West Indies Video (Inc/Ltd) was created "on paper" at Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in early 1979. Providenciales native Edmund Ewing, an avid amateur radio operator, has used his ham radio to make contact with amateur Jay Liebmann in Oklahoma City. Liebmann in turn invited Edmund to come to Oklahoma City and work for his company; a wholesale ice manufacturing firm. Shortly after Ewing arrived there, he met fellow ham radio operator Bob Cooper who lived in Oklahoma at the time. Cooper was already known as the "father of home satellite TV" having created the very first home satellite (reception) system in 1976. He had publicised his invention through a number of electronic and consumer publications including the weekly TV GUIDE magazine. From that consumer introduction to home satellite TV, an entirely new industry was created in America and because of his pioneering in the technology, virtually everyone recognised Cooper as the "guru" of home satellite TV.
Ewing learned Cooper and his family were keen to establish a research and development facility outside of the united States and talked him into making a vacation trip to Providenciales. In 1979, the only commercial way into TCI was through Nassau, and then a DC3 combination cargo and passenger plane that hopped island by island down the Bahamian chain terminating in Grand Turk. Providenciales was not on the route as it only had a small, unlighted and unrecognised dirt strip at the time. After landing on Grand Turk, you were on your own to arrange a trip backwards to Provo using a charter plane typically arranged on the spot, if at all.
The Cooper family vacationed in a rented home arranged by Ewing just up the hill from the Third Turtle Inn, and while on Provo he met Arthur Butterfield for the first time. Butterfield was in the process of planning his own grocery store as only the Provident Limited BWI store was then open. Butterfield was intrigued by Cooper's credentials and when he asked Bob, "Would it be possible to have American TV on Providenciales using your system?" the hand writing was on the wall. At that point in time, the only telephone on Provo was in a wooden box nailed to a post adjacent to the Third Turtle Inn and if you were persistent and in no hurry, once or twice a day you could use the instrument to raise the Grand Turk operator - provided the tide was out along the way! Electricity was almost as rare - BWI and Third Turtle had their own generators and ex-Pat Doc Withy had arrived from Michigan with plans to expand the reach of the sometimes on - much of the time "off," diesel generating plant.
Against this back ground the vision that individual homes on Provo might one day - soon - have access to American TV seemed quite heretical. But one of the Cooper assets was his thrice annual satellite technology trade shows which by 1979 had grown to average attendance of 5,000 and more in such posh spots as Las Vegas. And his monthly magazines, one of which (Coop's Satellite Digest) was the "bible" of the new upstart industry.
Back in Oklahoma city he sat down with Edmund Ewing and they put together a game and business plan. Several container loads of high tech electronic equipment was carefully packed and with the able assistance of the home satellite TV industry, a set of goals established. One of the challenges facing the home dish industry was the fact that in America, what they were doing did not fit the existing rules of the Federal Communications Commission. To properly test their new equipment and field trial it in a real working environment required a physical area where no existing television (or radio) services existed. Providenciales was perfect for this plan.
West Indies Video (abbreviated WIV which happened in Roman Numeral format to be W-4) was created on the Cooper kitchen table with Edmund Ewing "volunteering" to be the on-ground manager on Provo. Arriving just ahead of the first 20 foot containers filled with electronics and support equipment for the Coopers, Edmund located a temporary home on the beach in The Bight. It was here, within ten days of the containers arriving, that a temporary 13 foot satellite dish bolted to a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood produced the first live television ever seen in the Turks & Caicos Islands. For the record, the first program received was a PBS (American educational TV) show called "Sesame Street." By the end of that first day, word of mouth had spread the news and for as long as the Cooper's temporary portable generator was running, dozens of residents of Provo stood with some awe as Ewing and Cooper demonstrated more than a dozen TV services from America.
On the very next day, Ewing unpacked a ten watt channel 4 (as in W-IV) TV transmitter sourced by Cooper and began construction on a very temporary 40 foot steel tower lashed to the side of the temporary rental home. This was in response to, "When can we watch this in OUR home?" requests that began the very first day. Although there was no TV reception on Provo, around ten homes did have the then newly available Beta or VHS 1/2" tape machines and a companion TV set. Some, like Doc Withy, even had a system of having tapes of American TV sent from the states using Ed Hegner's once or twice weekly Beechcraft private freight flights originating at Fort Lauderdale or Boynton Beach. Ewing and Cooper had planned ahead - not only with the modest ten watt power TV transmitter but also with several cartons of channel 4 (IV) TV receiving antennas. Within a week, Ewing and Cooper had WIV-TV on the air for at least four hours each evening. And Art Butterfield's new store was the first location in "downtown Provo" to have TV on public display.
