Updated 15 Nov, 1997
This area is brought to you by your local cable TV company
Fellow Earthling; If you are like me, you are stuck with the option of buying cable
service from the company who has provided the juiciest kickbacks to your city council, or
watching fuzzy, noisy signals from a broadcast antenna. Because the cable company has the
council in it's pocket, they can provide whatever inadequate level of service they think
they can get away with, and there is not much you can do about it. They don't care if you
must take the entire day off from work in order to be home for their visits, their
customer "service" lines are only manned while you are at work, and because they
try to stretch their outdated equipment to the absolute limits, their signals are weak,
and rife with noise and crosstalk. So what is the concerned sofa tuber to do? Get your TV
signals from outer space!
DBS stands for 'Direct Broadcast Satellite.' It is 'direct broadcast' because unlike the traditional 'C' band (which use 3 meter dishes, AKA West Va State Flower, BUD or Big Ugly Dish, and various other names) satellite system, this system was designed from the ground up to provide signals direct to the home.
There is nothing wrong with 'C' band equipment, many people have used it for years to latch onto raw network feeds, government (at least NASA), and industrial signals, as well as (in the good old days) unscrambled premium channel signals, etc. Your local TV stations get their network programming over a 'C' band dish. In fact, the huge selection of signals available on the 'C' band dwarfs the DBS selection. If you are interested in the satellite version of shortwave listening, 'C' band is for you. The main problem in modern suburban settings is the 3 meter dish. Many communities have restrictive covenants which prohibit them, and newer neighborhoods are cut up into such small yards that the big dishes are hard to site for a proper look angle. These dishes must be articulated on either a polar (most popular, since it requires only one axis of movement) or Azimuth-Elevation (Az-El) mount so that they may be steered toward various satellites, so even more yard space must be set aside just to clear the dish over its full range of motion. For more information on satellite systems in general, a good place to start is: "Robert's Satellite TV Page". Much of the material I have linked to in this article is on those sites.
In contrast to the aforementioned lawn ornaments, the 18" diameter DBS antenna is tuned for the higher frequency 'Ku' band signals used by the high power DBS satellites, and once aimed, is fixed in position. The dish does not require articulation, because the satellites which transmit the signal are located in a very narrow range of orbital position. Currently there are 2 active satellites, and a third which was recently delivered as a backup.
Because of the small size and weight of the DBS dish, it can be mounted to most any suitable surface on the home by anyone with basic mechanical skill. If you can put the kid's bike together at Christmas, you can install a DBS system. The other component of the DBS system is the receiver, which is about the size of two medium pizza boxes stacked up. It requires four connections: AC Power, co-axial cable from the antenna, output to the TV and / or VCR , and a telephone connection (used to call in orders for pay-per-view selections). The system is completely controlled with an Infra-Red (IR) remote, using on-screen 'point and click' menus. The Sony and RCA equipment (as well as that being readied for market from others such as Panasonic) are very similar in most respects, and receive the same signals. I personally own RCA, so the details I will provide apply specifically to their equipment. From what I can gather, Sony's gear differs mainly in the details of the user interface, so most of this article will apply to that equipment as well.
A note about Primestar: This article will address the services known as DSS (Digital Satellite System), which currently use subscriber-owned equipment made by RCA and Sony, (and others soon). I will also tend to use the acronyms DBS and DSS interchangeably. Though the 'Primestar' system falls under the DBS umbrella, it uses its own satellite, programming and hardware, and a larger (36") dish. It is a 'turnkey' solution in that the system is installed and owned by Primestar, so folks who want to lease equipment can choose this service. The technology is similar to what I describe here, but the operation, channel choices, etc differ. If you are interested in this service, the links above, as well as your local Primestar dealer, will be your best source of information. Primestar now has an official Web site.
Currently there are two providers of content for DBS users; DirecTV and USSB (US Satellite Broadcasting). DirecTV provides most of the traditional 'cable' channels and the pay-per-view (PPV) selections, and USSB provides mostly the 'premium' and movie channels as well as some regular channels and some PPV. The links above will get you to the programming lists for each as well as package prices, specials, etc. Between the two, you can get everything the local cable provides and a lot more as well as a little less. The more part is great, several channels of HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, etc. as well as a great selection of brand new, cheap ($2.99) PPV movies.
