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  • European Satellite TV
    Frequently Asked Questions


    Introduction

    What follows isn't exactly a 'FAQ', but an attempt to give some answers to the questions that face those who want to install satellite TV at their home. It concerns European satellites and my background is Scandinavia, but the issues should be similar throughout Europe.

    ** Before we start, however, let me dispose of the most common question that actually crops up: No, you cannot watch US satellite channels when you are in Europe. Nor can you watch European satellites in the US. Your antenna (the satellite dish) cannot receive signals from satellites under the horizon, and since the earth is round, US satellites are under Europe's horizon. Europe and the Middle East, however, is basically one area, and a dish in Sweden can pick up the same signals as those in Tunisia, and vice versa.

    That said, we will proceed in the order of choices that a viewer interested in satellite TV will have to face. First, we will look at hardware choices, and what they imply; then we will survey what kind of satellite channels you can expect to pick up with the different options of hardware discussed.


    EQUIPMENT CHOICES

    In 2001, the main issues to be faced when choosing your type of satellite set-up are the following: We will look at these questions in turn, before we at the end sum up what you will be watching if you have chosen one option or the other.

    Analogue or digital?

    The first choice you may face, then, is whether you should purchase an analogue or digital receiver. The dealer will tell you that analogue is old and out; digital is new and in. To a large extent that is true. As we enter 2001, any new user should be recommended to choose a digital receiver, however, those who already have analogue equipment may have some years' value left from it.

    It must be added, however, that digital TV is still is in its infancy and does have some childhood illnesses, both technically and commercially. While digital is to be recommended, it may be worth it to look at what it means, and what kind of restrictions or problems either option will imply.

    - What do these terms mean in the first place? Basically, analogue and digital are two completely different ways of transmitting TV. Both use satellites, both come through a receiver; a box attached to your TV tuned to some frequency. But there the similarly mostly ends. While the equipment in the satellite dish outside on the wall is often the same either way (so you do not need to get a new dish if you switch from analogue to digital), the interior of the receiver is completely different. You cannot receive analogue channels on a digital receiver, or digital channels on an analogue receiver - the digital is not a 'decoder' you can attach to your old analogue setup if you have one: You must choose either one or the other.

    -- To understand the difference, you can think of your regular TV as a kind of radio with pictures. It uses the same type of technology as your FM/AM radio, and behind the "preset programmes" on your remote control, there is for each a particular frequency, similar to those on your radio's tuning display. While the radio receives sound that is sent on these frequencies (radio waves), the TV receives picture signals on the same radio waves. Analogue satellite works basically the same way as a earthbound ('terrestial') TV; except that because of the enormous distance to the satellite, it must use extremely short radio waves, 'micro-waves'. That apart, the analogue satellite receiver is a fairly regular TV tuner without a screen; like the VCR, it passes the sound and picture to your regular TV for display.

    Digital satellite also receives radio micro-waves, but what is transmitted on these waves are computer signals, the '0s and 1s' that your PC also uses. A digital satellite receiver is in fact a single-purpose computer, and if you are used to PCs it is helpful to think of it as such: it is limited by installed computer memory, it has an operating system, and its software may have bugs and need to be reset like any computer: pull out the power plug. --

    What does digital bring to you above analogue, apart from the number of channels?

    • The ads will tell you 'crystal-clear pictures'. Actually, that needs to be qualfied: You won't get digital pictures on your screen, because the TV set itself is analogue. True digital TV sets will not come into use in Europe for another decade, as they are very expensive to make. It is the transmission to your home that is digital. The satelite receiver transforms the digital signal to analogue and passes it along a cable to your TV and VCR. In reality, the quality you see will be about the same as you get from cable or good over-the-air reception.
      How good the digital picture is also depends on how many channels the sender squeezes into each frequency; if too many channels are transmitted together, the digital quality may not be much above that of a VHS video.
    • More to the point is how sensitive the signal is to bad reception conditions (snow, heavy rain, weak satellite). By their nature, digital channels never get "sparklies", white or black dots that you may see on weak analogue channels. Digital is on or off; either you get a signal as good as it gets, or you get nothing; a black screen. Exactly how sensitive it is depends on your equipment. My own experience is however that if you get a level of sparklies that is annoying, but not destructive, on analogue (60-70 per cent of full strength, perhaps) the digital channels will remain perfect and you will not notice that conditions are bad. If you go much below that however (40 per cent or so?), you will get nothing in digital, while you may still discern picture and sound on analogue channels.
    • Those who sell subscription TV will tell you that digital gives many new services; like on-line shopping, pay-per-view films, different views of football matches etc. Most of these cost extra; others do not exist yet. A major hindrance for these 'interactive services' is that they require your receiver to have special software or be especially adapted to their service, or often be one rented out or sold by the TV channel. A different receiver you buy in the shop may be fully able to receive both free and subscription channels, but not these 'interactive' extras. As the development of the software required as well as the services is still going on and will change over the next year or two, I would not give them much weight at this point.
    • Much the same can be said for the 'electronic program guide' or EPG, which tells you on-screen what programs are shown on different channels. It is certainly useful if you can get it, but not all receivers can display the information (and not all channels send it), depending on software. Base your choice primarily on the ability to actually see the channels you want, not these so far rather primitive extras.
    -- I said above that you 'can't have both' analogue and digital. In fact that is not quite true. There are a few combined analogue and digital receivers on the market. These are however two receivers in one box, with separate hardware (and software) for receiving digital and analogue channels. Thus, they come at a price; and for some of them the combination appears partly as a gimmick; the integration between the two parts may leave things to be desired. A few, however, are very good, so look carefully before you buy. Evidently, they belong to the upper end of the price range. - Another option is to have two separate receivers, one analogue and one digital box, and run a cable from one to the other. It requires a bit of adaptation (only one of them can 'govern' the dish at any time), but it may be done; in particular if you already have an analogue receiver and wish to retain access to those channels that are not available in digital. --

    So why the push to digital? From the channels' point of view, it is quite simply much cheaper. Satellite space costs money (to the tune of 4-5 million Euro per channel per year), and they can send five to ten digital channels for the same price as one analogue. That is the primary reason why they want us to change all at the same time, to be able to shut down costly analogue services. From the user's point of view, improved reception quality is certainly a plus, but the main argument is what channels you can watch in either system.