Word of this activity eventually reached Grand Turk and during week three of WIV's first TV transmissions a delegation headed up by the then Governor of TCI John Clifford Strong landed on Provo's dirt strip and made a beeline for The Bight. They were suitably impressed, and had but one question for Cooper: "How can we have this on Grand Turk (North Caicos, Middle Caicos South Caicos) as well???" The answer was simple to say, not so quick to implement. The Bight temporary facility was just that - temporary. Local builder Sam Lightbourne was already levelling sand dunes on Grace Bay for what would become the "WIV Compound" - a two acre tract that from the beginning was to include a 4,000 square foot TV research and production facility and a separate home for the Cooper family. Moreover, it was to have dedicated concrete pads for as many as twenty sizeable satellite dishes (up to 8 meters in diameter). At the time, this was the largest and most complex new construction project on Provo and it would take Sam Lightbourne (and later David Ward) nearly two years to complete the buildings. And the answer? Cooper's importation of raw building materials for the "WIV Compound" was measured in multiple-container loads and for each nail and block and bag of cement, there would be an import duty. The Governor and Cooper reached a handshake agreement at that first meeting: If Cooper would agree to expand the "reach" of WIV-TV to at least Grand Turk and North Caicos, along with the promise to cover all of Providenciales as well, the Government would make concessions on the import duty for his project's construction.
WIV-TV(4) expanded the operating hours, increased the temporary transmission power from The Bight, and the Grace Bay compound (the first home on Grace Bay, incidentally) rose out of the sand dunes. As soon as the first building - the WIV technical center - was use able on Grace Bay, The Bight location was closed down and a new TV tower was turned on from atop Provo's highest hill, located just outside the home of Billy Dodson half way between The Third Turtle and Blue Hills. From this Hill, WIV could for the first time reach as far as North Caicos. Simultaneously to that, WIV arranged for a new TV transmitter and tower to be installed at the home of Royal Robinson (Grand Turk). With the new greatly expanded technical capability of Grace Bay, WIV expanded to 18 (and then 24) hours per day, local live and taped programming was inaugurated and every day 8 hours or more of Provo programming was videotaped and sent by air to Royal Robinson for the residents of Grand Turk. By mid 1981, a new "repeater" station had been installed on North Caicos, atop a ridge of land more than a mile from the nearest home and powered by a massive solar panel array that collected the sun's rays to convert to electricity to run the station (on TV channel 2).
Throughout 1980 and 1981, there was a steady stream of technology pioneers visiting Provo and utilising the WIV facility for research and development, and testing, of new television and radio transmission technologies. The package was nearly complete:
1) Providenciales was uniquely situated to be a test ground
2) Cooper and Ewing had built the Grace Bay facility with a clear focus on the importance of making the facility available to new technology developers as a testing ground
3) When these people visited Provo (in the dozens each month, thereby providing some much needed new business for the then struggling hotel and lodging facilities), their tests would be reported in great detail in one or more of Bob Cooper's magazines. Soon WIV was "covering" these visits with TV cameras and video tape and by 1982 a visit from a technology team originating in say Sweden produced not only test results and valuable magazine editorial coverage, but one and two and three hour "TV reports" which were produced on Provo and then shown via satellite all over the world. And finally, through the thrice annual satellite technology trade shows, these firms would make technical presentations and perform demonstrations to the thousands who attended the shows.
The WIV staff grew quickly. Valentine Pratt and Peter Stubbs were hired in 1981. When a technology team from an antenna manufacturing firm out of Missouri (or California or Canada or the UK) would arrive, there would be only days to uncrate their antennas (or other products) and quickly assemble them for test and evaluation. Ex-Pat Tom Humpheries, himself a pioneer in the marketing of home satellite equipment for a firm in Texas, moved to Provo to become involved in the high stress twice or thrice monthly arrivals of firms with equipment to assemble and test. Ed Hegner's shuttle service Beechcraft flights jumped to several per week and then weather permitting essentially daily to cope with the sudden increase in personnel and materials now flowing routinely in and out of Provo. By the end of 1981, WIV's Grace Bay two acres looked like something out of a NASA movie - more than ten, sometimes as many as 15 large satellite dishes surrounded the "annex" building. Another local ex-pat, Marshall Foiles, came on board to help cope with the work load. Like Pratt and Stubbs, he quickly learned the new trade and it did not hurt anyone involved to be rubbing shoulders and sharing a beer with people who held PhD degrees in physics and radio and television engineering from as far away as Tokyo.
