Buying Satellite




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 charges?


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.




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



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