    How many satellites do you want to watch?

    Having settled the analogue / digital thing, the next issue is what satellite or satellites you want to point your dish to. There are about a dozen satellites over Europe sending domestic TV, at different locations in the sky; and the dish must be pointed to one or more of these locations.

    One issue, in addition to it being above the horizon, the dish must also have 'clear line of sight' to the satellites, which all circle above the equator (so look south!). Tall buildings, mountains, or even trees may consitute obstacles to consider. You should also note that some satellites target their signals towards particular regions or countries. Some channels intended for Scandinavia, e.g. can be received only with difficulty (or a large dish) in Italy or Spain, and vice versa. Many or most can however be received with reasonable ease throughout the region.

    The two major factors in deciding what satellite to choose, and whether you want to set up a dish that can receive signals from more than one satellite, is language and - for subscription channels - what country you live in. We will discuss in more detail below what you can find on the various satellites. However, the satellites you most probably will be looking for are:

    • From a British point of view, the Astra 2 satellite* is the primary focus: It has all the subscription channels of the Sky package, and a number of free UK channels. Sky subscribers will normally not look beyond Astra 2.
    • From a continental European angle, there are two main satellite positions, Astra1 (different from Astra 2) and HotBird, which are not too far apart in the sky. Each of these have between 100 and 200 channels; with a mixture of European and Middle Eastern content; with an edge for HotBird in terms of number.
    • Scandinavian viewers are divided between two satellites, Thor (mainly Norwegian and Danish) and Sirius (mainly Swedish). Each is dominated by a competing company; it is however very common for Scandinavian viewers to have seutps directed at both these satellites. These two are mainly for subscription channels; there are very few open channels on either of them.
    • Spanish viewers will find some options on Astra, some on HotBird, and yet others on the special Spanish satellite, Hispasat, which is located far away in the west (about 50 degrees west of Astra). It is pretty much impossible to receive both Astra and Hispasat on one fixed dish.
    • Middle Eastern viewers will find some fare on HotBird, which has about twenty open Arabic channels; Astra1 has a handful; but also ArabSat between Astra1 and Astra 2 which adds a dozen or two channels; or TurkSat further east with Turkish fare.
    * There is actually not one, but several satellites clumped together at Astra 2 and the other satellite positions; sharing the work. But they are so close that the receiver sees them as a single satellite, thus so will we.

    The other satellites have much more limited choice, at least in digital; typically a dozen or so channels (such as government and shopping channels), and sometimes duplicating channels already on Astra1 or Hotbird. They may however also contain subscription packages for special markets. Still, most viewers will choose between the half-dozen or so listed above.

    For analogue receivers, the choice is much the same, although the total number of channels is much lower. Astra 2 is digital-only, Thor and Sirius virtually so. A few satellites on the other hand transmit only in analogue, including some channels not receivable in open digital, thus Telecom 2B with the major terrestial French channels.

    Having made your choice of how many satellites may be of interest, your options are:

    • If a single satellite position is all you want, your choice is of course simple; you install a dish pointing in that direction.
    • If you want to watch more than one satellite, however, you can do it in two different ways. One is to go with a fixed, but slightly larger, dish and install in it two or more receptor elements (a little box called the 'head' or LNB placed just above the centre of the dish, it is this that actually receives the signals), one pointing to each satellite. That is the best option if there are only two or three satellites you want to look at, located fairly closely together.
    • The other, maximalist, is to install a more complex 'motorized' dish, which moves across the sky at the command of your indoor receiver. That is a more expensive choice, but you are then limited by nothing and can scan freely from satellite to satellite. It may also be cost-effective if you are interested in more than three or four satellites.
    Motorized dishes were more popular some years ago, as channels were more evenly distributed across satellites, and it was difficult and expensive to have more than two heads installed in a dish together. This has changed in favour of multi-LNB dishes, both because they have become cheaper and simpler, but also because there has been a concentration of channels according to language on a smaller number of satellites, compared to ten years ago.

    Which is 'better' for multi-satellite setups, motorized or fixed multi-LNB, does not have a clear answer. A fixed dish is always simpler to set up, and cannot 'lose its way' as a motor may do. When you use motorized, you are always aware of what channel is on which satellite, as you will have to wait for 10-30 seconds each time you zap from a channel on one satellite to one on the other, while the dish moves across the sky to the new satellite. Fixed dishes are much more convenient in this, there is no wait, and you will not need to remember what satellite each channel is on.
    On the other hand, a motorized dish is required if you want to watch satellites that are far apart (more than, e.g. 20 degrees apart in the sky) without putting up several dishes. It is also more flexible both for checking out more satellites that those you originally installed, including any new ones that may be sent up: with a fixed dish you need to add a new head for every satellite. An LNB may today cost between 50-100 Euro, a motor perhaps 200-300, often less.
    The choice is not evident, but perhaps we can suggest that a motorized solution today is more apt for the enthusiast who does not want to 'miss out' on anything, while a fixed dish with several LNBs is a probably more convenient for most users. In particular so when most receivers today can govern up to sixteen different LNBs (on one or more dishes) pointing at as many satellites.


