Updated: March 19, 2016

Cable TV vs. Digital Satellite Television

Cable Television: The Biggest Competitor to Satellite TV


Technically, digital Cable TV and Satellite Television have a lot in common; they are both capable of the same high quality picture performance, and in most instances, they both deliver the same popular TV channels in HD.

Yet, there are a few major differences between these two TV services that will surely have an impact on your decision, and that are therefore worth considering, before taking the satellite or cable television route.

In this satellite vs. cable television guide, we discuss the pros and cons of each to bring out the most important differences between these two TV service platforms.


 
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Digital Satellite TV, or Cable Television?

Which one is right for you? Which TV service platform delivers the best choice of TV programs?

Digital Cable TV and Digital Satellite Television are the two biggest competitors in the field of TV entertainment.

Local cable companies such as Time Warner, AT&T Comcast with its U-verse TV service, and Sudden Link (which bought Cox Communications), are offering a number of television programming packages over their cable infrastructure that lacks nothing in comparison to those available from satellite television service providers. What is interesting here is that up to a few years ago, Cable TV was not really much of a treat to Digital Satellite television in the home theater arena. Old fashioned analog cable systems did not support as many channels―in particular movie channels―as satellite, nor was the image quality of analog channels up to that supported by digital TV systems.

The advent of 'digital' cable TV did change the whole situation. These systems use digital compressions technology in a similar manner to that used by digital satellite TV systems to deliver even more high definition content.

The unfortunate thing is that there is a lot of misinformation around as a result of the harsh competition between the different television service providers. It is this fierce competition that is fuelling the ever-growing debate among the general public regarding satellite television and cable TV:

Which is better - satellite or cable?

Which one can deliver more TV content, and at what price?

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We hope that this article will be of some assistance by bringing out the most relevant differences between these two major TV entertainment services. You would still have to do some research from your end if you want to make the best choice for your needs but the issues raised in this article should help make your task easier!

Digital Cable and Digital Satellite TV are very much alike!

Digital satellite and digital cable television services are very similar in nature in that both make use of the same digital technology to deliver hundreds of channels, including a whole assortment of movie channels, pay-per-view events, and a variety of informative and entertainment content to your home.

And the advent of MPEG-4 AVC is making it possible for these TV service providers to deliver an ever increasing array of high definition programming to the home.

Yet, despite being inherently similar, these TV entertainment services are fundamentally different...

Satellite television is more universal in that it is accessible in both rural or urban areas as long as you are within the satellite footprint. This means that residences that are not in large cities or towns are capable of receiving satellite TV, thus explaining why satellite has become such an extremely popular choice.

Cable television is generally limited to towns and cities, and they typically do not offer service to rural or remote areas. Unless you are 'passed' by a cable, you will not be able to get cable TV.

Still, there is an excellent chance that you get a cable TV connection. According to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), it is estimated that as of September 2011, more than 129.6 million households were 'passed' by a Cable TV operator; in addition, 78.5% of these households had digital cable TV service. Furthermore, all of the top 100 cable markets in the country were 'passed' by a cable company with HDTV programming.

There is also the issue of content. We are now living in a world of digital satellite and digital cable television services, bombarded by hundreds of TV channels. In this respect, satellite TV generally delivers more content - in particular, high definition programming - than any cable TV service provider, mainly due to the bandwidth limitations associated with present cable TV infrastructures.

However, differences between the two are disappearing fast as cable companies are continually updating their network infrastructure to handle more bandwidth. It is thus no longer a straightforward issue to say that satellite can deliver more than cable. Equally important, these TV services need not be mutually exclusive, in the end, it is all a question of what are your specific TV channel requirements.

In other words, choosing satellite or cable television all boils down to selecting the TV service provider that offers you the best programming package suitable for your needs at the most competitive price.

Hence, it is important to keep an open mind when planning your requirements.

Main differences between Cable Television and Satellite TV

Despite the many similarities, there are a few important differences between these two TV services worth looking into.

Equipment: Edge Cable TV

Like its satellite television counterpart, digital cable TV requires a set-top box per TV set; this has to be HD-capable to receive high definition programming. These set-top boxes are often given to you for free but have to be returned on termination of the service contract; others rent them for modest fees, and some even offer DVRs capable of recoding HD programming.

If your HDTV has a CableCard slot, you would not need the cable TV service provider set-top-box but you will still have to rent a TV access card from the cable provider. The presence of a CableCard slot makes for quite a handy option as it reduces equipment clutter.

Apart from the set-top box, you do not need anything else. Satellite is at a disadvantage here in that you would also need to set up your satellite dish antenna; the latter requires an unobstructed view of the southern sky (if you live in the northern hemisphere) to receive satellite TV signals. Installing a satellite dish to a side wall or roof may not always be possible, depending on whether you own your house.

Cable TV has a further advantage here. Digital cable TV systems are two-way systems communicating back to back to the cable company over the same line that carries your cable television service for you. This means that unlike Satellite TV, you do not need a telephone line connection to manage your pay-per-view services, etc., over digital cable.

Pricing: Edge Satellite TV

Usually, Satellite TV has a higher upfront cost than Cable since this has to cover the satellite dish antenna unless as a new customer, you qualify for FREE equipment and free installation offers in exchange for a one-year or more service commitment.

On the other hand, cable TV companies have to invest in massive maintenance efforts to keep up their cable networks. These additional expenses are eventually reflected in the pricing structure adopted by cable TV companies for their services.