As substantial as the "Grace Bay Compound" was (today it has been reborn as Villa Renaissance, few even remember how it dominated the otherwise barren Grace Bay landscape from 1980 - 1987 and after), it was not "big enough" to house the growing operation. First of all, although WIV-TV(4) was now on the air from Provo's tallest point 24 hours per day, the growing Provo community was demanding "more television." The answer, Cooper worked out, would be more TV channels. But there were technical constraints that would quickly reduce the effectiveness of Provo as a test center for new transmission technology if WIV simply "filled up the dial" in the same way that Miami or Chicago or Denver had multiple channels of television. Some new technology had to be created where 3 or 5 or 7 channels of TV could be broadcast while not at the time "spoiling" the radio frequency environment that made Provo so unique for test, research and development. During one of Provident LTD's famous sales, Cooper had acquired a pair of lots on moderately high ground along Leeward Highway, just east of Suzy Turn. There he negotiated with Government for permission to build a tall communications tower - as tall as Government and the physical constraints of the lot would allow. This would become Tower Plaza, which Cooper and David Ward in partnership constructed during 1982. Building the tower itself with "unskilled" labour (no prior experience in tall tower construction) was accomplished with a perfect example of Provo's mid-80s era of community self-help and involvement. More than a dozen people turned out to labour on the structure over a ten day period and even David Ward learned how to hang from a safety belt 100 feet or higher in the air wrestling 500 pound tower sections into place. Peter Stubbs and Val Pratt were learning new technology and skills each day during that era.
Tower Plaza was to be a model test centre but it also was created to allow Provo to expand the number of TV channels; first to three, then five. One of the offshoots of the weekly visits by communication technologists was the creation of a new method of transmitting television to the island. The first MMDS (multipoint multichannel distribution system) tests in the world occurred on Provo, a technology which today world-wide serves more than 50,000,000 homes. With Tower Plaza operational in late 1982, Provo now had many channels of television, WIV continued to operate (from the new tower, now) on channel 4 and it was a free to air service for anyone who acquired a TV set and installed a home antenna. Simultaneously, new "pay channels" using the MMDS technology were put into operation. This was TCI's first experience with pay-TV and a number of people worked diligently to make it successful. One of these was Verna Rigby who took over the responsibility of "selling" the service to new customers. She also learned how to install the specialised MMDS reception equipment and she would leave her downtown office where she worked for Doc Withy in mid-afternoon to go around the island to install MMDS reception antennas and the necessary set top boxes that made reception of the new pay-channels possible. At this point and through 1983, Provo had a movie channel, a sport channel and a news channel on "pay" while WIV-4 continued to broadcast a mixture of programming sourced via satellite from WTBS Atlanta, WGN Chicago, and a variety of USA networks such as ABC and PBS.
The seeds of WIV's ultimate cable future were sown in that era. Tourist destinations such as Provo's Treasure Beach owned by Art Butterfield and Grand Turk's Cedar Homes wanted TV in their facilities. The MMDS technology in tourist destinations would work best if WIV borrowed some technology from cable TV. Stubbs and Pratt constructed the first "mini-cable" systems for such facilities which allowed individual rooms or units to be served by the MMDS pay-TV transmissions.
During 1983 and 1984, the American home satellite dish industry was riding a wave of success and the spill over reached our islands. From fewer than 1,000 new home dish systems per month in 1980, in 1984 the home dish world had grown to in excess of 100,000 new systems per month. To meet the tremendous growth in new systems, dozens of new manufacturers rushed to enter the American market including the first well heeled Asian firms (such as Uniden and Sony). During this period of time WIV's Marshall Foiles was weekly juggling scheduling for the tens of manufacturers who wished to bring their antenna systems to Provo for test and evaluation and it was not unusual for two or three competing manufacturers to be staying at the original Island Princess simultaneously. By day these engineers and technicians worked on the beach using Foiles and Pratt created temporary antenna mounts while Peter Stubbs used his growing expertise in assembling these antennas to move from project to project assisting the visitors with their system construction. There was fallout from this. Too many antenna systems. In a matter of months it became apparent that visiting system designers were only interested in getting their equipment evaluated and most left the complete systems "behind" when they left Provo. The Grace Bay WIV center reached more than 20 antennas and ran out of room; Tower Plaza took as many as space would allow and ran out of ground space for new antennas. That was when Cooper decided the best way to handle the overflow would be to "gift" the systems to worthy recipients throughout the country. In short order the Governor's home (Waterloo) on Grand Turk, the PM's new home (Norman Saunders on GDT), various resorts, churches, schools and facilities throughout North and South Caicos received "gifted" systems. Pratt and Stubbs, by now more than capable of assembling the systems in the dark of night wearing blindfolds, quickly became travelling satellite troubadours in the islands. WIV picked up the cost for installing the new systems for the various recipients, a few paid a modest fee to transport the sizeable dish systems to their destinations. Closer to home, some local folks who had been generous with their labour and time to deal with the constant WIV activity were rewarded with dish systems; David Ward's home had one of the first 4.5 meter Paraclipse dishes in the world (the first went to NASA at Cape Kennedy, the third went to famed science fiction author (Sir) Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka).