    The dish and its heads

    The choice between the three options, a single-satellite, multi-LNB or motorized dish, has some impact on the rest of the equipment. Of course, once you have made the decision that you want 'digital, UK, English', or 'motorized, all channels possible', and the price range, you will normally just go to a local dealer-installer and ask him to put up a complete package that will give you that. The dealer will then make sure all the elements fit together, and will accommodate for local conditions. That is definitely the preferred method for digital installation, as the installers have equipment that will ensure a more precise and better installation than you can easily do yourself. So, you do not need to have any further information about the various parts of your satellite's set-up. However, in case you are interested in what components go into the deal, we will briefly describe the major elements, which are:
    • The dish itself
    • Inside the dish: the receptor 'head' or heads (the 'LNB')
    • For multi-satellite installations, ways to switch from one satellite to another
    • The receiver inside your house
    Thus, the satellite setup has two parts : one on the wall outside of your house, and one inside your sitting room next to the TV. On the wall outside or on your roof is the circular dish, 50-100 cm wide. All the dish does is to reflect the signals from the sky into the small box that is sitting, poised on an arm above it and pointing to the centre of the dish. This little, box then is called an LNB ['Low Noice Block converter'], or more colloquially, the 'head'. A cable then transmits the signals from the LNB to the receiver inside.
    • The size of the dish is of some importance: the larger the dish, the more signals get reflected into the LNB, and the stronger the reception. How large a dish you need depends on where in Europe you live (the further north, the larger dish), and how weak or strong the satellite signal is (how focused on your country). Most normal is 50-60 cm in the south of Europe, 70-90 in the north. Apart from this, you need not worry much about the dish itself.
    • The LNB head itself is of greater importance; a better head will give stronger signals (a 'noise figure', over 1.0 is bad, 0.6 fairly good).
    • The satellites send out its signals on particular frequencies (like those of the radio, remember?). The LNB receives these signals and transmit them to the receiver. However, satellite signals are very weak, and are sent on extremely high (microwave) frequencies. There is no way they could survive transmission through a cable in their original form. The LNB therefore converts them to a lower frequency that the cable can handle. The receiver must thus match this 'down-shifting' to locate the correct frequency for each channel.
      • The actual frequncies used by TV satellites are in a region of c. 10,700-12,700 MHz. The LNB shifts them down by a factor of around 10,000 MHz, so that an original signal at e.g. 11,200 Mhz is sent down the cable at 1,200 MHz. This figure of 10,000 is known as the 'LO' (Local Oscillator) setting; and it is this that the receiver must be aware of to find the channel.
        However, there is a further twist: even with the downshift, this creates a range of about 2,000 Mhz from the lowest to the highest frequency. That is also beyond the capacity of TV cables to handle; about 1,000 is the maximum span possible. So, an LNB can have two or more LO settings, which it switches between at the request of the receiver: E.g. a 'low' LO of 10,000, which it uses for channels in the frequency 10,700 - 11,700, and a 'high' LO of 11,000 used for 11,700 - 12,700 MHz, so that it is only a frequency between 700 and 1,700 Mhz that is in either case sent down the cable. Again, the receiver and LNB must communicate these settings between them, so that the receiver finds the channel.
    • This was a major issue of concern in older days (five years ago); you had to be careful what LNB you installed and that it matched the receiver. Happily, in recent years, most analogue and all digital receivers have settled on a common standard, known as 'Universal LNBs' (they have two LOs of 9,750 and 10,600 MHz). So, if you have a modern analogue installation and want to upgrade to digital, check that you have a Universal LNB; if so, it will work fine with the new. If you buy a new satellite setup of whatever kind, you need not worry about the LNB.
    • Another element that was more cause for concern earlier than now, is 'polarization': some of the satellite's waves are sent 'horizontally', others 'vertically' (to be able to cram more signals without overlapping). The LNB adapts to the polarity of each channel, according to a request from the receiver. Earlier, this was handled in different ways, often with separate cables. Universal LNBs have again standardized this, and handles everything on the same cable: It reacts to a tone (sent on 22 kHz) to switch between low and high LO, and electric voltage (13 or 18V) to switch between horizontal and vertial polarity. Thus, any modern receiver that can work with Universal LNBs handles both these settings without any intervention or care from your side.
      • However, unfortunately universal LNBs no longer have the option for fine-tuning the polarity (skew), which older LNBs had. This may however not be much of a problem for digital reception, except sometimes on a motorized dish when you move it too far off too the west or east; the French analogue channels are also notorious for skew.

    Multi-satellite installations

    The elements described above are common to all satellite dishes, whether you go for a single, or a multi-satellite set-up. If you want to watch more than one satellite, you have some extra elements, depending on whether you go for a motorized or a multi-LNB installation.
    • If you go for a motorized dish, you only need one LNB head which has the frequency span to cover all used on 'your' satellites. The motor is attached to the dish, and should be goverened by the receiver inside, so that when you choose a channel, the dish will automatically move to the correct position in the sky. Thus, the receiver must be able to talk to the motor. Motors are mostly of two kinds, the older 'actuator' motors, and the newer 'DiSEqC' standard. Make sure that the receiver is able to run the motor you have (otherwise, you may need a separate 'interface' between the motor and the receiver to make the connection). Motorized dishes are more complex to install, so you would certainly want a professional to set it up.
    • If you instead go for a fixed-dish multi-head system, you also have to consider the size of the dish. Each of the heads will be pointed at (or, actually, directly away from) its own satellite, thus at a slight angle from each other and not at the centre of the dish. That means it cannot receive signals reflected from the total area of the dish. So you must compensate by installing a slightly larger dish than you would with a single head, to let even the most off-centre head receive enough signals for good reception.
      • Each head will be pointed away from each other by as many degrees as the satellites are apart in the sky. The head can use signals reflected from within a circle centred around the focus of the LNB. So if the LNB points to a spot five cm off the centre of an 80 cm dish, then its reception is that of a 70 cm dish (5 cm radius=10 cm diameter). If you need a 70cm dish for good reception from each satellite, you will have to install one of 80cm to cover both. Commonly, multi-satellite dishes have a maximum span of about 20 degrees from the western- to the eastern-most satellite it can catch (the maximum angle of the LNBs to the dish), i.e. from Astra 1 to Thor or from Astra 2 to Hotbird.
    • When you have two or more LNBs sitting in the dish, you could of course run one cable from each LNB through your wall in to the receiver. It is rather more practical, however, to merge the signals outside, so that they all run down one cable inside, and the receiver inside then is able to switch to the LNB it wants for each particular channel. The most common way of doing this is with a piece of hardware with the unreadable acronym 'DiSEqC' switch (Digital Satellite Equipment Controller, I think - I tend to pronounce it 'disec'). It is in fact a European standard for how to handle multiple equipment, so what you want is, one, the piece of hardware outside that joins the cables from the LNBs into one (the switch), and two, that your receiver inside has the software to control the switch and pick the right LNB. However, the DiSEqC standard has gone through several generation, and how much the equipment can do, depends on which version of DiSEqC it supports:
      • Version 1.0 can handle up to four different LNBs, in some early versions only two.
      • 1.1 can handle up to 16 different LNB, more than enough for most of Europe. That is therefore what you should look for.
      • 1.2 is different, it is designed for motorized dishes (we mentioned it above), and can control up to 30 predefined positions.
      • There is also a version 2.0, this is not much in use yet.
    The choices you have to make, therefore, mostly concern the equipment outdoors: a single or multi-satellite setup? if the latter, fixed-dish with many heads or motorized with one? if the former, DiSEqC and what version? If the latter, what kind of motor?

