SATELLITE FOR BEGINNERS...
Okay, I've held out long enough, explain to me what this
satellite TV business is all about!
The long and the short of it is that you
can get another twenty or so channels on your TV, more if you count foreign
language stations, simply by connecting it up to a receiver box and a dish.
But how does it work, and why do I need a dish? Why can't I
use my present TV aerial?
Some people still think there are dozens
of TV stations buzzing about in space, in fact all the satellites do is bounce
a signal sent up from transmitters on earth, back down again to us on the
ground. Even after the enormous costs of getting a satellite into space it is
still a good deal cheaper than building and running hundreds or even thousands
of land-based transmitters, which you would need to get the same kind of pan-European coverage. Satellite TV signals
are broadcast on a much higher frequency band than terrestrial TV, so even if
you pointed your TV aerial at the satellite it wouldn't work. The main reason
you need a dish, though, is because the
satellite is parked up in what's known as a geostationary orbit, 36,000km above
the equator. That means it's travelling in the same direction as the earth, so
to us on the ground it appears to stay at a fixed point in the sky. By the time
those signals reach the earth they're extremely weak; the dish works like a
concave mirror, concentrating them so they can be picked up and amplified by
the little box of tricks you see stuck out in front of dishes
Will putting up a dish involve a lot of work, and could it
affect the price of my property?
It varies but most dish installers should
be in and out of your home in few hours, a morning or afternoon at most. The
reputable ones will even clean up after themselves. A properly installed dish
should have no impact on the price of your property whatsoever, it may even be
possible to mount it completely out of sight, or use one of the disguised
types, in which case it could be a selling point.
Why do I need a separate tuner, can't I just plug the dish
into my TV?
In fact there are a few TVs with
satellite TV receivers built-in but it simply wouldn't work on a normal telly.
The receiver box does a number of things; first it supplies power to the dish
electronics; second, it's a tuner, sorting out the dozens of different signals
coming in from the dish; and thirdly, most receivers contain a decoder, to
unscramble encrypted channels.
How does the receiver connect up to my TV, after all it's
only got one aerial socket?
Satellite receivers are like video
recorders and they can be 'daisy-chained' into the TV's aerial lead, you just
need to tune it in to a spare channel. Alternatively, you could plug it into
your set's 'AV' socket, most TV built within the last ten years have one. That
will give you slightly better picture quality, and stereo sound, if you have a
stereo TV. If you have a video recorder you can tune that into the sat receiver
as well, so you can record satellite programmes.
But how much will all this cost, and what about subscription
A reasonably competent satellite system,
that is a dish and IRD or integrated receiver-decoder for the Astra channels
will cost you around £200; installation typically costs another £30 to £80,
depending on the amount of work involved. After that it's up to you how many,
or few, channels you subscribe to. A handful are still unscrambled, but if you
want the basic BSYB 'Multi-Channel' package that will cost you £6.99 a month,
rising to £20 a month for all of the sports and movie channels as well. You can
also subscribe to other services, including adult, Asian and Japanese channels.
What's to stop me watching them for free, I've seen adverts
for pirate decoders in magazines?
Those decoders are for scrambled channels
on other satellites. The encryption system used on most of the Astra channels is virtually uncrackable. It relies on
a viewing card, which slots into the receiver. The card contains a microchip
that controls the decoder, and BSKYB can switch it on and off by sending
control signals over the satellite link. Even
if someone comes up with a way of copying cards BSKYB can disable them
all, or simply issue new cards to all of their subscribers.
Can I pick up more than one satellite from a dish?
A fixed dish, by definition, is aimed at
one satellite, or in the case of Astra, three, which are all in the same
orbital position. However, you can trick most Astra dishes into picking up
signals from adjacent satellites using a gizmo which bolts on to the dish, and
running a second cable to your receiver. Alternatively you could get a proper
multi-satellite system, which involves using a larger dish on a motorised
mount, to track it across the sky. This could give you access to dozens of
extra channels, news feeds and unscheduled transmissions, it can be quite
exciting. Obviously such a set up is more expensive, and you will need a
suitable spot for the larger dish, but if you shop around you could get a
system together for around £500, plus installation.
What about cable TV, is it a viable alternative to having
your own dish?
Yes, if it's available, but much of the
country -- especially rural areas -- remain uncabled, and may stay that way for
a very long time. If you can have cable TV where you live check it out, you may
find your cable operator has a lot of extra channels on offer, some not
available on satellite, including local stations, and channels for ethnic
communities. Some cable companies are also operating their own telephone
services, and it could work out cheaper than a regular BT line. Subscription
charges are broadly the same as satellite.
BOX COPY -- SYSTEMS
It's usually a lot cheaper and much more
convenient to buy a pre-packaged satellite system, though all of the components
are available separately, if you're in to mixing and matching. It really does
pay to shop around, though, and keep an eye out for special offers in your
local papers. Currently the cheapest Astra systems, with IRD and 60cm dish,
sell for less than £180, though the majority of budget packages start at £200
or so, excluding installation of course. Watch out for systems that appear too
cheap to be true; they could be HP reclaims and include older types of
receiver, without a built-in decoder or stereo sound system.
Advanced multi-satellite receivers cost
from £300 upwards, the sky's the limit in fact, and at least one model sells
for over £1,000, and it hasn't even got a BSKYB decoder! Quite a few TVs these
days are available with built-in satellite receivers as an optional extra, the
cheapest ones cost less than £400, but you could pay over £4,000 for a luxury
top-end big-screen model.
© R.Maybury 1993 1611