DirecTV has 'Music Choice' which is over thirty channels of commercial and talk free, CD quality music. Everything from Rap and Alternative Rock to Country and Classical are available. This is nice for just putting on in the background while you party (there is a dance music channel), or read a book (light jazz or new age), or eat a holiday meal (seasonal music). It beats messing with the CD player when you've got company over. In addition to these music only channels, there are several music video channels available, including MTV, VH1, and a couple country music channels.
I almost forgot sports! Personally, I don't follow sports, but a lot of folks do. There is so much sports coverage available, it is staggering. There are packages for all the major sports; hockey, football, basketball, and baseball. Each package provides just about every game played. You can also buy games as pay-per-view. There are packages which give you all the local sports channels as well. Special events such as boxing matches are available. There is a Golf channel. Check out the DirecTV and USSB sites for all the details on the huge amount of sports coverage they offer.
The less is the lack of local TV feeds. For these you will need to either retain the minimum cable (usually channels 2 - 13 for around $8 per month) or erect a broadcast antenna, or if you are lucky, a set of 'rabbit ears' may suffice. Network feeds are available over the satellite, these feeds are provided by network broadcasters around the country. ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox are fed from stations in Atlanta, Chicago, etc., so you will get the network shows, but not local news, weather, or syndicated shows. You will also not get independent local stations over the bird. (Note here that PTEN, UPN, and Warner Bros are not provided as yet, I guess as networks go, they are really stretching it. But Fox was the same way just a few years ago, so they may make it on the satellite one day as well.)
There is one other local service you will miss, which is the local spot on The Weather Channel. Those conditions, forecasts and local doppler radar images are inserted by the cable company at the head end. What you get in their place are regional snapshots of similar information which rotate to various areas of the US each time the local spot comes around. Most of the time you can figure out what is going to happen based on the national maps and these regional reports, but I kinda miss the local conditions every five minutes. If you are reading this, it is no big deal. You can get the information from the web if you look for it.
This reliance on the hated cable company (or the hell of fuzzy pictures) for the local feeds is the only drawback to DBS I can think of. In the interest of signal quality, I chose the minimum cable solution, but it gripes me. Be prepared to pay serious $ for the cable co. to downgrade your service. Mine charged me $37, though if you have them disconnect it entirely, it is free.
If you speak a language in addition to english, you may be in luck. The signal's digital format allows the concurrent broadcasting of a number of audio channels. Through experimentation, I found that many movies on HBO for instance, are broadcast in spanish as well as english. A button on the remote allows you to switch instantly to this second audio signal. So if you are bilingual, you can make your own 'international' movies by switching the audio when different actors speak. This is merely amusing if you are not bilingual, and have had a few cold barley sodas.
Parental controls are available to limit access to any group of channels. There are four individual profiles which can be modified to suit each family member, and appropriate passwords enabled. Spending limits for pay-per-view purchases can be programmed as well. Though I don't have children, I've found the profiles to be useful. I program them so that certain groups of channels are visible on the program guide when I choose that profile. It helps me find what I want to watch more quickly. I don't put passwords on these profiles, so they are available with one button push.
Ok, so what's it look like? Well, first of all, the signal is all digital, both video and audio. Everyone by now is familiar with CD quality digital audio, but only those of us who work with professional video gear, or who have laserdisk players have seen this good a picture. If you use the S-Video output of the DSS receiver, into a good S-Video monitor, the picture looks nearly as good as the one the guys in the back room at channel 10 are seeing on their broadcast monitors. This is as good as it gets for consumer video signals today. I have seen HDTV (High Definition TV), ATV (Advanced TV), and professional Digital video signals at various trade shows and in my work, and though not quite to these levels of quality, DSS is here right now, available at department and electronics stores. And it is nonetheless impressive.
The signal itself is MPEG-2 compressed, and the decompression is done in hardware. I have not seen any pixelation or other artifacts generally associated with video compression, even on scenes with large numbers of pixels changing (such as in the coverage of a NASCAR race, where the camera pans very fast). I found that it was necessary to tweak the contrast and brightness settings on my TV just a little in order to get the picture just right. I suppose this is due to the increased dynamic range (difference between the darkest and lightest areas) of the DSS video signal. Your mileage may vary.