    The receiver

    Inside the house, the main concern is that your receiver can match the choices you have made for the outside equipment, and can control it automatically so that once it is set up, you just select the channel and let the machinery take care of the rest.

    If you buy a new satellite installation, using the now all-prevalent Universal LNBs, most of that is already taken care of. One thing you should check is what, if any, kind of DiSEqC version the receiver is geared up for. If you want more than two LNBs, it should be able to use version 1.1. If you want a motor, greater care must be taken that the motor has the strength to pull the dish and can be controlled by the receiver (which is then called a 'positioner'). Your installer will of course normally take care of all this. Evidently, there is also a price issue here; the more versatile, the more expensive.

    If you are moving from analogue to digital and want to continue using some older equipment you already have, such as pre-universal LNBs, actuator motors, combined analogue/digital receivers, greater care is needed. Most of these can be accommodated, but at a price; burning your bridges and changing everything at the same time will almost always cost you less than trying to hold on to and incorporate bits of older standards. Look carefully, and consult with specialists for each bit of equipment.

    There are of course also other differences in quality and versatility between inexpensive and expensive receivers. Analogue receivers determine a channel mostly by two elements, both of which we have discussed above:

    • The frequency, a figure between 10,700 and 12,700 MHz
    • The polarity, Horizontal or Vertical.
    In analogue, frequency and channel was identical, each channel had its own separate frequency. That is not true of digital; any frequency can combine anything up to a dozen different channels, packed together into one signal. The receiver thus has the ability to disengage these into their separate channels. Thus, the receiver has some further settings for each channel:
    • Symbol rate, a figure between 2,000 and 50,000 (ca.). This specifies the frequency. A limited receiver may only accept symbol rates of, e.g. 20,000-30,000, and thus only channels within that spectre (the most commonly used, as it happens); a versatile one can span the full range.
    • FEC, or 'forward error correction', a figure normally given as a fraction like 3/4 or 4/5. Again common to the full frequency. Not all receivers allow you to set this manually.
    • Program ID, a figure from 1 to 3,000 or so. This is an identifier of each channel within the frequency package, you need to set it for the receiver to distinguish and display the channel. This is more confusing, as there are three or four different figures involved; there can be a full Program ID, a separate Video ID (VPID) and an Audio ID (APID), which may or may not be set separately. Sometimes the channel listings list one, sometimes the other; and it may not be called this in your receiver's settings. In fact, manually adding channels are often hit-and-miss, because of faulty or partial information of the ID numbers.
    The reason this seems faulty is that digital receivers do not normally expect you to add channels by hand. They generally have the ability to download complete and updated lists of channels from the satellites themselves, with all info in place, and expect you to do this at regular intervals to cater for any changes. Some receivers need to know the frequencies of each satellite in advance, however, so some manual additions may be necessary. And in some receivers, downloading channel updates may replace or mess up any personal re-organization of your channel list, showing those you want to hide etc., so you may want to add any you know of manually anyway. However, this is still a fairly minor concern of convenience; the most important thing to look for is probably the span of symbol rates that the receiver can handle.

    FREE OR SUBSCRIPTION?

    The most crucial choice of all, however, in what receiver you want to buy, is what kind of channels you want to look at: Do you want to pay for your TV entertainment by a subscription, or will you be satisfied with those - very many - channels that transmit their programs for free, without any encoding?

    You must answer that before even thinking about what kind of receiver to look for. If you buy a receiver, however good, that is intended only for free ('free-to-air' or FTA in the jargon) channels, and then later decide you want to subscribe to something, you will have to scrap your receiver and get a new one. You cannot 'add' a subscription decoder to an FTA (free-channel) receiver unless it is prepared for this from the outset. And for some subscription packages, you may be restricted to a small number of 'approved' receivers or even have to buy one directly from the subscription channel.

    We will, however, before we go into the dark depths of subscription TV, the hardware and the channels, look at what kind of free channel fare is out there, on the various satellites.


    Free channels - an overview of languages

    Most digital receivers come with a list of channels pre-programmed, and as we mentioned above, it can update the channel list from the satellite itself. There is no need for us here therefore to list every channel receivable, nor can we do so: new channels appear and others disappear very often (if you want to look for particular channels, however, there are complete and regularly updated lists of free channels at the SatCoDx and Lyngsat web sites).

    Instead, we will give a more general and approximate breakdown of what kind of free (or 'open', that is, uncoded) channels you can find on the major satellite positions over Europe, according to what language they send in. For residual analogue viewers, or the 'I want everything' user, we also indicate how many analogue channels remain, as of March 2001.


    Astra 1

    This group of satellites placed at 19 degrees East used to be the major satellite position in Europe, it has now been bypassed by one or two others, and is of main interest to those who look for German channels. The breakdown is as follows:
    • 35 German channels
    • 9 French
    • 4 English
    • 3 Arab
    • 2 Polish
    • 2 Spanish
    • 2 Italian
    [All these figures are approximate.]
    These German channels include the major terrestial state and regional channels, as well as the largest commercial ones. The English ones include CNN, Sky News and Travel.

    Astra 1 still has about twenty-five channels in analogue, almost all German [and all also transmitted in digital], with CNN, Sky News, CNBC and Eurosport in English. The UK channel Channel 5 is a bit of an exception: in digital it is sent encrypted on Astra 2. In analogue, you can also see it on Astra 1 if you have a Videocrypt decoder - you do not need a subscription card. There is no saying how long this will last; the remaining subscription-based British channels in Videocrypt (the Sky channels) will cease transmission in the summer of 2001, and Channel 5 may follow suit. It will otherwise then be the only Videocrypt-encoded channel in existence.


