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean.
BT’s main global satellite tracking centre, Madley was constructed to meet growing demand from people and businesses for resilient international communications services.
Today it handles thousands of telephone calls, data, internet and television links, specially tailored business services and a range of other communications every day to almost every country in the world.
The 218-acre site houses 65 aerial dishes. It is dominated by three huge dishes, each measuring 32-metres in diameter and weighing 290 tonnes.
The inaugural signal was transmitted from Madley’s Aerial 1 in the autumn of 1978, initially enabling more than 2,000 simultaneous calls to 34 countries in the Middle East and Africa in less than a second, via the Intelsat satellite, which was in orbit more than 22,000 miles over the Indian Ocean.
Identical second and third aerial dishes followed in 1980 and 1981 as the site developed and the demand for even more international services grew. Since then the number of services have continued to expand, enabling even more people and businesses to stay in touch around the world, and to watch global events as they unfold on 24-hour television news outlets.
From the fall of the Berlin Wall and Live Aid concerts to last year’s hurricane season in the Caribbean, specialists from Madley have played their part in creating and restoring communications around the world. The use of satellite communications from Madley has enabled families, friends, businesses and journalists to stay in touch with and communicate more easily and safely from remote locations around the world, war zones and developing countries.
Madley’s hard rock base and relatively sheltered location, nestled in a bowl flanked by the Malvern Hills to the east and the Black Mountains of Wales to the west, prone to little radio interference and with relatively good transport links, made the former farm the ideal choice.
Before that, it gained notoriety as the former Royal Air Force base, from where Rudolf Hess was flown to attend the Nuremberg Trials in 1945. Madley Satellite Communications Centre took around two years to design and plan, with a specialist team flying in from Japan to help with the construction of the first dish.
Developments in technology have enabled more recent services to be provided by much smaller dishes, which can be built by BT engineers on site within hours. Madley was originally built to provide expansion for BT’s inaugural satellite earth station at Goonhilly in Cornwall. More than 50 staff are currently based at Madley, working in a variety of areas. As well as staff responsible for the running of the 24-hour communications centre, there are maintenance engineers, rigging teams, software specialists and project managers.
Madley is also the base for BT’s Emergency Response Team, who can be called upon at any time to provide expert support to Aid Organisations, the Armed Forces and overseas service providers, principally in helping to restore communications in the wake of a range of natural disasters, such as the recent fires on Saddleworth Moor, where the team rapidly established temporary mobile communications for the emergency services tackling the blaze.
The site also boasts the award-winning Madley Environmental Study Centre. Opened in 1994 and set in 15 acres, the educational conservation area – which became a registered charity in 2001 - welcomes up to 3,000 children a year.
The BT teams on site will be holding a series of events to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first transmissions on November 19.
Nick Wood, Station Manager, said: “We’re proud of the central role that Madley plays in satellite communications for BT and our customers, as well as for the UK as a whole. This anniversary is about celebrating forty years at the heart of bringing world events to the UK, and helping our customers communicate across the globe.
“Madley is one of the world’s great satellite earth stations and we’re excited about the future for the site, in a world where international communications has never been more important.”
Notes for Editors:
About the Technology
Each of Madley’s 65 satellite aerials works the same, regardless of their size. A signal is carried to an aerial, where it is amplified and the frequency converted to allow it to propagate into space. The signal is received by the satellite, which carries out signal processing and amplification (effectively acting as a technically advanced mirror) before retransmitting, down to the receiving aerial and out to the awaiting recipient of the telephone call or data transmission.
As well as overseeing communications and television links from satellites, Madley’s is also BT’s international gateway for all telephone calls and communications from national telephone exchanges around the UK when people phone or communicate abroad. When someone makes an international call it will typically go through their local telephone exchange, onto the national ‘trunk’ network and into Madley’s Transmission Centre. Here all calls and other communications – such as data, mobile, text and faxes - are ‘compressed’ through International Switching Centres and into Madley’s International Telephone Exchange. It will then automatically select the most appropriate route needed to reach the final destination – via an international satellite or subsea fibre communications cable, with Madley providing access points for both.
