Satellite TV - Digital Satellite TV Basics
Updated: March 19, 2016

An Introduction to Digital Satellite TV

Exposing the advantageous and understanding the drawbacks

Digital Satellite Television services are surely remarkable; in particular the picture quality of Satellite HDTV programming is excellent while the hundreds of channels to choose from make satellite television the obvious choice for the home theater and home entertainment.

But apart from the many advantageous that satellite TV services offer, there are also a number of issues one should be aware of that need to be well understood prior to embarking on the digital satellite TV route.

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Digital Satellite TV: Some background information

In the United States, the two main satellite TV service provides are DirecTV (often incorrectly referred to as Direct TV), and Echo Star, more known through its DISH Network service.

The signal from these Satellite TV systems is transmitted from satellites that are in a geo-synchronous orbit around the earth. This means that these satellites stay in the same relative point in the sky with respect to the earth's rotation.

Both DirecTV and DISH Network offer digital transmission services using MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 AVC. MPEG-2 is in the process of being phased out in favor of the newer MPEG-4 due to the latter capability to cram more than twice HD content for the same bandwidth space than the MPEG-2 codec. MPEG-2 is the same digital encoding technology used in DVDs, while MPEG-4 AVC is one of the mandatory video encoding technologies supported by Blu-ray discs. This renders digital satellite TV services capable of delivering crystal clear video and Dolby® Digital 5.1 surround sound for a life-like action when watching movies, sports events, and more.

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It is the capability to deliver the very best audio and video, complemented by a vast array of HDTV programming that renders digital satellite TV, the ideal choice to complete one's home theater system.

As already hinted earlier on, the use of digital technology has a further advantage to both satellite companies and end-users alike; digital transmission enables digital satellite TV service providers to fit more channels in comparison to analog transmission systems within the same bandwidth space. This is possible thanks to the use of encoding techniques not possible over analog systems.

But as expressed in our Digital TV Guide, fitting in more content over the same allocated bandwidth space does carry its own expense. Compression gives rise to picture artifacts that are not present on analog television systems. Artifacts such as 'quantization noise' and 'blockiness' are quite common and arise out of excessive compression levels used by service providers in their bid to deliver more content than the competition. This also explains why some over-the-air local HDTV broadcasts tend to be of better quality than high definition satellite TV.

On the other hand, if you are after HDTV programming, digital satellite systems still carry a relatively larger number of HDTV stations in comparison to Cable TV and over-the-air TV broadcast. The use of the latest MPEG-4 compression is making numerous HD channels a reality. It is thus only logical that many home theater owners are turning to digital satellite as their primary television source.

It should be remarked here that although both digital satellite TV service (DSS) providers in the US use 100% digital transmission, not all program content sent out over these two networks is digital in origin. This explains why content quality is sometimes inconsistent.

Pros and Cons of Digital Satellite TV

The services as offered by both digital satellite TV providers in the US are without doubt of high quality. At the same time, there are a number of characteristics that are intrinsic to digital satellite TV and which should be well understood in order to avoid possible disappointments at a later stage. 

Being aware of these characteristics should put one in a better position to determine whether to opt for a digital satellite TV solution or otherwise. At the same time, one should also realize that digital satellite TV, Cable TV and over-the-air TV broadcast need not necessarily be mutually exclusive; it is all a question of what are your actual content requirements. 

Main advantages of digital satellite television include:

1] The superior quality of the digital image.

2] The availability to deliver hundreds of channels, including a large number of HD programming, movies, sports, news.

3] Easy-to-use on-screen program guide that includes all current and upcoming programming schedules on the system.

4] Dozens of digital audio channels.

5] An ever increasing number of HDTV television programs that is unmatched by any other TV content sources, including Cable TV.

But there is more! As with everything else, digital satellite TV has its drawbacks. Therefore, prior to opting for a digital satellite TV service, it is worth keeping in mind the following...

Understanding the drawbacks:

Getting Local Stations: Although in general one can get some local package, in most of the smaller cities and in rural areas, you will have to get Cable TV or set up a rooftop TV antenna to pick up local stations.

Some satellite TV receivers include for this purpose, an RF input for a TV antenna connection to be able to navigate seamlessly between satellite TV content and local stations.

Satellite receivers: You cannot just plug the cable from your satellite dish into your TV; you need a special receiver. Although it is possible to drive a number of TV sets with just one receiver, if you want to watch different programs, you will need a separate satellite TV decoder with each TV.

In addition, while the new MPEG-4 AVC compression is making even more HD content possible, yet older satellite receivers and dish antennas will eventually have to be replaced since these are not compatible with MPEG-4 services. It is true that both digital satellite TV service providers plan to continue broadcasting the existing MPEG-2 HD lineup. However, subscribers with older HD equipment will have to upgrade to watch new local and national HD channels. Luckily, both DISH Network and DirecTV offer discount packages to make this transition easier on your pocket.

For first-time customers, this should not represent much of an added expense in that  both DirecTV and  Dish Network have a number of advantageous offers whereby you will get your equipment requirements for 'free' in exchange for a service commitment period that may vary from 12 to 24 months.

For more information on choosing your satellite TV receiver, please check our Satellite TV Decoder Guide.

Phone-line Requirements: You need to hook your satellite TV receiver into a phone line for it to communicate with your service provider computer platform for periodic updates, and pay-per-view ordering and billing. 

Satellite dish antenna positioning: Your satellite dish must have a clear line of sight to the satellites, without trees, buildings or hills in the way.

Furthermore, you must be within the transmission 'footprint' of the satellites to be able to pick up digital satellite TV services. This means that in some northern areas and in Hawaii, it may not be possible to pick up all satellites.

Satellite dish antenna installation: Again, this is not much of an issue especially if you take advantage of the free installation deals on offer by DirecTV and Dish Network authorized online retailers.

However, for those who would like to go for a DIY satellite dish installation, we advise to refer to our Satellite Dish Installation Guide.

Permission to Install Satellite Dish Antennas and Placement Restrictions

One particular problem that may arise when it comes to installing a satellite TV system relates to whether you own your home; this can turn out to be a deal-breaker. You will have to check with your landlord prior to proceeding with a satellite TV dish installation. 

Similarly, check any building regulations that may be applicable to your area in that if your home is within the historic zone, it may be that you would not be able to install a satellite dish, in particular if it will be visible from the street. The guiding parameter here should be that the dish color and position should blend as much as possible with the surrounding environment.

We therefore highly recommend that you check the Over-the-Air Reception Devices Rule at the Federal Communications Commission web site. This FCC document deals with placement restrictions for the installation of antennas, including dish antennas up to one meter (39.4") diameter. 

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 Article Content

Issues discussed in this article:

Blue bullet Digital Satellite TV: Some background information

Blue bullet  Main advantageous of digital satellite television

Blue bullet  Understanding the drawbacks of Satellite TV services

Blue bullet  Installation permits and placement requirements

 Satellite TV Guides

Articles appearing under this section:

Satellite Dish Installation

Choosing Your Satellite TV Decoder

Digital Satellite HDTV Guide

Satellite or Cable TV?

Glossary of Satellite Television Terms

FREE Satellite Television Offers: Where is the catch?

Dish Network vs. DirecTV: Which is better?

Detailed Index of satellite TV guides appearing on our site is available here.

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