    HotBird

    The current fare on the HotBird satellite(s) at 13 degrees East is more varied in language, and in total almost twice in number as on Astra 1:
    • 35 Italian channels
    • 22 Arabic
    • 16 German
    • 8 English
    • 7 Spanish
    • 7 Polish
    • 5 French
    • 4 Persian
    • 2 Russian
    • 2 Greek
    • 2 Chinese
    • 1 Dutch
    • 1 Portuguese
    • and about a dozen channels in various Balkan languages, also Thai, Kurdish etc.
    Some of the German channels are duplicates of those on Astra 1 (or Swiss/Austrian variants of them); the English include BET, Bloomberg, and EuroNews.

    Hotbird still has 18 - 20 channels in analogue, most are duplicates of the digital services: the three RAIs in Italian, two German channels, two in French, two Spanish, three or four in Middle Eastern languages, Portuguese, and two or three in Polish.
    One in English stands out: BBC World (the news channel, not the entertainment BBC Prime). That is an open and free channel in analogue on Hotbird, while it is in digital only encoded as part of many subscription packages, but not free to air.


    Astra 2

    The new Astra position at 28 degrees East is all British, and is mainly taken up by the Sky subscription package as well as BBC and other terrestial channels which are all encoded and unavailable to residents outside the UK. There are however also a dozen or a little more open channels, all in English, on Astra 2. They include Sky News and ITN, then various money channels, home shopping and advertisement and one or two regional channels, so the fare may be meager if you do not have access to UK subscription, but given the dearth of open English-language channels elsewhere, it may be kept in mind.
    Astra 2 has no analogue channels at all.

    Sirius and Thor

    The Scandinavian satellites on 5 degrees East (Sirius) and 1 degree West (Thor), are also mainly for subscription. Sirius has two open channels in Swedish, one in analogue and one in digital. Thor has five or six open digital channels in various languages (Danish, Russian, Hindi and two in Chinese. BBC World is a subscription channel, but may I believe be open as well), none in analogue.

    Other satellites

    Most other satellites are in the same category; focused on a subscription channel and with a smattering of free-to-air channels. The exception to this are regional satellites like ArabSat, NileSat and TurkSat which have only channels in Arabic and Turkish respectively, most of them free to air.

    As for European language channels, some may be mentioned:

    • Eutelsat W 2, 16 deg. East: 13-14 channels (4-5 Italian, 2-3 Dutch, Romanian)
    • Eutelsat W 1, 10 deg. E: 4-5 in all (German, Turkish, Balkan).
    • Eutelsat W 3, 7 deg. E: 13-14 in all (6 Turkish, 4 Polish)
    • Telecom 2D, 8 deg West: 6-7 in all (Turkish, French. Also lists BBC World)
    • Telstar 12, 15 deg. W: 4-5 (English, Chinese)
    Of the French Telecom channels, Telecom 2B at 5 degree West may be mentioned: It carries no digital channels, but has the terrestial French channels in open (free) analogue (but in the SECAM colour scheme; if you have a non-French TV set, pictures will appear in black and white). In digital form, these are in sent as part of encoded subscription packages for France, transmitted from Hotbird.

    By language

    So, summing up, free channels are available in these languages (again: approximate figures! Not counting duplicates, and there are channels in languages not listed here):
    • German: 45 channels (Astra1, Hotbird)
    • Italian: 35 (Hotbird, Astra1, Eutelsat 2)
    • Arabic: 35 (Hotbird, Arabsat, Astra1)
    • English: 15 (Astra2, Hotbird, Astra1)
    • Spanish: 14 (Hotbird, Astra1)
    • Polish: 12 (Hotbird, Astra1, Eutelsat 3)
    • French: 10 (Astra1, Hotbird, Telecom 2D)
    • Persian: 4 (Hotbird)
    • Dutch: 4 (Hotbird, Astra1, Eutelsat 2)
    • Chinese: 3 (Hotbird, Thor)
    • Russian: 2 (Hotbird, Thor)
    • Greek: 2 (Hotbird)
    • Danish: 1 (Thor)

    What kind of programmes

    Thus, you can by pointing your dish at various satellites easily take down 250 or more channels for free. But is it worth it? What kind of programmes do these open channels carry?

    As for the distribution of languages, some conclusions stand out easily: There are very few channels in English, the most commonly understood language in Europe; nor many in French. The dominant languages are German, Italian and Arabic. Notice also the lack of channels in Scandinavian and Dutch languages. This gives us a clue to the peculiar language distribution: Scandinavians and Dutch tend to send English movies and serials with their original sound and subtitles, while the German and Italians mostly dub them into their own language. A film with English sound can be understood all over Europe, so a channel that wants to put it on satellite would have to pay the owner (in Hollywood) for distribution rights all over Europe - which is prohibitively expensive. A film with German sound is understood only in the German-speaking countries, or at least so Hollywood believes, so the channel only pays for German distribution, whether it is sent over the air or by satellite, so there is little extra cost in adding satellite distribution to the terrestial one.

    Thus, Germany in particular, and partly Italy, stand apart in that all or most of the regular, over-the-air channels are also sent openly on satellite; and by extension that several smaller channels of the same, general-entertainment kind, are also available - but only with dubbed German programming.

    Apart from these, the open satellite channels mostly fall into these categories:

    - news and business channels
    - music channels - a dozen or two
    - public or state-run channels, in particular with domestic production
    - regional channels, with their own programming
    - a few sports channels, but mostly without high-profile events
    - education and science, including some regional
    - shopping channels, and promotion channels for specific companies

    You will not get recent movies, US-made soaps or much in the way of fictional entertainment on these channels (dubbed German apart). Such are simply too expensive to send on a Europe-wide basis with only advertisements for income. But channels who rely on programs they themselves produce (news and education channels) have no such restriction, and such are therefore mostly sent openly. Thus, it is not true that open channels are generally second-rate; only that the kind of programs you can see are of specific kinds, and may not cover all of what you want from TV entertainment.


    Subscription channels

    If you do want such stuff as films, fictional soaps or other such entertainment in languages other than German, or high-profile sports events, you will therefore normally have to take out a subscription package. Subscription, then, has two quite different purposes: (a) to make you pay for what you see and (b) to stop others from seeing the programs. That is, people who live in other countries. Therefore, while some subscription channels cost an arm and a leg (in particular film channels), others have only a small and nominal subscription price, the purpose being simply to ensure that only the 'right people' in the 'right country' can see the channels.

