How Satellite TV Works

By: Karim Nice & Tom Harris
satellite tv
Satellite TV requires a satellite dish. Rapeepong Puttakumwong / Getty Images

When satellite television first hit the market in the early 1990s, home dishes were expensive metal units that took up a huge chunk of yard space. In these early years, only the most die-hard TV fans would go through all the hassle and expense of putting in their own dish. Satellite TV was a lot harder to get than broadcast and cable TV.

Today, you see compact satellite dishes perched on rooftops all over the United States. Drive through rural areas beyond the reach of the cable companies, and you'll find dishes on just about every house. The major satellite TV companies are luring in more consumers every day with movies, sporting events and news from around the world and the promise of movie-quality picture and sound.


Satellite TV offers many solutions to broadcast and cable TV problems. Though satellite TV technology is still evolving, it has already become a popular choice for many TV viewers.

In this article, we'll find out how satellite TV works, from TV station to TV set. We'll also learn about the changing landscape of TV viewing and some basic differences that distinguish satellite TV from cable and over-the-air broadcast TV.

Problems with Broadcast TV

Satellites are higher in the sky than TV antennas, so they have a much larger line of sight range.

Conceptually, satellite TV is a lot like broadcast TV. It's a wireless system for delivering television programming directly to a viewer's house. Both broadcast television and satellite stations transmit programming via a radio signal (see How Radio Works for information about radio broadcasting).

Broadcast stations use a powerful antenna to transmit radio waves to the surrounding area. Viewers can pick up the signal with a much smaller antenna. The main limitation of broadcast TV is range. The radio signals used to broadcast television shoot out from the broadcast antenna in a straight line. In order to receive these signals, you have to be in the direct line of sight of the antenna. Small obstacles like trees or small buildings aren't a problem; but a big obstacle, such as the Earth, will reflect these radio waves.


If the Earth were perfectly flat, you could pick up broadcast TV thousands of miles from the source. But because the planet is curved, it eventually breaks the signal's line of sight. The other problem with broadcast TV is that the signal is often distorted, even in the viewing area. To get a perfectly clear signal like you find on cable, you have to be pretty close to the broadcast antenna without too many obstacles in the way.

The Satellite TV Solution

Satellite TV solves the problems of range and distortion by transmitting broadcast signals from satellites orbiting the Earth. Since satellites are high in the sky, there are a lot more customers in the line of sight. Satellite TV systems transmit and receive radio signals using specialized antennas called satellite dishes.

Satellite TV System

Early satellite TV viewers were explorers of sorts. They used their expensive dishes to discover unique programming that wasn't necessarily intended for mass audiences. The dish and receiving equipment gave viewers the tools to pick up foreign stations, live feeds between different broadcast stations, NASA activities and a lot of other stuff transmitted using satellites.

Some satellite owners still seek out this sort of programming on their own, but today, most satellite TV customers get their programming through a direct broadcast satellite (DBS) provider, such as DirecTV or DISH Network. The provider selects programs and broadcasts them to subscribers as a set package. Basically, the provider's goal is to bring dozens or even hundreds of channels to your TV in a form that approximates the competition, cable TV.


Unlike earlier programming, the provider's broadcast is completely digital, which means it has much better picture and sound quality (see How Digital Television Works for details). Early satellite television was broadcast in C-band radio -- radio in the 3.7-gigahertz (GHz) to 6.4-GHz frequency range. Digital broadcast satellite transmits programming in the Ku frequency range (11.7 GHz to 14.5 GHz ).

The Components

There are five major components involved in a direct to home (DTH) or direct broadcasting (DBS) satellite system: the programming source, the broadcast center, the satellite, the satellite dish and the receiver.

  • Programming sources are simply the channels that provide programming for broadcast. The provider doesn't create original programming itself; it pays other companies (HBO, for example, or ESPN) for the right to broadcast their content via satellite. In this way, the provider is kind of like a broker between you and the actual programming sources. (Cable TV companies work on the same principle.)
  • The broadcast center is the central hub of the system. At the broadcast center, the TV provider receives signals from various programming sources and beams a broadcast signal to satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
  • The satellites receive the signals from the broadcast station and rebroadcast them to Earth.
  • The viewer's dish picks up the signal from the satellite (or multiple satellites in the same part of the sky) and passes it on to the receiver in the viewer's house.
  • The receiver processes the signal and passes it on to a standard TV.

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.

Satellite TV Signal

Satellite signals have a pretty long path to follow before they appear on your TV screen in the form of your favorite TV show. Because satellite signals contain such high-quality digital data, it would be impossible to transmit them without compression. Compression simply means that unnecessary or repetitive information is removed from the signal before it is transmitted. The signal is reconstructed after transmission.

Standards of Compression

Satellite TV uses a special type of video file compression standardized by the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG). With MPEG compression, the provider is able to transmit significantly more channels. There are currently five of these MPEG standards, each serving a different purpose. DirecTV and DISH Network, the two major satellite TV providers in the United States, once used MPEG-2, which is still used to store movies on DVDs and for digital cable television (DTV). With MPEG-2, the TV provider can reduce the 270-Mbps stream to about 5 or 10 Mbps (depending on the type of programming).


Now, DirecTV and DISH Network use MPEG-4 compression. Because MPEG-4 was originally designed for streaming video in small-screen media like computers, it can encode more efficiently and provide a greater bandwidth than MPEG-2. MPEG-2 remains the official standard for digital TV compression, but it is better equipped to analyze static images, like those you see on a talk show or newscast, than moving, dynamic images. MPEG-4 can produce a better picture of dynamic images through use of spatial (space) and temporal (time) compression. This is why satellite TV using MPEG-4 compression provides high definition of quickly-moving objects that constantly change place and direction on the screen, like in a basketball game.