In general satellite TV has an edge here, averaging around $80/month in service fees (excluding taxes) against the typical $100/month required for a similar TV service bundle from a cable TV operator.

This means that with satellite TV, you get more channels for your dollar than with Cable TV; the main problem with Satellite television is that you do not normally get local channel packages as instead is the case with Cable TV.

HD Programming: Edge Equal - depending on your TV viewing habits

Both cable and satellite are capable of delivering an ever increasing array of channels and both offer very similar programming packages; both are now approaching the 500 channel lineup. Yet, there are a few differences and each has an advantage over the other.

Most carriers - satellite and cable - do not charge extra for the HDTV versions of the major broadcast networks such as ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC. However, many do charge extra for the specialty HD networks such as ESPN HD, HDNet, and MOJO. Digital cable subscriptions are usually more expensive but then cable HD services almost always include regional sports networks (RSN) in their basic packages.

In general however, DirecTV and Dish Network offer a significantly larger selection of national HD channels than just about every cable provider. In particular, satellite TV service providers offer both east and west coast feeds and alternate sports programming for selected channels like Fox Sports, which allows the viewer the choice of either games based on regional interest or national interest. However, access to some alternative feeds may require an additional charge.

But it is not all bad news for Cable TV subscribers. While satellite TV has got the lead for national programming, HD local channel selection is generally better on cable than satellite.  You might even get local channels which are not available through an off-air broadcast TV antenna. Similarly, regional sports networks (RSN) in HD aren't necessarily offered on satellite, whereas most cable providers offer RSNs in their local markets.

Equally important for TV viewers is that cable TV companies generally include low priced packages; these are designed to provide viewers who just want good reception of local programming not carried by satellite TV service providers, but that do not want to pay the higher fees associated with premium packages.

Service Commitment: Generally Cable TV

Both DISH Network and DirecTV require a service commitment for 12 months or more depending on the package offer, but very few cable companies require the consumer to commit to a minimum subscription period.

Picture Quality: Edge Satellite but not by much

While both satellite and digital cable TV are digital services capable of delivering the same level of picture quality, yet the end image quality depends on the compression levels used by the respective service provider to deliver content to your home. 

As indicated earlier on, these digital TV services make use of MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 AVC; these are 'lossy' type compression technologies; therefore, not all of the original data is preserved. The higher the compression level, the more data is lost in the process; the result is a picture that is less sharp and detailed than it would be if one were to use lower compression levels.

It appears that many Cable television companies are using higher levels of compression in comparison to satellite TV systems, in particular when carrying high definition broadcasts. This means that if you are looking for picture quality, you might actually be better off with satellite.

The issue with cable TV companies is that increasing bandwidth capabilities over their infrastructure is much costly than putting another satellite in the sky. The use of the newer MPEG-4 over MPEG-2 technology means cable TV companies have practically doubled their content carrying capacity; but then even Satellite TV companies are using MPEG-4. This means that the only way for cable TV companies to complete with their satellite counterparts is to use higher compression levels to squeeze more content over their network infrastructure.

So... Which One Is Right For You?

If you are satisfied with the service offered by your current TV service provider, be that cable or satellite, our advice is to forget switching over altogether!

Satellite television seems to be leading cable in terms of technology and image quality at the moment, but not by much. The same applies to HD programming; DirecTV and Dish Network have a slight edge here. However...

When it comes to content, the whole issue boils down to what are your personal preferences. There is no straightforward answer here about which service provider is best for you; and you will never know for certain until you call up your satellite and local cable television service providers and start asking questions about the bundles on offer. And while asking, do not forget to check the fees for all the extras you might want like HD pay-per-view services and HD VOD.

You see, the whole issue is not who delivers more but who delivers the programming that you want. Do not just pick the service provider based on how deep its channel lineup is. It is no good having a never ending list of HD channels when the ones you want are not included!

Conclusion and Discussion

There are simply too many variables to safely say that one provider is better than the other. Unfortunate, making the best choice for your viewing habits requires a good bit of research from your end. Hopefully, part of that work has been completed for you here.

We are interested in your opinion, and millions of others are interested too!

Feel free to shout out any first-hand experiences that you feel could help millions of others make a better choice when choosing their TV service provider.

We are looking to you to share your experience and spill the beans on picture quality, customer service, service downtime, perceived value, etc. This is the type of detail many are looking for and that can only be found by questioning others.

All you have to do to share your views on our site is to use the fb comments box below.

What Others Have Said

Click below to read what others have said on this hotly debated issue of 'Satellite vs. Cable Television'.

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I used to have my own satellite 81/2 remote dish. All reception was free. Then somehow someone came up with charging us. Then the dish networks came...

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Satellite is the way to go! It is better than Cable Television.

HDTV: Satellite HDTV or HDTV over Cable?
Someone commented that they went with cable television because satellite TV was not available where they lived. Unless they are up against a rock ...

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 Article Content

Issues discussed in this article:

Blue bullet  Introduction: Why this issue of satellite vs. cable TV?

Blue bullet  Cable and Satellite TV are very much alike, despite being fundamentally different

Blue bullet  Main differences between satellite and cable TV: Discussing equipment, pricing, programming, service commitment, and picture quality issues

Blue bullet  Conclusion: Which one is right for you? Is there one better than the other?

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