All of this activity attracted a new level of interest in Provo and the islands. Television programs, such as Entertainment Tonight, sent crews to Provo for a week to create a story on WIV and Cooper; stories appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and for the first time in a major way Provo and TCI were getting international consumer exposure. And this led to a WIV initiative that became the "Provo Hotel Association" (later the Turks and Caicos Hotel Association). Cooper proposed a funded effort by the tourist facilities on Provo to create a weekly half hour TV program to be shown on satellite in North America. WIV's facility produced the final products and by 1985 an entire series of 30 minute shows had been created. Most Provo shops and hotels supported the plan and thousands of locally produced videotapes were produced and sold to tourists who "took a piece of Provo back home with them." The TV programming reached a peak in 1986 when 35 local residents (natives and ex-pats living here) volunteered to become part of the "Provo Magazine" team. Groups of 2 to 4 were created, each group proposed one or more TV show topics with a script outline. Then using WIV equipment the teams went into the field to shoot their video and log their video shots.
The public thirst for "more TV programming" was only partially satisfied with the addition of 3 pay channels. Something much more expansive was needed. Early Provo satellite enthusiast John Ramsey and Bob Cooper created the next phase of the development. In 1984 a 35 channel cable television system was put on paper and the two privately funded the construction. Cable began at the Grace Bay WIV compound and worked its way along PPC power poles westward through The Bight, up Suzy Turn and onto Leeward Highway. Val Pratt and Peter Stubbs were a two man dynamo crew, assisted by Marshall Foiles, and an entirely new set of skills developed. Wiring a building such as Treasure Beach for TV was one thing - man handling the large 1/2" aluminum cable and connectors that looked more like plumbing parts than TV devices was another matter. Cable immediately offered an upgrade (initially to 20 channels, over time growing to 30+) to homes "passed" and as the cost of cable was only slightly more than the MMDS pay-TV at the time, nobody passed on making the conversion as soon as it became available on their street. But there were technical challenges that made the Grace Bay compound a less than ideal spot from which to originate the 20 channels. Ideally, the cable TV "headend" would be located as close to the middle of Provo as possible, thereby allowing equal coverage in all directions from Leeward to the end of Blue Hills. Tower Plaza was the obvious choice and it happened that Cooper also owned the lot to the immediate west; room for more antennas!
Up to this point WIV had been a "playground" for visiting engineers and technicians, and the financial success of Cooper's various stateside based publications provided the cash necessary to fund the new projects. But the new plan, using Tower Plaza as a "headend" and completing the cabling in both directions to the eastern and western edges of Provo was another matter. Ramsey and Cooper sat down with Provo attorney Clare Skatfeld and a stock owned company was created. Seven locals bought into the new firm raising more than a half million US dollars to fund the expansion and move to Leeward Highway. Under the new business plan, Peter Stubbs was appointed Systems Operations Manager and Val Stubbs named as Chief of Construction and Maintenance. Both were given shares in the company for their efforts to that point and options on acquiring more stock in the future.
