What Are Digital Satellite Systems?

Brendan McGuigan

Digital satellite systems are used to deliver data from a satellite down to a consumer. This term is used primarily to refer to systems either for television or for internet access. It may also be used to refer to satellite radio technology.

Satellite receivers are smaller than they once were, and continue to improve.
Satellite receivers are smaller than they once were, and continue to improve.

Digital satellite systems usually make use of a very small dish which can be installed anywhere on the consumer's property with a line-of-sight to an orbiting satellite. These dishes are rarely larger than three feet (0.9m), a drastic improvement from television satellite dishes of the 1980s and early 1990s, which could often exceed twenty feet (6.9m).

Most satellite companies now offer DVRs in their decoder boxes.
Most satellite companies now offer DVRs in their decoder boxes.

In the case of television signals, digital satellite systems may also be referred to as direct broadcast systems (DBS). Digital satellite systems have a number of advantages over traditional cable-television providers, particularly in the United States. In the US, cable companies are fairly tightly regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), limiting what they may and may not air and setting restrictions on pricing and competition. Digital satellite systems, by contrast, are largely unregulated, allowing them a much freer hand in deciding what content they will carry. Lack of regulation also allows these systems to offer extremely low prices which can out-compete cable companies.

Digital satellite systems for television encode their signal to restrict anybody from tapping into the signal. A decoder box is usually supplied with a contract of a certain duration or may be purchased for a nominal fee. Many digital satellite providers now bundle DVR systems with their decoder box, allowing for the recording of shows for later viewing.

Satellite systems also offer additional data about shows, a feature unavailable in traditional cable television. Viewers can scroll through a digital guide to see what shows are currently playing and a schedule of future shows, as well as some metadata about the shows. This metadata often includes a brief summary, running time, rating and stars of the show.

In the third-world, it is not uncommon for purchasers of satellite systems to act as gateway cable companies in areas where cable is not available. With a small broadcast setup and a handful of dishes, one for each channel carried, these entrepreneurs can broadcast channels from their satellite connection to a large number of subscribers. While this practice is illegal, it is nonetheless prevalent.

In the United States, the primary satellite systems providers are the Dish Network, Star and DirecTV. DirecTV also offers a satellite system for Internet access called DirecWay. While none of the digital satellite systems offered in the United States are truly on-demand, Great Britain's SKY provider offers on-demand and interactive material.

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Discussion Comments


Satellite dish systems outdo cable in one important respect—they can carry live international feeds. I have a friend from India who subscribes to an Indian news channel on his satellite dish. He loves it. I don’t think he can get that with cable, unless they deliver a feed from a satellite connection.


I have digital satellite equipment and I think it’s great. The only complaint I have is when it rains. The receiver loses its signal and tries to locate the satellite again. In the part of the country where we live that can be a real annoyance, as we do tend to get rain and storms quite often.

However, we’ve learned to cope. What we do is use our DVR to record our favorite shows and then watch them off the DVR when it’s raining. Of course, this only works if it’s not raining when it’s recording, otherwise all we end up recording is junk. Most of the time it turns out OK, however.

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