Featuring the Ultimate DBS Comparison Chart!
Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) is a service whereby you receive subscription television from a single high-powered satellite (sometimes referred to as a "bird"). It is therefore very similar to cable in that you receive all of your programming from a single provider, but the signal comes from the sky rather than through a privately owned cable system.
DBS should not be confused with C-band satellite dishes, which are much larger (and are therefore often referred to as "Big Ugly Dishes" or BUDs) and must rotate to receive signals from several different satellites, many requiring separate subscriptions to decode the various signals, except for the decreasing number of transmissions that are made "in the clear" (unscrambled). DBS dishes are small and stationary, and generally require payment to only one provider. (For information on one major single-payment C-band provider, check out 4DTV.)
The following descriptions are intended to be objective evaluations of the current providers of Direct Broadcast Satellite services. If any of the information presented is blatantly wrong, by all means email me and I will correct it. However, be aware that we are DISH Network customers, and we wouldn't be if we didn't believe they were the best service available. So if you think you detect a hint of bias slipping through, you may be right. :-)
Exclusively on DirecTV:
DirecTV is currently the market leader among DBS services. With their recent acquisition of US Satellite Broadcasting (which provides HBO and Showtime), DirecTV is now the primary point of contact for programming on the hardware formerly known as DSS (Digital Satellite System). These receivers are manufactured by a number of different companies (i.e. Hughes, RCA, Sony, etc.), each with their own features and specifications, so it pays to shop around. Pricing for hardware as well as installation can vary widely.
DirecTV's pricing plans include several tierssome geared toward sports fans, others toward movie lovers. The true sports fanatic will be thrilled to see that DirecTV offers all premium full-season packages offered by the professional sports leagues, including an exclusive on NFL's Sunday Ticket. The more basic packages offer some unique Canadian programming. All subscribers can choose from about fifty pay-per-view options, and DirecTV now offers the primary local network affiliates in about thirty major markets.
Of all the DBS options available, only DirecTV subscribers can currently achieve Internet access through the DirecPC and DirecDuo services, which require a larger dish, a Hughes brand receiver, the computer interface card and special software that runs only on Windows 95. Feedback from users, however, has not been particularly positive due to troublesome setups and download restrictions. A special dish and receiver are also necessary to receive the "Para Todos" programming for Spanish speakers, as well as the local channels in some of the smaller markets.
DirecTV is the perfect choice for the sports fan who simply must have the most available choices. They also carry a good selection of customizable, competitive programming packages, and the widest selection of pay-per-view movies at the lowest cost. There are quite a few niche areas, however, where another service may hold greater appeal.
What's new: In April of 1999, Hughes made a deal to purchase the Primestar home satellite business in full, pushing their total number of subscribers over the seven million mark. As part of the deal, DirecTV received the assets from a failed DBS venture by Tempo, a subsidiary of TCI (who was a major owner of Primestar). This includes two new satellites and fourteen transponder frequencies between two new orbital locations. DirecTV is now utilizing this new bandwidth for local channels and Spanish programming, and has produced an elliptical dish antenna capable of receiving the transmissions from both satellite locations simultaneously. This new bandwidth will also be used for HDTV transmisions. Existing DirecTV receivers cannot support two orbital locations concurrently, so new "DirecTV Plus" systems have been developed for subscribers to take advantage of these new resources.
Exclusively on Echostar:
DISH Network (DIgital Sky Highway) is to satellite TV what Saturn is to automobiles: The service is highly practical, the packages are the most inexpensive yet comprehensive and customizable, and the company truly strives to develop a relationship with its subscribers, as evidenced by their #1 Customer Satisfaction Rating according to J.D. Power and Associates. Introduced in 1996, Echostar was a latecomer to the DBS market, but with four satellites currently in orbit, they have more existing capacity than any other provider, offering nearly 500 total channels from three orbital locations.
DISH was the first satellite provider to provide local channels to selected regions via a second dish antenna. Most of these locals can now be obtained with a single dual-focus dish. (New York and L.A. are still available on the primary dish in those markets or for viewers in "white" areas who have no local affiliates.) The optional second dish can provide subscribers with international programming in over ten languages, specialty religious or educational programming, HDTV and data services via AgCast and Signal. And even with only the primary dish, Trekkers can get the full complement of Star Trek programming via the Superstation package. Unfortunately for sports fans (but not for their wives), DISH does not currently offer any of the major league full-season sports subscriptions except MLS Soccer, but does provide ESPN's College Football "Game Day" on an annual or daily basis, as well as the "Full Court" college basketball package.