    Most often subscription channels are also not sold one-by-one, that would be uneconomical or impractical. They are generally combined in 'packages' of ten-thirty different channels, sold together (perhaps in different levels and price ranges) by a 'provider'.
    This is a key to the whole subscription option: you choose a package of channels that is available to you. In doing so, you also choose the provider that sells this package (such as Sky Digital, Canal Plus, TPS, etc.). This has an important effect on what kind of hardware you purchase, as different providers make different demands on the type of receiver that can handle their services. So, the choice of channel package and provider must be made before you decide what kind of satellite receiver and hardware you are going to purchase.

    Unfortunately, the demands that the provider may make on your hardware choice can lead you into trouble, not of your own making, but of the provider's. That is particularly the case if a single subscription package does not satisfy all your needs (e.g. if there are two competing providers in your country, and some of the major TV channels are only distributed by one of the companies, and others in the competitor's package - a common enough situation in Europe), so you might want to combine two packages. But while the providers all want you to subscribe to their channels, and may even throw digital satellite receivers at you (literally), they do not want you to watch any other channels than their own, and may even positively block you from attempting this. Sometimes, the commercial strategies seem to be not terribly mature; they certainly change over time. It is to be hoped, although it is perhaps a pious hope, that the development of the market will force competing companies towards at least towards some greater sensitivity to the wishes of the consumers, in letting them make their own choice in what they may subscribe to.

    Add to this that the digital market is still very young and also fairly immature technically - in computer language, much of what we are offered in the receivers is beta software, which does not always deliver what it promises. Thus, if conditions were otherwise, it would have been good advice to wait for a year or three before installing digital receivers, for both the commercial and technical situation to mature. But, unfortunately, most or all of subscription channels in most countries in Europe are shutting down their analogue transmissions in the course of 2001, so we the consumers have little choice but to follow them into the digital world, in part as human guinea pigs.

    Caution is thus of the order, so it is worth looking into what this means when you are about to choose a satellite receiver. Evidently, which country you live in is the first decisive factor, as subscriptions are sold on the basis of residence (your address). You may live in a country that

    • (a) has no subscription options at all
    • (b) has only one satellite subscription option
    • (c) has several competing subscription packages.
    Few countries fall into category (a), but if you live in one, your choice is simple, you go back to the previous paragraph "Free channels" and forget about the rest. A few fall into category (b); principally Britain. Here the Sky package is the only available over satellite, so you either take what they offer, or go for the free channels only (or the digital transmissions of the terrestial BBC etc., which we will not cover here. You again need a card, which you can get for free if you live in the UK, not at all otherwise.).

    Subscription hardware

    Many countries however, fall into category (c), and that is where the choices start to become difficult. This is the case of my own region, Scandinavia (which in satellite terms works mostly as one single market), and I will use that as an example; but similar situations apply in France, in Spain, and many other European countries.

    These elements are necessary in a receiver for subscription to digital satellite TV:

    • A subscription smart-card which is sent to you from the provider and contains your subscription details
    • This card is put into a slot in the receiver, the decoder or 'conditional access' (CA) element. This decoder can be either
      • (a) a part of and integrated into the receiver itself, so all you see is a thin slot which you push the smartcard into.
      • (b) or it can be a separate module, which you first have to insert into the receiver; and then you put the smart card into the module again. Such a separate decoder module ('CA Module', or CAM) is not much bigger than the smart card that you put into it, the CAM is actually a 'PC card' similar to those of laptop computers.
        • The CAM, then, only holds the hardware to handle the actual decoding; it does not know who you are, and how long you have paid your subscription for, that information is stored on the smart card. The reason to have CAMs at all is that, as we will see below, there are many different subscription encoding standards. A receiver with integrated decoder can only handle one system. With CAMs, you can replace a CAM with one decoding standard, that is from one subscription package, with a CAM with another standard, without needing two receivers.
      • - In order to do this, however, the receiver must have a slot ready which you can put the CAM into. This slightly wider slot for a CAM module is called a 'common interface', or CI slot. A receiver may have zero, one, two or up to four such CI slots for different CAM modules.
        • Unlike analogue receivers, however, you cannot have a decoder completely separate from the receiver, connected with a cable. If the receiver does not have either integrated smartcard slot or a CI slot, you cannot watch subscription channels at all. It is then an 'FTA' receiver for open channels only.
      • - Notice, however, that the receiver must also have a piece of software that allows it to recognize and work with the particular CA module in question. That is written by the producer of the receiver, and is should exist for most CAM types, but it needs to be confirmed before you buy.

    The software: the receiver and the decoder

    The issue of software in the receiver (which is, as we recall, a computer), may be perplexing, and can be as important as the hardware. Summarily, we can divide it into three levels:
    • The operating system that runs your receiver
    • The encoding system that makes sure only subscribers sees the channel
    • The display system that actually presents pictures and sound on your TV.
    If you know about computers, you know what an operating system is: It is the basic software that makes your computer go round: Windows 95, Linux, Mac OS, Unix. Satellite receivers also have their own operating systems, and like the PC ones, these - Open TV, Media Highway, etc., are incompatible with each other, so only one can be used on any particular receiver.

    However, the difference from the PC world is that those who provide you with satellite subscription packages (Sky, Canal+, TPS, etc.) put their noses in and tell the subscribers: Our subscription package is really meant to used with that particular operating system: We will only approve that you use receivers using e.g. Open TV. Or receivers using MHV, etc. So there. Well, if their package is the only one you want to watch, no problem, you comply with their request and pick a receiver model they like (or they or the installer picks it for you). But if you are one of those who want to combine two different packages, you run into problems because only one OS can be used in one receiver, and the competitors normally back incompatible OS's in their packages. Happily, when it comes to this request for a particular OS, you don't necessarily have to listen to them, as we shall see presently.


    The encoding standard

    The operating system is the basic software that makes any receiver work. The element that decodes a subscription channel for those who have paid, is a smaller piece of software, which as we mentioned above, resides in a separate piece of hardware, the decoder element (either integrated into the receiver or as a CAM module). The two, OS and decoder, are thus quite separate.