1940: The site was bought by the Royal Air Force and became a Radio Training School;
October 1945: Rudolf Hess was transferred from Abergavenny and flown out of RAF Madley to stand trial at Nuremberg;
1946: RAF Training School decommissioned;
1956: RAF runways closed and surrounding areas returned to farmland;
1970: Post Office Telecommunications began the search for a suitable second satellite earth station site;
1973: Street House Farm (the ex-RAF base) was bought at auction;
1976: Work began on the construction of Madley 1 Aerial, with initial systems completed in early 1978;
November 19, 1978: Madley Aerial 1 test transmissions were successfully completed with Intelsat (the International Telecommunications Satellite Organisation);
November 20, 1978: The first voice calls were successfully connected via Madley Aerial 1 to Kenya and Baghdad via a satellite in orbit over the Indian Ocean;
1980: Madley Aerial 2 completed;
April 30, 1980: Madley transmits the SAS storming of the Iranian Embassy in London – believed to be the first time their activities had been broadcast
live around the world;
1982: Madley Aerial 3 completed;
1983: Madley Aerials 4 and 5 completed;
1985: Madley transmit world’s first digital signals to satellite via ground-breaking technology, known as Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), received at Etam in the USA and Yamaguchi in Japan – the first time two signals had been sent ‘interpolated’ onto one wire, effectively doubling capacity of communications traffic.
July 13, 1985: Live Aid, dubbed the ‘Global Jukebox’ - Madley played a key role, transmitting and receiving television images in what was one of the largest satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time, watched by an estimated 1.5 billion viewers across around 100 countries;
1985: SATSTREAM, the latest Mobile Satellite Communications system, used extensively to cover sporting, political and other major live news events, was deployed for the first time by staff at Madley;
1986: Madley site extended to 218 acres, allowing for an expansion of services and more, smaller antennae to be deployed;
February 5, 1989: Sky Television was launched on Astra Satellite, with services transmitted on Madley’s 17 and 18 Aerials;
August 23, 1989: Demolition of the Berlin Wall – Madley receives and re-transmits that enable the historical images to be beamed around the world, with experts from Madley also on hand in Berlin, assisting with the distant end link-up;
1990: A Digital International Switching Centre (DISC A) was built at Madley, closely followed by DISC B and C. These International Exchanges route communications traffic – such television, telephone, computer data – from the national network onto the international one by satellite or fibre via subsea cables. A new standby generator building was built to accommodate the additional load at the site;
1994: Madley Environmental Study Centre created, expanded in 2001 when the conservation area became a registered charity, with around 3,000 children visiting every year;
1997: The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was transmitted globally, with Madley playing an integral part in the broadcasts;
2001: BT Satnet, a world leader in easy-to-use deployable and fixed satellite communication technology, was created by a Madley-based team;
November 2003: Madley received and re-transmitted moving pictures of England winning the Rugby World Cup in Australia;
December 26, 2004: The Tsunami causes massive loss of life and extensive damage around Asia. Madley played an integral part in allowing news stories to be received and transmitted as quickly as possible. In the ensuing days and weeks, Madley-based staff are among a BT team of experts co-opted to help restore communications within the disaster area, helping aid agencies and the military to carry out their tasks quickly and efficiently and allowing loved ones to speak to each other;
October 8, 2005: Earthquake devastates Kashmir, Pakistan, and the surrounding area. Yet again, Madley staff play an important role in relaying live pictures around the world and in helping to restore communications in the affected areas, as part of a wider BT team;
March – September, 2007: More than 100 services transferred from Goonhilly to Madley;
2007: New equipment installed at Madley as part of BT’s 21st Century Network Programme;
2009: Site used to host Data Centre servers and applications;
2013: Launch of BT Sport means Madley plays a key role in receiving overseas sporting events into the UK;
2017: First UHD (4K) TV Transmissions to satellite.