Let's get this out of the way first: it's not a replacement for pay TV. No HBO, ESPN, or Showtime here. No HGTV. But there is a lot of content that you would find in a basic pay TV package, and free over the air (OTA) broadcast TV can be found. You can also find some unencrypted premium content as well, albeit most of that is international (non-English) programming.
In this multi-part series of posts, we'll walk you through what free satellite TV is and what is not, what content is available, what it will cost you, and how to set up a simple single satellite system for about $100-$200.
Lets start at the beginning: the 1970's, the dawn of satellite TV.
FTA Satellite TVIn 1976, Home Box Office made history by initiating satellite delivery to cable with the boxing match know as “The Thriller From Manila”. Also in 1976, Stanford University Professor H. Taylor Howard created his own satellite receiver in his garage. It was fed by a very large dish antenna, and used to receive content that providers offered to cable systems. Mr. Howard wrote a check for $100 to HBO to pay for movies he had watched, HBOy returned his check, saying that it dealt only with large cable companies.Thus began the DBS (Direct Broadcast Satellite) industry.
In the early 1980's, these "C-band" home satellite systems were expensive and required large dish antennas in excess of 8 feet in diameter, and cost in the neighborhood of $20,000+. However, soon the price had dropped to a more "reasonable" $3000. Consumers were lured in by access to free, unencrypted premium programming for a one-time investment, and the DBS industry boomed. Over 2 million systems were installed by the late 1980's.
But the free lunch was about to come to a screeching halt. As is the American way, a group of pay TV providers lobbied (bribed) congress to do something. In response, congress passed the 1984 Cable Act, allowing broadcasters to encrypt their signals. Sales of "Big, Ugly Dishes" (BUDs) plummeted, as more and more content was encrypted. For a time, several companies sold decoders that allowed dish owners to subscribe to programming for a monthly fee, but eventually the last of them went under. All that remained for dish owners was a dwindling number of unencrypted channels and a big ugly dish cemented in the ground in their back yard.
In the interim, a new generation of more powerful satellites was launched that required smaller dishes of about 30" in diameter. Much of the programming on these "Ku band" satellites is not scrambled, and can be received for free. And while the BUD dishes are huge and can be prohibited by localities and HOAs, the FCC's OTARD regulations allow you to put a dish under 1 meter diameter anywhere you can put an antenna or pay TV satellite dish. Although C-band still has a lot of unencrypted content, the cheapest and easiest way to get in to FTA ("FreeTo Air") satellite is with a smaller Ku band dish.
In the next post, we'll look at what content is available on Ku band FTA, and see if a FTA system is for you, and after that we'll get down to actually buying the equipment and setting up a system.
Other posts in this series:
FTA Satellite TV Part 2