    There are many different methods for encoding subscription channels. Many subscription packages (such as Sky) have developed their own encoding system, which only they use. Others have shared in the development, so that some systems are 'standards' used by many European packages. Common encoding standards are Irdeto, Viaccess, Mediaguard, there are others. For these, you can use the same CAM but with different smart cards from each provider.

    A CAM is thus geared towards one or another encoding standard. But not all such standards have CAMs. Sky Digital, the British company that dominates the UK market using its Videoguard encoding system, has blocked the development of CAMs for that system, and only allows Videoguard decoder elements to be integrated into receivers built to its detailed specifications (these receivers are commonly called 'Digiboxes', and are made by different manufacturers, but thus quite similar). One of these is that the receiver does not have any CI for any other decoder element than Sky's (in fact, they are not really geared for anything other than Astra 2 and the Sky pacakge at all). In this way, the Sky satellite channel (the provider) and the receiver manufacturers have almost completely merged into a fairly tight monopoly that would make it very difficult for a competitor to break into the market. That is particular for Britain, however, no other similar situation exists in Europe.


    From two competitors, you can get...

    Happily, this conflicts of standards only concern the encodings and the receiver OS's. Once decoded, all digital TV is identical and can be properly displayed on any digital receiver. All digital TV uses an international standard called mpeg2 (known also from PCs) for the display of picture and sound. So, if you have negotiated the subscription decoding with a smartcard in the appropriate decoder, all receivers will display your channels fine. And, for the same reason, any subscription-based receiver of any kind will of course display all open channels, as they are also in the same mpeg2 form, without any frills.

    The national differences we have in analogue between USA (NTSC format) and Europe (PAL, Secam) thus do not apply to digital. It is the satellite receiver which transforms the mpeg2 signals to analogue, and thus to the system used by your TV set, PAL in Europe.
    Thus, the demand that "we really want you to use a receiver with operating system X", which we mentioned above, does not refer to the subscription decoding itself - which is independent of the OS, when you use a separate CAM module - and certainly not to the display of the pictures. However, digital TV can also include options beyond straight-forward display of TV channels, such as on-line shopping, email, pay-per-view films, multiple camera angles at sport events, and so on. These things are not bound by any standard, here each satellite channel is for himself; and these 'interactive extras' are based on the operating system. So, to get these extras, you must have a receiver the channel has 'approved' for you, with 'their' OS and which fits with their services. For the same reason you cannot have such services from two competing providers, even if you pay full subscription to each. You can only get the 'extras' from the provider whose choice of 'approved' receiver (and thus OS) you have accepted; this becomes your 'primary' provider.

    You can however still, then, watch subscription channels (without the interactive bits) from more than one subscription packages with competing encoding standards, provided

    • your receiver has a free CI slot which you can put a CAM module into
    • you are able to rent or buy a CAM for the relevant encoding system
    • there exists the software bit that links that receiver to the particular CAM type
    • the provider is willing to give you a subscription card to a 'non-approved' receiver and CAM
    All of these are 'ifs' and can block you, depending mostly on the providers' politics. They can e.g. refuse to sell you a subscriptions unless you have a receiver model they like (i.e. to stop you from putting the card into a CAM in a competetior's receiver type, or even to stop you from using a receiver with a second decoder slot at all). While they of course want your business (provided you live in the right country), their desire to stop you watching the competition may weigh heavier. In particular if the provider feels it has the 'upper hand', and by forcing you to choose it believes the majority of the market will choose them over the competitor.

    Some viewers try to evade the providers' various restrictions by receiving the channels through 'unauthorized' means, such as pirate cards or grey import of cards. These are legally and ethically slightly different:
    One is to receive encoded subscription channels without paying anything for it, mostly with special 'pirate' cards that 'crack' the subscription encoding. This has been made specifically illegal as fraud in most European countries. It was also a major concern for the providers during the analogue days; so digital encoding has been made virtually uncrackable, any workable card (if such exist) will almost certainly be short-lived. Piracy is therefore not to be recommended on either technical, ethical or legal grounds.
    By grey importing is meant to take out a legal subscription in a country where such are allowed, and then bringing the card to a country where subscription is not accepted. This is by common-sense standards not illegal or fraud, as the provider gets its regular subscription payment; but it is a breach of contract (saying that the card shall only be used in such-and-such country); and the provider can and will certainly terminate the card if it discovers it has been exported. Apart from this, it will mostly work technically, unless the satellite signals are so tightly focused on the target country that they become too weak at the other end of Europe. Currently, you can generally compensate for such focus by a somewhat larger dish. How difficult it is to implement such grey exports varies from country (provider) to country.


    THE CHANNELS

    So much for the technical detail. A summary of some countries' subscription options, as far as I know them:

    Britain

    As mentioned above, the case of Britain is pretty straightforward because of Sky's total monopoly on satellite subscription channels. These are all sent from a single satellite, Astra 2, and are encoded in the Videoguard system. There are no CAMs made for Videoguard, since Sky owns this systems, and is not going to allow any CAMs to be made. The only way to watch Sky channels is through an 'approved' receiver, a 'Digibox' (made by different companies, but almost identical inside). This is so closely linked to Sky and Astra 2 that, while you can point it at other satellites with open channels, you will have to do some hand-on manipulation to get it done; it is not meant for this. (Sky has earlier had an analogue package on Astra 1, the last few channels in this is closing down during the summer of 2001.) -- The options are basically whether to take out a Sky package, or only watch the 'free' BBC and other non-Sky channels. These are also encoded and on Astra 2, thus for like Sky for UK residents only, but can be received by Britons with a Sky-less subscription card.

    Scandinavia

    Moving north-east, to the region I have personal experience with, and which is also a good example of a competitive situation with many pitfalls.
    There are two major subscription packages in Scandinavia; Viasat (with the channels TV3, TV1000, and about twenty others), and Canal Digital (with Canal+, and a selection of English-language channels, about 35 in all). Both are sold in all three Scandinavian countries, and both are terminating their earlier analogue transmissions around the summer of 2001, but there the similarity ends. Viasat, based in Sweden, transmits over the Sirius satellite, and is encrypted in the Viaccess encoding system. Canal Digital transmits over the Thor satellite, and uses Conax for subscription encoding.

