Cable & Satellite TV

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Types of Cable & Satellite TV

Satellite TV requires its subscribers to have a satellite dish installed in their home. It has seen a few different general broadcasting systems over the years, but today, most run on a direct broadcast system (DBS) using Pay-TV services. Television receive-only (TVRO) options are only available to satellite providers who do not offer channels that require an additional cost. This, combined with the technology's large, bulky hardware requirements, has made it all but extinct in the U.S. Still, Eastern countries continue to use it, as cable providers are not as openly available there.

  • Direct broadcast via satellite (DBS): DBS use satellites to transmit Pay-TV services. To restrict the paid-for channels to those who purchased them, the data stream is encrypted and requires reception equipment. Those who use Pay-TV often need a conditional access module or smart card to pick up their channels. However, the DBS systems also streams open-access channels to all viewers who pick up the satellite's transmission.
  • Television receive-only (TVRO): TVRO is an open broadcast system that is typically transmitted unencrypted. These free-to-air systems require large receiving dishes, making them unappealing to many homeowners.

Cable TV uses a system of radio frequency signals to broadcast channels to its subscribers. Similar to radio broadcasting and traditional antenna television viewing, the cable box system needs less additional hardware installation than satellite TV does. Because cable providers use a radio signal to broadcast their channels, many companies sell channels in sets, rather than charging for them individually.

Important Cable & Satellite TV Features

  • Reception quality varies between cable and satellite channels. Cable offers both analog and digital channels, and while digital channels offer clear images and reception, analog signals are less strong and generally have poorer quality. Satellite channels, on the other hand, are all completely digital. However, satellite reception is more dependent upon the weather than cable is, making it unpredictable at times.
  • Pricing varies from vendor to vendor. For cable vendors, the pricing always includes local franchise fees and local broadcasting fees. For satellite vendors, subscribers often have to pay for their equipment unless they commit to a 12-month deal. On a per-channel basis, satellite tends to offer more competitive prices -- typically below $30 for 50+ channels.
  • Programming varies from area to area. Cable has an advantage over satellite in that it offers more local channels in every city and a higher volume of pay-per-view movies. Overall, cable can support 300+ channels of programming. Satellite can support over 250 channels, but often does not offer the local channel coverage that cable programs do. Both cable and satellite have digital-quality programming, and both offer HDTV.
  • Interactive controls are more important to some consumers than to others. Overall, satellite offers more interactive options, including electronic program guides, pay per view, video on demand and DVR. Cable offers just the guide, video on demand and subscription services on demand.

Cable & Satellite TV To-Do List

  1. Check your local availability. In some regions, cable and/or satellite reception may not be available. Oftentimes when you buy or rent a home, the real estate agent can provide you with a list of options, including the most common in your area. Consider weather conditions, cable access and your home's altitude before making a decision.
  2. Decide which channels are important to you. If local news is something you crave, then cable TV may be a better choice. For more movie channel and DVR options, satellite is the way to go. Either way, check with your providers before making a decision. Both cable and satellite TV providers are constantly changing their channel and feature options.
  3. Be sure of the quality before you sign a long-term contract. Or be sure you have a trial period. Oftentimes you won't know the quality of your TV service until you have it in your home. Depending on your location, the quality of the provider's channels and several other factors, the end product may not be what you had hoped. In these cases, it is beneficial to have the trial period cushion, where you can choose to opt out of your contract if you are not satisfied. If this kind of trial period is not available, then hold off on the long-term contract. While the cost savings may be appealing -- many satellite providers offer discounts for a 12-month contract -- nothing is more disappointing than being stuck with something you don't like.
Last Updated: January 20, 2012
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About Emelie Battaglia Emelie Battagila is a contributing writer for

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