Back to the audio. Every channel is in stereo, movies are incredible over the dish. Even if you have rented movies recorded in Hi-Fi surround, and been amazed at the depth and dynamic range of the audio as you play them through your home theater system, you will be floored by the first action flick you watch over the satellite. I purchased "Under Siege 2, Dark Territory" a day or so after I installed my system. I hit the 'mute' control several times just to verify that the helicopters were not in my front yard. It is that clear. This is what you really bought your Dolby Pro Surround home theater gear for. Installing a DBS system will justify or precipitate your purchase of S-VHS decks, S-Video large screen monitors, home theater receivers, subwoofers, and all that other gear you have not fully taxed / bought yet. Trust me.
As stated earlier, the system is controlled completely with on-screen menus. The remote control has several navigation keys which allow you to move the 'cursor' (actually a highlight) around to various on screen 'buttons' to select options and programming. Although a bit odd at first if you are not used to this type of thing (my girlfriend's mother had some trouble getting the hang of it, but she doesn't use computers), those of us who have ever navigated a CMOS setup or DOS program with arrow keys are right at home.
The Program Guide is live, interactive, and available with a single button. Navigate down the list of channels and pick the one you want to see. Program titles are shown in a block format. The guide displays a two hour block for 7 channels at a time, or 5 channels along with a description of the selected channel at the top. You can see the schedule a couple days into the future by just pushing the right arrow key until the desired time frame is displayed. Pushing the 'display' button will retreive a description of the highlighted program, similar to the short entries in "TV Guide." For UNIX types, you can also just enter the channel number to go directly there.
Since the receiver hooks to the telephone line, you can order PPV by just picking it from the guide. The receiver keeps track of your purchases, and every month, in the wee hours, it dials a toll-free number and registers those choices with the service provider.
Some of the new RCA models have incorporated 'Star Sight' technology for one-touch recording. You input a code for your VCR brand, and the system will control it. You don't even need to set the clock if you don't want to. You point to the program in the program guide, and press the 'record' button on the remote. The system turns on the VCR and starts it recording at the proper time, then stops it and shuts it off when the program is over. Pretty neat. The only thing to watch out for is that your VCR is off when the time comes. If it is on, the DSS receiver will turn it off, and it will never get the 'record' signal. This is because the DSS receiver sends the IR code for 'power' then 'record'. I don't know if Sony or other manufacturers have this feature.
Most local stores who sell the systems will also contract with you for the installation for a price. But like I said, this is easy. I have installed 'C' band dishes, and this is a walk in the park comparatively. The installation manual is well written and illustrated, and targeted at the home 'handyperson.' Technical descriptions are limited to only what is necessary. If you do not have tools for working with coaxial cable, and wish to make the whole experience more pleasant, you can get an installation kit for about $65 which includes precut coax cable with connectors installed, as well as various other hardware (including a 'Cracker Jack' type toy compass for aiming the dish). If you have the tools and some experience with this type work, you can get what you need from a local electronics store for significanly less money, though.
The most important thing to consider prior to installation of the dish itself is the "look angle," which is just a term for where the dish is pointing. Depending on where you live, the dish will be pointed differently. The satellites are located in geostationary orbit over the equator, and centered about the middle of the US. On the east coast, for example, you will point your dish southwest. How far north you live will determine the elevation angle. I suggest you do a little homework before planning your installation to find a spot for the dish which has a clear view to the satellites. In general, if you have a clear view of the southern sky, you are gonna be OK. You can go to 'The Satellite Locator' on DBSDish.com, and enter your Latitude and Longitude or zip code to get the approximate angles you will need to begin pointing the dish.
Using a compass, and a protractor or adjustable angle gauge on a combination square, (look, if you don't know what it is, you probably ain't got one anyway!), go out into the yard and find a place where you have a clear shot. Trees and buildings absorb the signal, so don't try to 'shoot' through them. Imagine you had a telescope and could actually see the satellites with it. If there is anything blocking the telescope, find another spot. I chose to mount my dish on a steel pipe sunk in concrete, but mounting instructions are given for several variants, including chimney mount, mounting to walls, porch railings, etc.
Here is my only safety lecture: Regardless of where you choose to mount the dish, please follow the instructions on grounding very carefully. It is easy to do this correctly if the instructions are followed, but dangerous to ignore. Anytime you are bringing an electrical conductor from outside your house to the inside, it is very important to follow proper grounding procedures to avoid electrocution and electrical fires. It does not take a direct lightning strike to induce thousands of volts in the outer shield conductor of the coax cable if it is floating above earth electrical ground. Don't try to save a few minutes or dollars and lose your house or a family member in the process. If the safety angle doesn't convince you, grounding the shield of the coax prevents it from picking up extraneous radio noise which could damage your receiver or at least screw up the tiny signal from the dish, causing poor reception.
