How Satellite TV Works

By: Karim Nice & Tom Harris

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 below.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Birch-Jones, David. "Product Review: Dish Network VIP622 HD DVR." Winter 2006 (9/25/2007).
  • Bouthillier, Larry. "The MPEG Video Standards - from 1 to 21." 2/18/2004 (9/24/2007).
  • Broadcast Law Blog. "What is a Broadcaster to Do?" Davis, Wright, Tremaine, LLP.7/23/2006 (9/27/2006).
  • "Cable vs Satellite." 2006 (9/21/2007).
  • "C-Band FAQs." Satellite Orbit. (9/21/2007).
  • Consumer Reports. "Cable vs. satellite: How to choose." November 2005 (9/24/2007).
  • "Content Distribution Technology based on the MPEG-21 Standard." ITU Telecom World. 2003 (9/21/2007).
  • Davis, Henry. "MPEG2 for DBS." Communications System Design. September 1995 (9/21/2007).
  • DirecTV. "MDU HD Equipment Check." (9/25/2007).
  • "Glossary of DTV Terms." (9/21/2007).
  • Jensen, Elizabeth. "Soldiers' Words May Test PBS Language Rules." New York Times. 7/22/2006 (9/27/2007).
  • Koenen, Rob, Editor. "Overview of the MPEG-4 Standard." March 2002 (9/25/2007).
  • Landreth, Dan, Vice President of Engineering, EchoStar Satellite L.L.C. 9/27/2007.Conducted by Candace Gibson.
  • Moving Picture Experts Group. "About MPEG." (9/21/2007).
  • Pearce-Moses, Richard. "A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology." Entry for "pixilation." Society of American Archivists. 2005 (9/21/2007).
  • Raff, Andrew. "Broadcast Indecency Regulation: The Profanity Standard." IllinoisPublic Telecommunications Association. 3/24/2006 (9/27/07).
  • Rogers, Michael. "The end of analog TV." 4/24/2005 (9/24/2007).
  • "Satellite TV Providers." Choice Review. (9/21/2007).
  • "Satellite TV vs. Cable TV." Satellite TV Guru. 8/20/207 (9/21/2007).
  • Taub, Eric A. "Easing the Signal Squeeze for Satellite TV." New York Times.10/4/2001 (9/21/2007).
  • "Transmission of Digital Images within the NTSC Analog Format." Los Alamos Digital Laboratory. 6/15/2004 (9/24/2007).
  • "What is Ku band?" (9/21/2007).
  • Wieland, Ken. "IPTV 2007: MPEG-4 And HDTV To Boost IPTV?" Telecommunications Online. 3/7/2007 (9/21/2007).