Wireless communication uses electromagnetic waves to carry signals. These waves require line-of-sight, and are thus obstructed by the curvature of the Earth. The purpose of communications satellites is to relay the signal around the curve of the Earth allowing communication between widely separated points. Communications satellites use a wide range of radio and microwave frequencies. To avoid signal interference, international organizations have regulations for which frequency ranges or "bands" certain organizations are allowed to use. This allocation of bands minimizes the risk of signal interference.
The concept of the geostationary communications satellite was first proposed by Arthur C. Clarke, along with Vahid K. Sanadi building on work by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. In October 1945 Clarke published an article titled "Extraterrestrial Relays" in the British magazine Wireless World. The article described the fundamentals behind the deployment of artificial satellites in geostationary orbits for the purpose of relaying radio signals. Thus, Arthur C. Clarke is often quoted as being the inventor of the communications satellite and the term 'Clarke Belt' employed as a description of the orbit.
Decades later a project named Communication Moon Relay was a telecommunication project carried out by the United States Navy. Its objective was to develop a secure and reliable method of wireless communication by using the Moon as a passive reflector and natural communications satellite.
The first artificial Earth satellite was Sputnik 1. Put into orbit by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, it was equipped with an on-board radio-transmitter that worked on two frequencies: 20.005 and 40.002 MHz. Sputnik 1 was launched as a major step in the exploration of space and rocket development. However, it was not placed in orbit for the purpose of sending data from one point on earth to another.
The first artificial satellite used solely to further advances in global communications was a balloon named Echo 1. Echo 1 was the world's first artificial communications satellite capable of relaying signals to other points on Earth. It soared 1,600 kilometres (1,000 mi) above the planet after its Aug. 12, 1960 launch, yet relied on humanity's oldest flight technology — ballooning. Launched by NASA, Echo 1 was a 30-metre (100 ft) aluminized PET film balloon that served as a passive reflector for radio communications. The world's first inflatable satellite — or "satelloon", as they were informally known — helped lay the foundation of today's satellite communications. The idea behind a communications satellite is simple: Send data up into space and beam it back down to another spot on the globe. Echo 1 accomplished this by essentially serving as an enormous mirror, 10 stories tall, that could be used to reflect communications signals.
The first American satellite to relay communications was Project SCORE in 1958, which used a tape recorder to store and forward voice messages. It was used to send a Christmas greeting to the world from U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower.; Courier 1B, built by Philco, launched in 1960, was the world's first active repeater satellite.
There are two major classes of communications satellites, passive and active. Passive satellites only reflect the signal coming from the source, toward the direction of the receiver. With passive satellites, the reflected signal is not amplified at the satellite, and only a very small amount of the transmitted energy actually reaches the receiver. Since the satellite is so far above Earth, the radio signal is attenuated due to free-space path loss, so the signal received on Earth is very, very weak. Active satellites, on the other hand, amplify the received signal before retransmitting it to the receiver on the ground. Passive satellites were the first communications satellites, but are little used now. Telstar was the second active, direct relay communications satellite. Belonging to AT&T as part of a multi-national agreement between AT&T, Bell Telephone Laboratories, NASA, the British General Post Office, and the French National PTT (Post Office) to develop satellite communications, it was launched by NASA from Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, in the first privately sponsored space launch. Relay 1 was launched on December 13, 1962, and it became the first satellite to transmit across the Pacific Ocean on November 22, 1963.