The toughest part for me was the cable installation within the house, It took several hours for two people to get the cables pulled through the walls, mainly due to a lack of a proper 'fishtape', and the need for going through insulated walls as well as one closet space. If you wanted to, you could probably get an electrician to tackle just this part, though you should compare what he will charge with the cost of having a local satellite TV installer do the whole job. It will depend on your home layout and your dish location as to how much work you'll be faced with to get the signal from the dish to the receiver. Don't forget to provide for a telephone connection. I had to run a phone cable to a junction box in the attic, as there was no jack close to my TV. There are also remote devices available, which allow you to plug the receiver into a small unit which plugs into a power outlet, and a complementary unit which is plugged into a power outlet somewhere else in your home and also to a phone jack. It was just as easy for me to provide a permanent jack. I pulled the coax and the phone cable through the walls together, and used a clamp-on type wall box for each.
A few notes on coaxial 'F' connectors. Be sure to provide moisture protection on the outside connections. The installation manual tells you how to make a 'drip loop' to prevent water from running into the connectors. You should also get some 'cold shrink' tape or other watertight sealing tape and wrap the connectors well. This will prevent problems with corrosion later. Use a small wrench to snug the 'F' connectors. This will ensure a good signal ground. Be careful, though. these fine threads are easily stripped, so don't 'Gorilla Fist' the connectors. And if you choose to buy bulk cable and connectors and roll your own cables, buy or rent a proper crimp tool and coax stripper. It is easy to make a poor connection if you try to use regular pliers to crimp the connectors, and the coax stripper will pay for itself in the freedom from knife cuts on your fingers. These tools are fairly inexpensive, and available at the local Radio Shack(tm) or electronics house.
Aiming the dish is generally a two person job, only because one must watch the on-screen signal meter while the other one adjusts the dish. I know that the Sony dish has a small LED on the LNB (Low Noise Block converter, the electronics package which is on the boom in front of the dish reflector) to assist in aiming, but I am not familiar with how this works. By entering your zip code at the URL above, or in the appropriate setup screen on your system, you will get the approximate azimuth and elevation angles to start with. The dish is then 'peaked', or fine tuned a little at a time until the best possible signal strength is reached. Be careful to stay away from power lines while installing and aiming the dish! At this point, you will be able to view a few channels which are playing previews and other information about DirecTV and USSB, but you didn't buy this thing to watch advertisements. Tighten down the dish and call DirecTV and USSB!
Included with your dish and receiver are some brochures for the service providers, explaining the available programming packages for each, including toll-free, 24 / 7 numbers to call. The agent will need to know your name, address, and phone number, as well as the model and serial numbers from your receiver, and the code number from your access card. This card plugs into the receiver, and contains electronics to de-scramble the signals you contract for. Because this card has a unique code associated with it, it can be individually addressed by the service provider to enable the channels you select. As soon as you call the service, they turn on your access over the satellite, and within seconds, you can start enjoying your dish.
Lately, just about everywhere. I have seen basic systems for sale in Wal-Mart, Price Club, Circuit City, Sears, local stereo shops, and on the web (actually, mail order, with catalogs on the web). Two of the latter are Satellite Warehouse, and One Call. Both of these sell cheaper than anywhere I found locally, and I know people who have ordered from each of them with no problems at all. There are units available in various price ranges, depending on the types of features desired.
If you are interested in details of my installation of the RCA model 7430 unit with the agile output modulator, including a hookup diagram, I have described it here.
I am building a page of information specific to the second generation RCA receivers. If you own one of these, you may find an answer, tip, etc. there, or you may have an item to add...
I plan to add to the DBS Kiosk periodically. In addition, there is a huge amount of information available on the web. Besides the links I have provided throughout the text, check out the sites below for more details and data:
Disclaimer: I do not sell DBS equipment, nor do I work for a company that does (Though you could say I work for an organization which made the whole thing possible.) I am just passing along what I have learned from installing and using DBS. I hope it helps you.
Go to the RCA Second Generation page
Go to the DBS installation details page