The move from self funding to local stock holders proved to be a good decision because almost overnight the entire home satellite TV industry was going to come to a halt. But first there was Hurricane Kate, a seemingly unimportant storm reported on November 15th to be due north of Puerto Rico, top winds 85 mph, and drifting west. As hurricanes went, this one was not that impressive. Cooper flew out on November 16 to Miami and by coincidence partner John Ramsey flew in on the same plane; the last one to make the trip for several days. As the January 1986 issue of Coop's Satellite Digest reported in gut wrenching detail: "Several times, before the 3AM approach of the hurricane's eye, Foiles and Ramsey would lash themselves together with heavy rope and crawl to the 20 satellite antennas located inside the compound, and then to the beach. At the antennas, they attempted to snug huge bolts that were supposed to keep the antennas standing upright. At the beach, they were concerned that a storm tide might ride up and smash over the top of the two protective sand dunes separating the buildings from the ocean. Foiles: "If we saw a storm tide coming, we had prepared to jump into the (WIV) Blazer and head for higher ground! We had emergency food, water and a complete ham radio station packed there for a quick getaway!" AT 3AM, they heard the VHF marine radio link at Club Med come to life, reporting the eye of the hurricane was there. "That bothered us - we were only 3/4 mile to the west and the winds were still blowing full force. It took a full ten minutes for the eye to reach us." There had been 25 operational satellite dishes at "the compound" before the fury of Kate; 2 were still operational after the storm subsided. It was weeks before electricity and telephone service was restored - months for WIV to get back into full operation.
The Tower Plaza facility escaped with less damage and thus the plan to shift the cable headend to that location was a saviour. Cable TV managed to get back into service along with the return of electricity but the over the air channel 4 and pay-TV channels took more than a month to replace antennas and other critical equipment. When the center of operations had been shifted to Tower Plaza, it was one very busy week. For three days, huge 20 foot satellite dishes were carefully moved intact from Grace Bay to Tower Plaza. Simultaneously, the reception and cable equipment tied to each antenna had to be moved as well. And the cable plant was "turned around" to feed signals from Tower Plaza in both directions rather than the original Grace Bay to the west.
If Hurricane Kate had been a near disaster for the WIV operations, what happened in January 1986 was of even greater proportions. From the 1979 start of the home satellite dish world a growing number of "free" programming channels had developed. By 1985, that number was over 100 channels of TV and this was the major reason why more than 100,000 home dish systems per month were being manufactured and sold in North America. In January 1986, a handful of the major programmers (including HBO) elected to "scramble" their signals. This had an immediate negative effect on the home dish industry; sales plummeted to under 20,000 in January and kept going down from that point. Down on Provo, WIV had no real difficulty "getting around" the scrambling but with the industry in a tail spin, the weekly visits from manufacturers testing new equipment ground to an abrupt halt. The fuel that had "fired" the importance of Provo's WIV simply went away.
This provided an opportunity for WIV while the completion of the expanded cable system into Blue Hills, Five Cays and Leeward was underway, to pioneer in another area. FM radio had been trailed from Tower Plaza from the opening of the facility late in 1982 but the service was primarily designed to rebroadcast a satellite fed music service from the states. Cooper envisioned a group of radio stations, covering a variety of musical and local interests. Space was set aside in a room at Tower Plaza, WIV provided at no cost the transmission equipment and Provo's first native operated (FM) radio station (WPRT) was on the air. Simultaneously, using some clever John Ramsey designed equipment conceptualised by Cooper, the number of Provo radio stations jumped from 1 to 5. Now country and western fans had their own satellite fed radio service, classical fans had theirs and so on. At the same time Cooper revived his American broadcaster training of the 1960s and launched a series of Provo produced radio programs for the area, including a John Ramsey automated newscast which Cooper recorded every evening for several years to be aired the next day.
WIV-TV at the same time began to produce significant amounts of local television, using the resources of the volunteer locals who were scripting and shooting their program pieces for inclusion in the Provo Magazine series. A number of local people stepped up to become a part of this "Provo-on-TV" effort including newspaper publisher Blythe Duncanson, politician Wendall Swann and JoJo the island's favourite dolphin. WIV also produced for The Discovery Channel a 28 minute look at The Conch Farm and other specials which would eventually air on such services as HBO. During the mid 1980s, when the country held general elections, WIV provided equipment and air time allowing the various political candidates from throughout the country to make their presentations on television. WIV began covering the annual "Provo Day" celebrations before there was a Provo Day - in 1981 it went to South Caicos to televise the annual beauty pageant then marshalled by Bill Clare. With the able assistance of Duncanson and others, some very complete hour-plus "specials" were produced which had major impact on the then social structure of the country. One program investigated AIDS and told the story of a resident of The Bight who was shortly to die of the disease. Another investigated the death of a Haitian worker under circumstances which involved his work place and a possible lack of safety precautions. Throughout much of the 80s, the then-annual PHMC (Provo Health Medical Center) fund raising auction was televised. Unfortunately, while most of these productions were shot and produced on 3/4" tape, the tape masters were discarded in the years following Cooper's departure to New Zealand.