How Satellite TV Works

Satellite TV Programming

Satellite TV providers get programming from two major sources: national turnaround channels (such as HBO, ESPN and CNN) and various local channels (the ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS affiliates in a particular area). Most of the turnaround channels also provide programming for cable TV, and the local channels typically broadcast their programming over the airwaves.

Turnaround channels usually have a distribution center that beams their programming to a geosynchronous satellite. The broadcast center uses large satellite dishes to pick up these analog and digital signals from several sources.

Most local stations don't transmit their programming to satellites, so the provider has to get it another way. If the provider includes local programming in a particular area, it will have a small local facility consisting of a few racks of communications equipment. The equipment receives local signals directly from the broadcaster through fiber-optic cable or an antenna and then transmits them to the central broadcast center.

The broadcast center converts all of this programming into a high-quality, uncompressed digital stream. At this point, the stream contains a vast quantity of data -- about 270 megabits per second (Mbps) for each channel. In order to transmit the signal from there, the broadcast center has to compress it. Otherwise, it would be too big for the satellite to handle. In the next section, we'll find out how the signal is compressed.