Satellite TV - Introduction

Satellite TV requires some form of "dish" antenna mounted outside to receive the signal, instead of a conventional TV aerial. The dish alignment is quite critical (unlike a TV aerial) and the dish requires an unobstructed "view" towards the satellite at a precise location in space.

Once the dish is available, a cable then connects it to a satellite receiver, which functionally can be considered as just another form of "digibox".

Freesat launched on the 6th May 2008, as an alternative satellite TV service to Sky, and offering a means of receiving a selection of programmes similar to Freeview via a satellite dish, particularly for those people without adequate Freeview reception.

Freesat includes high definition (HD) services right from the outset (unlike Freeview, where HD services are still at the planning stage). However, only a few programmes are transmitted in HD at present. Both standard definition and high definition receivers are available from several manufacturers.

Four options for satellite services are available. These are:

ServiceSatelliteLocationType of Service
FreesatAstra / Eurosat28.2°E / 28.5°EFree to air
SkyAstra / Eurosat28.2°E / 28.5°ESubscription
"Freesat from Sky"Astra / Eurosat28.2°E / 28.5°EOne off payment of £20
for Freesat viewing card
"Other: non-Sky"Many satellites45°E to 45°WFree to air & CAM

Just to complicate things, the different types of satellite TV service require different satellite receivers:

Freesat from Sky

The subtle differences between these satellite receivers are important - certain features are only available on a particular type of receiver.

Sky is familiar to many people already, and is almost synonymous with the term "satellite TV". Sky transmits many programmes from the Astra satellite cluster at 28.2°E. Some of these programmes are encrypted - to view them requires both a Sky receiver and a Sky viewing card, which in turn requires a Sky subscription.
Various subscription packages are available allowing the viewer to choose a programme selection that suits their requirements. The offer of a combined telephone / broadband and Sky TV package has also been popular. Sky's premium programme services are all encrypted and require a subscription to be able to watch them.

Sky encrypted programmes require a Sky receiver and viewing card because of the type of encryption used - Sky uses NDS Videoguard, with part of the decoding function built into the satellite receiver.
In principle, a conditional access module (CAM) could be used with a non-Sky satellite receiver, but this would still require a Sky subscription and a Sky viewing card (this is an option that Sky have resisted over the years).

The Freesat from Sky viewing card enables a few addition programmes e.g. Channel 4+1, Five, Five US and FIVER (all of which are available on Freeview) to be watched on a Sky receiver. The Freesat from Sky viewing card costs £20 (a one-off fee), and enables these (currently encrypted) programmes to be watched.
In due course (as their Sky contracts finish), some of these programmes are likely to become unencrypted and hence available without a viewing card (or on a Freesat or non-Sky receiver)

Non-encrypted programmes can be viewed on a Sky receiver, a Freesat receiver or a non-Sky satellite receiver (i.e any satellite receiver). These include many of the same programmes as found on Freeview, but not all.

Freesat is Satellite TV but without a subscription, and is particularly relevant for viewers where Freeview reception is difficult.
The particular distinction with Freesat is with the electronic programme guide (EPG). Sky's EPG is only available on a Sky receiver, and a non-Sky receiver cannot access the programme listing (since the Sky EPG is proprietary).

The Freesat service includes a completely independent EPG, available on the new Freesat receivers. This EPG is similar to Sky's but is completely separate - the only problem being that its format cannot be translated by a non-Sky, non-Freesat receiver.

The EPG provides a useful list of programmes on all the different channels, but it becomes essential when wanting to record satellite TV programmes. The Sky+ receiver incorporates a dual receiver to allow one programme to be watched whilst recording a different one.
At present, the early Freesat receivers launched don't include a PVR model which would give them a similar functionality to a Sky+ receiver. These (Humax FOXSAT-HDR) eventually appeared on the market at the end of November 2008.

A Freesat box will require connecting to a satellite dish. An existing Sky dish is perfectly suitable for this, but where no dish is available, one will need to be installed. Freesat boxes from high street shops are typically priced for the box alone - installation packages are available at extra cost, and limitations apply on these regarding the complexity of the installation.
N.B. The responsibility for checking planning consent requirements for installing a satellite dish rests with the house owner.

High Definition (HD) TV programmes are already available on Sky, and a few will also be available on Freesat. More HD programmes will become available in due course.
High definition requires the following items:

A high definition (HD) satellite receiver
An "HD Ready" television / monitor
An HDMI cable

HDMI (high definition multimedia interface) cables are necessary for HD viewing - a SCART cable will provide only "standard definition" viewing, even if an HD receiver and HD ready TV set are being used to watch a programme transmitted in high definition.

The wide range of factors to consider for satellite TV (subscription / free to air, high definition / standard definition, single receiver / PVR, SCART cable / HDMI cable) make satellite TV a little daunting at first sight. With a little practise and familiarity the equipment is actually quite easy to use.

Many other non-Sky TV services are available from many different satellites (see the page on Technology), although the target audience for most of these services may be in other parts of Europe rather than the UK, and hence many aren't in English. Satellite receivers for these services are provided with ports to take a conditional access module (CAM) which in turn will accept an appropriate subscription viewing card for encrypted channels. Different CAMs may be required, depending on which service is required.

Watching programmes from different satellites requires the dish antenna to be moved in principle, to point at the required satellite. Motorised dishes are available, and many non-Sky satellite receivers have the capability to drive the dish to the required satellite automatically (after initial setup).
An alternative arrangement is to have multiple LNBs mounted on a fixed dish, with the LNBs positioned so that each one can "see" a specific satellite. This works particularly well when just one other satellite is required. Switches are available which can also be controlled automatically by the satellite receiver to select the correct LNB, so that the switching process is effectively hidden from the viewer.
Using one dish to receive multiple satellites usually requires a larger satellite dish. The standard "mini-dish" used for Sky is small since the satellite signal is directed over the UK only, rather than across the whole of Europe.