Despite the fact that the receiver specifications are developed exclusively by Echostar, the units offer a wide range of options and are priced competive with similar DSS units. Some of the higher-grade receivers offer features such as radio-frequency remotes, timed remote control of VCRs, HDTV output, seamless integration with off-air signals and local listings in the channel guide, digital pausing or recording of live programs, and even an integrated DVD player. All receivers are feature-upgradeable via satellite, and the newest receivers conform to a new industry standard dubbed OpenTV which allows third parties to create interactive applications. Equipment is available directly from Echostar (via phone or the Web) or through local distributors. Like most direct-to-home satellite services, programming sign-up and/or changes are implemented immediately via a 24-hour 800 number. Technical support for installation or hardware issues is also available.
DISH Network maintains a highly interactive website with extensive product information, program guides, and customer feedback opportunities. DISH also broadcasts an informal monthly program, personably dubbed "Charlie Chat," where CEO Charlie Ergen discusses new programming and fields questions from customers via phone and email. While Ergen often stumbles through his responses and looks uncomfortable on camera, it is his genuineness that makes the segment so appealing and typifies DISH Network's relationship with its customers.
What's new: In a huge deal involving a swap of stock shares, Echostar recently acquired the assets from a failed DBS venture by MCI and NewsCorp. This included two new satellites as well as a new orbital location. DISH Network's new dual-focus dish antenna, dubbed the "DISH 500," is capable of receiving up to 500 channels simultaneously from two adjacent orbital locations. (Note that many of these are local affiliates that are not legally available to every subscriber.) Local channels from the largest markets will be available through the single dish, as well as an expanded 150-channel programming tier and the DISH Latino Spanish language package. All of these new features will be supported by the existing product line of receivers. HDTV programming and local channels from smaller markets will most likely become available at the peripheral orbital locations, which will still require a second dish antenna.
Unfortunately, Primestar's fate is sealed. Hughes Electronics (the parent company of DirecTV) acquired Primestar in April of 1999 with the intent of phasing out the service over the next two years. New subscriptions are no longer being accepted, and the service is expected to cease transmission in November 2000. Existing Primestar customers will be converted to DirecTV at no charge. Also, Echostar has offered discounted pricing and free installation to existing Primestar customers.
Though not covered on this page, other companies offer DTH satellite services to areas outside the continental U.S. SkyVista offers service to all of the U.S. but specializes in Alaska, Hawaii and Caribbean territories. StarChoice and ExpressVu offer service to Canada. DirecTV Americas serves Latin America.
Click here for an objective comparison of each service's channel offerings. This chart is also available as an Excel file, or an Acrobat document. Please email me if any data seems incorrect.
The equipment you must purchase will, of course, vary upon your particular needs and desires. These factors can be broken down into five categories:
Number of televisions
Your dish antenna will have a device called a Low-Noise Blockdown Feedhorn (LNBF or LNB) at the end of the arm that extends out from the base of the dish. The collected signals are focused here. A DISH 500 will have two such LNBs, precisely offset to collect signal from two separate orbital locations. The individual LNBs will be of the single or a dual variety. The dual type has two cable connections, enabling it to send different voltage signals concurrently for decoding different channels on different TVs (via multiple receivers). The bottom line is this: If you ever intend to have two or more televisions simultaneously tuned in to different programs, you must have the dual LNBs, plus the appropriate switches to connect the leads together. Some DISH 500s may include the Twin LNB, which is two dual LNBs and a switch in a single housing, or the Quad LNB which includes outputs for four receivers. Once you've established your requirements, you can use the matrix below to determine your hardware needs:
Number of satellite locations
3 dual LNBs
2 dual LNBs
3 dual LNBs
1 dual LNB
2 dual LNBs
3 dual LNBs
Be sure to look at the installation
diagrams for notes on connecting these items together.
Note: Multiple televisions that will not
be viewed concurrently, or that will always be tuned to
the same channel, do not require multiple receivers. Only
a standard splitter
would be necessary to divide the output from a single
2700System w/DISH 500 (2710), $99;
Like all Echostar receivers, the 2700 includes the interactive program guide, closed-caption support, Spanish language support, parental lockout of certain channels or specific program content, pay-per-view, remote control, stereo RCA A/V outputs, a monoural RF (coax) output, and an RF input to pass-thru the signal from an over-the-air (OTA) antenna. The 2700 also includes "favorites" channel lists and "themes" for grouped program selection. The receiver features an S-video port and a three-button front panel. The "system" package (model 2710) includes a DISH 500 antenna with single-LNBs.
3800System w/DISH 500 (3822), $249;
The model 3800 receiver includes all the features of the 2700. The "system" package (3822) includes a DISH 500 with dual-LNBs for multiple receiver hookups. Subscribers to the "Top 100" or "Top 150" programming packages will have title and artist information displayed on the music channels. The remote is universal, supporting up to four devices. The "favorites" lists are more customizable, including an option to remove any unsubscribed channels from the program guide. According to Echostar, this receiver will receive an upgrade to the OpenTV operating system by the year's end.