In the next section, we will see how satellite tv signals are encoded for transmission.

Satellite TV Encoding and Encryption

At the broadcast center, the high-quality digital stream of video goes through an MPEG encoder, which converts the programming to MPEG-4 video of the correct size and format for the satellite receiver in your house.

Encoding works in conjunction with compression to analyze each video frame and eliminate redundant or irrelevant data and extrapolate information from other frames. This process reduces the overall size of the file. Each frame can be encoded in one of three ways:


  • As an intraframe, which contains the complete image data for that frame. This method provides the least compression.
  • As a predicted frame, which contains just enough information to tell the satellite receiver how to display the frame based on the most recently displayed intraframe or predicted frame. A predicted frame contains only data that explains how the picture has changed from the previous frame.
  • As a bidirectional frame, which displays information from the surrounding intraframe or predicted frames. Using data from the closest surrounding frames, the receiver interpolates the position and color of each pixel.

This process occasionally produces artifacts -- glitches in the video image. One artifact is macroblocking, in which the fluid picture temporarily dissolves into blocks. Macroblocking is often mistakenly called pixilating, a technically incorrect term which has been accepted as slang for this annoying artifact. Graphic artists and video editors use "pixilating" more accurately to refer to the distortion of an image. There really are pixels on your TV screen, but they're too small for your human eye to perceive them individually -- they're tiny squares of video data that make up the image you see. (For more information about pixels and perception, see How TV Works.)

The rate of compression depends on the nature of the programming. If the encoder is converting a newscast, it can use a lot more predicted frames because most of the scene stays the same from one frame to the next. In more fast-paced programming, things change very quickly from one frame to the next, so the encoder has to create more intraframes. As a result, a newscast generally compresses to a smaller size than something like a car race.

Encryption and Transmission

After the video is compressed, the provider encrypts it to keep people from accessing it for free. Encryption scrambles the digital data in such a way that it can only be decrypted (converted back into usable data) if the receiver has the correct decryption algorithm and security keys.

Once the signal is compressed and encrypted, the broadcast center beams it directly to one of its satellites. The satellite picks up the signal with an onboard dish, amplifies the signal and uses another dish to beam the signal back to Earth, where viewers can pick it up.

In the next section, we'll see what happens when the signal reaches a viewer's house.

Satellite Dish

The curved dish reflects energy from the feed horn, generating a narrow beam.

When the signal reaches the viewer's house, it is captured by the satellite dish. A satellite dish is just a special kind of antenna designed to focus on a specific broadcast source. The standard dish consists of a parabolic (bowl-shaped) surface and a central feed horn. To transmit a signal, a controller sends it through the horn, and the dish focuses the signal into a relatively narrow beam.

The dish on the receiving end can't transmit information; it can only receive it. The receiving dish works in the exact opposite way of the transmitter. When a beam hits the curved dish, the parabola shape reflects the radio signal inward onto a particular point, just like a concave mirror focuses light onto a particular point.


The curved dish focuses incoming radio waves onto the feed horn.

In this case, the point is the dish's feed horn, which passes the signal on to the receiving equipment. In an ideal setup, there aren't any major obstacles between the satellite and the dish, so the dish receives a clear signal.

In some systems, the dish needs to pick up signals from two or more satellites at the same time. The satellites may be close enough together that a regular dish with a single horn can pick up signals from both. This compromises quality somewhat, because the dish isn't aimed directly at one or more of the satellites. A new dish design uses two or more horns to pick up different satellite signals. As the beams from different satellites hit the curved dish, they reflect at different angles so that one beam hits one of the horns and another beam hits a different horn.

The central element in the feed horn is the low noise blockdown converter, or LNB. The LNB amplifies the radio signal bouncing off the dish and filters out the noise (radio signals not carrying programming). The LNB passes the amplified, filtered signal to the satellite receiver inside the viewer's house.

Satellite Receiver

Photo courtesy DirecTV

The end component in the entire satellite TV system is the receiver. The receiver has four essential jobs:

  • It de-scrambles the encrypted signal. In order to unlock the signal, the receiver needs the proper decoder chip for that programming package. The provider can communicate with the chip, via the satellite signal, to make necessary adjustments to its decoding programs. The provider may occasionally send signals that disrupt illegal de-scramblers as an electronic counter measure (ECM) against illegal users.
  • It takes the digital MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 signal and converts it into an analog format that a standard television can recognize. In the United States, receivers convert the digital signal to the analog National Television Systems Committee (NTSC) format. Some dish and receiver setups can also output an HDTV signal.
  • It extracts the individual channels from the larger satellite signal. When you change the channel on the receiver, it sends just the signal for that channel to your TV. Since the receiver spits out only one channel at a time, you can't tape one program and watch another. You also can't watch two different programs on two TVs hooked up to the same receiver. In order to do these things, which are standard on conventional cable, you need to buy an additional receiver.
  • It keeps track of pay-per-view programs and periodically phones a computer at the provider's headquarters to communicate billing information.

Receivers have a number of other features as well. They pick up a programming schedule signal from the provider and present this information in an onscreen programming guide. Many receivers have parental lock-out options, and some have built-in digital video recorders (DVRs), which let you pause live television or record it on a hard drive.


These receiver features are just added bonuses to the technology of satellite TV. With its movie-quality picture and sound, satellite TV is becoming a popular investment for consumers. Digital cable, which also has improved picture quality and extended channel selection, has proven to be the fiercest competitor to satellite providers. The TV war is raging strong between satellite and digital cable technologies as well as between the providers who offer these services. Once considered luxuries in most households, satellite and digital cable are becoming quite common as providers bundle TV with Internet and phone services to offer competitive deals and win over customers.

For more information on satellite television and other broadcast systems, see the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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