4900System w/DISH 500 (4922), $299;
The model 4900 receiver features a UHF remote, allowing you to change channels from anywhere in your home. This is ideal if you are using a single receiver to control several televisions placed far apart. You can set one-time, daily, or weekly timers to automatically tune in upcoming programs in the guide. And the "IR Blaster" will start and stop your VCR by broadcasting a compatible infrared signal. The 4900 sports integrated Dolby Digital AC-3 optical outputs and two sets of composite (RCA) outs. This is the only model currently using the OpenTV interface, which includes your local weather forecast.
5400System w/DISH 500 (5422), $399;
The 5400 receiver is the first satellite decoder to include an integrated DVD player! The player includes standard features such as on-screen menu and status, four forward and reverse speeds, title and chapter navigation, subtitles, alternate audio and viewing angles, and the ability to play audio CDs. The receiver includes the same component features as the 4900, though it is not known at this time if the 5400 will receive an OpenTV upgrade.
6000System w/DISH 500 (6022), $549;
The model 6000 receiver fully supports HDTV transmissions out of the box, with two sets of high-definition outputscomponent (Y, Pr, Pb) and SVGA (RGB)as well as S-video and two sets of composite (RCA) outputs for standard definition. The 720p and 1080i formats are supported, and are down-converted to 480i on the standard outputs. 5 viewing modes are supported to resize a standard 4x3 picture onto a 16x9 screen. An add-on 8VSB tuner cartridge ($100) allows for terrestrial reception of both HDTV and SDTV, and will seamlessly integrate OTA antenna signals into the channel listings and program guide. (Other receivers require you to bypass the receiver signal and use your TV or VCR tuner to view local broadcasts.) All other features of the 4900 (except OpenTV and standard RF output) are included.
7200System w/DISH 500 (7222), $399;
A very different sort of beast is the DISHplayer 7200the first DBS receiver to integrate WebTV technology! This unit allows digital recording to an internal hard disk drive, allowing you to pause a show in progress and resume watching up to a half-hour later. The WebTV channel guide allows searching by program title, actors, or even keywords, and fully supports VCR timers. The integrated web browser can operate full-screen or in a PIP-style window. The DISHplayer features A/V and microphone inputs, dual A/V (RCA) outs, Dolby Digital output, S-video, parallel port, and optional keyboard. Only a standard infrared remote is included. None of the above services require a subscription. However, with Personal TV Service for $10/month you get interactive tapeless recording, instant news, and games. With a WebTV Plus account for $25/month, you can surf the WWW full-screen or in a PIP, receive email, chat, and participate in Interactive Television.
MODEL DSR100System, $799; Standalone,
The DSR100, which is only made by JVC, includes an integrated digital (D-VHS) recording deck. The 8-head recorder uses Dolby AC-3, and is backward compatible with analog tapes. This model also offers seamless integration of your OTA antenna signal into your receiver's channel listings and program guide. The DSR100 will also integrate an additional A/V source via RCA inputs. And if you have the service on your phone line, the unit will display Caller ID information on your screen. The receiver features an eight-button front panel and a data port for expansion.
* A 75' RG-6 cable with
"F" coax connectors
* A 25' RG-6 cable with "F" coax connectors
* Silicone sealant
* A dual grounding block
* A 15' grounding wire
* 2"x5/16" lag screws (6)
* Plastic compression anchors (4)
* A compass
Of course, all of these things can be obtained at your local hardware store. And since most people will have some unique cabling needs, it's a good idea to have a spool of RG-6 cable, a box of coax terminals, and a crimp tool. A spool of fish tape may also be helpful for pulling cable through walls.
All of the receivers can be purchased directly from Echostar on their website, or by calling 1-800-333-DISH. The JVC models can be purchased at Sears, and the Philips/Magnavox models can be found at Meijer or Sam's Club stores. There are tons of Internet sites that specialize in DISH equipment. Or you can find a local retailer by simply entering your zipcode here:
The hardware and connectors you may need can be found at your local home improvement center or electronics store, but for more advanced electronics you'll need a specialty distributor like Stark or Radio Shack.
Before calling to activate programming, your dish must be pointed and locked onto the satellite. Begin by installing your dish in an area with a clear line of sight to the southwest; or, if you're west of the Rockies, to the south. Then follow the instructions in your receiver manual to display the "Signal Strength" meter on your screen.
You will be prompted to enter your zipcode, which will give you the proper azimuth and elevation for precise positioning of your dish. The elevation can be set using the guide on the dish's support bracket; the azimuth will require a compass. If you have the dual-focus "DISH 500" antenna, you will also receive a "skew" setting which refers to the rotation of the dish to horizontally align the two LNBs. Experiment with minute adjustments to the position until you are sure you have the maximum possible signal level. (Usually, one person will adjust the dish while another watches the meter and communicates via walkie-talkie or cordless phone.) An ideal level is in the 85% range or higher, though a 70% signal will usually be sufficient except in the most severe weather conditions.
Once your dish is locked in place and you are receiving a broadcast on channel 100, review the Channel Comparison Guide to decide what programming you wish to purchase, then simply call 1-800-333-DISH (3474). They also have knowledgeable technicians to assist you with installation questions or problems.
Any questions not covered here might be found on the alt.dbs.echostar FAQ or the DBS Dish FAQ, or try the Echostar Knowledge Base.
How can I maneuver through the program guide more quickly?
There are a few undocumented techniques. If your remote does not include "page up/down" buttons, the VCR buttons on the remote for rewind and fast-forward can also be used to page up and down through the guide. You can also enter any channel number and press "Select" to scroll to that channel. And if you wish to move a specific number of hours into the future, enter the number and press the "Browse" button.
How about a printed program guide?
You can purchase DISH Entertainment Magazine along with your programming subscription for an extra $3.95/month.
I hear that I must connect a phone line to my receivers. Why?
This is necessary to order pay-per-view broadcasts. Since the communication with the satellite is only one-way, the receiver must dial Echostar (using a toll-free number) to report your purchases so that they may bill you for them. If you fail to connect a working telephone line, you will be limited to only a few pay-per-view purchases until a line is connected and the receiver sends the purchase report.
Why am I not getting stereo sound?
For some reason known but to the Lord and electrical engineers, all DBS receivers have monoural RF (coax) outputs. Therefore, be sure to use the RCA audio outs instead to connect to your stereo television, VCR, or external amplifier.
Can I control my receiver with a third-party universal remote?
Possibly. The One For All and Recoton Sole Control universal remotes include codes for Echostar receivers. Allegro remotes do not. Some RCA remotes work with varying degrees of success. In any case, however, your receiver must support a standard infrared signal. If you own a discontinued model 4000 or an older 5000 receiver, it will only accept signals from UHF remotes. However, if you're gifted with a soldering iron and don't mind tossing your warranty out the window, you can modify your receiver to additionally support IR remotes with about $5 worth of parts from Radio Shack. DO THIS AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Can I receive network affiliates from outside of my local area?
Probably not. Federal law and FCC regulations are aimed at protecting the interests of your own local network affiliates. Therefore, in order to receive feeds of NBC, CBS, ABC or FOX that originate from outside your designated market area (DMA), you must reside outside of the mysterious zone known as the "Grade B contour." The FCC is still trying to determine exactly what this entails, but essentially, if you can receive a watchable signal with a standard rooftop antenna, you are not permitted to receive distant signals. Satellite providers now use a stringent address database to determine eligibility. To find out what you qualify for, enter your address here. If you feel that you are unfairly denied, you must obtain a waiver from your nearest affiliates.
If I purchase America's Top 100 or Top 150, which one of the Regional Sports Networks will I receive?
I heard that I can receive every single one of the Regional Sports Networks for just $5/month. That's incredible!
No, not really. Sure, you can get the channels, but nearly all of the major league sports programming is subject to blackout for viewers outside of the teams' designated "home" regions. To find out which teams in the NBA, NHL and MLB claim you in their home area, click here. Aside from these teams, the only other real benefits of the package are regional sports news and non-league events (i.e., racing, golf, tennis, etc.) which may not necessarily have been carried on your primary RSN. For the complete scoop on the regional blackout rules, click here.
I currently subscribe to another DBS service. Will my existing equipment work with DISH Network?
If you own a DSS (DirecTV) dish, your existing dish and cabling should work fine, but you must purchase Echostar-compatible receivers and, of course, re-aim the dish. Primestar equipment, however, would not be compatible (except perhaps the cabling).
Can I get a dish for my RV?
Yes, DBS dishes are available that can be easily repositioned with the aid of a crank. They can generally be purchased for less than $200 (the motorized models are much higher). Click here for more info. Other solutions and accessories for mobile viewers can be found at RV Satellite Systems.
Can I get a dish for my boat?
Since boats are constantly in motion, the situation here gets much stickier. But if money is no object, a product called TracVision is available that will maintain its lock onto the satellite even in stormy conditions. Expect to pay upwards of $5000. A more affordable option is SkyWatch. This $750 system only tracks the heading (not the elevation), but is fully adequate for boats at berth.
If you read this far, you must be hungry for more information! I highly recommend checking out the DBSforums website or the Echostar User's Organization.
This site is mirrored at the EUO and Quantum Connections, and can be easily found at http://welcome.to/dish.
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Geoff Trowbridge, 4/98 (updated 7/21/2000)
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