    As it happens, both packages have channels that are considered 'basic' for many viewers in all countries; Viasat has three national variants of TV3, while Canal D has more of the public channels (NRK, Danish and Swedish national TV) on their card. Thus, many viewers will want to subscribe to both packages. In order to do so, then, they must get a receiver which can take both Viaccess and Conax encryptions. As no receiver has both these systems integrated, they must thus have a receiver with at least one CI slot for an externally purchased CAM module with the 'other' decoder card.
    The two companies currently pursue different policies in this regard, and in the case of Viasat, they even vary their policies according to country:

    Canal D supports a MediaHighway-based receiver which has a free CI module, and appears not to have any problems with customers installing Viaccess CAMs in the free slot (although they do not help them doing so. Some of their supported receivers still lack the software bit needed to recognize a Viaccess CAM). As for their own Conax CAMs and subscription cards, they also do not hamper their sale to users with Viasat-based receivers.

    Viasat is much more restrictive. While Viacces CAMs as such are readily available (it is a common encoding system), Viasat in Denmark and Sweden refuse to sell subscriptions to anyone who does not have a receiver 'approved' by them. The list of 'approved' receivers is not long; the requirement is that it runs their OpenTV operating system. Thus, in these countries you can only get both subscription packages by buying an OpenTV, Viasat-based receiver with an empty CI (some, but not all of the approved receivers do have such a slot), and put a Conax CAM and Canal D card in that. You cannot run Canal D's software (and thus their interactive services and program guide) and receive Viasat channels. - In Norway, this is not the case, here Viasat does sell subscriptions also to 'non-approved' receivers. There is no explanation for this difference, possibly due to different commercial placement (the more dominant in the market, the more restrictive), but it makes a noticeable difference for the prospective purchaser.

    This is the situation as of early 2001. Negotiations are underway to ameliorate this situation, which can limit market choice severely, and plans are made to make both packages conform to a unified European standard for operating systems, MHP (Multimedia Home Platform), which would then replace the current Open TV and MediaHighway systems. However, currently this seems to run counter to the commercial strategies of the two companies competing for a dominance in the market, so it is uncertain if or when this may become a reality.

    The unity of the Scandinavian market is not complete: While many of the channels are available in all three countries in the same form, some with different optional soundtracks and subtitles, some channels are only available within the native country. Thus neither package is identical from country to country. The national state-run or private channels are cases in point; the Norwegian NRK and Swedish SR are only available to subscribers within each country, while the Danish DR can be subscribed to by the other nationals as an (expensive) extra on the Canal D card. A policy made by the governments in the 1980s of making all public channels viewable throughout the region over satellite has thus not become a reality.


    France

    My hands-on experience is limited to Scandinavia, but a scan of channel listings seems to reveal the following pattern of subscription packages for other European countries. -- I do not have details of how subscription politics go in each country; but a fierce competition for dominance which has consequences for the technical solutions offered is certainly the case virtually everywhere.

    France has three major subscription packages:
    The TPS package contains about 40 channels, and is transmitted from the Hotbird satellite. It is owned or dominated by the TF1 ('France 1') channel.
    Canal Satellite is run by the media behemoth Canal +, and is transmitted from Astra 1. It contains between 40 and 50 channels.
    TPS uses theViaccess encoding system, (which is, I believe, it created), Canal+ uses Mediaguard, (SECA) but is also listed in Viaccess. How far this allows French viewers to use the same CAM/decoder slot for both, I do not know.
    The third and smallest package, AB Sat with about 15 channels, also uses the Mediaguard system and interestingly transmit both from Astra 1 and Hotbird, the only case found of a 'split-satellite' solution.


    Spain

    Canal + also has a Spanish package, Canal Satellite, like its French and Dutch counterparts transmitted from Astra 1; with Mediaguard encoding. It contains about 30-40 channels.

    Two other Spanish packages transmit from the Spanish-only satellite Hispasat, at 30 deg. East. Both use the Nagravision system (a name known also from analogue encoding, but here thus in digital): ViaDigital is the largest, with some 40 channels, while Mulitcanal has a handful.


    Germany

    One would not think that Germany, with its large number of free channels, had room for much subscription TV. But in fact, the Premiere package contains some 50 channels, transmitted from Astra 1. It uses Irdeto, one of the most common European encoding systems.

    Two smaller German-language packages seem to be intended for the neighbouring countries. Austrian ORF sends about a dozen channels, apparently mostly regional variants of the public channel, in Cryptoworks encoding. RTL has many free channels, but also a small package, also in Cryptoworks, for Switzerland and Austria. Both of these are of course also on Astra 1, the German satellite par excellence.


    Holland-Beligum

    Holland and Belgium, small, mountain-less and well cabled, have traditionally not had much need for satellite transmission. But Canal + runs a subscription package, Canal Digitaal, from Astra 1 with some fifteen channels in Irdeto encoding.

    Greece

    Three Greek packages are registered, all from Hotbird, and each with between 10 and 20 channels. Two of them, Nova (the largest) and Multichoice are encoded in Irdeto, the third, OTE in Videoguard.

    Italy

    Italy sports two fairly large packages with 40-50 channels each, both from Hotbird, but with different encoding systems. D+ uses Mediaguard, Stream uses Irdeto.

    Poland

    A total of four subscrption packages seem intended for the Polish market, but only one them (Cyfra Plus) is listed with more than ten channels. It alone uses Mediaguard, and transmits from Hotbird. So do Polsat and TVP, both sending in Nagravision. Wizja sends from Astra, using Cryptoworks. TVP also duplicates some of its channels on the Eutelsat W 3 satellite, listed in NDS encoding.

    This is not a complete list of channels. There is one Russian package (NTV, 4 channels) and one Arabic (Arabesque, 10 channels), both on Hotbird; and many smaller packages, sometimes with mixed-language channels (many of the using the PowerVu system). Also, channels come and go almost on a daily basis, so the survey above must only be seen as a very approximate enumeration.

    It should however give an impression of the situation in early 2001, and shows the variety of organization in the different countries, some using similar systems, indicating some level of standardization in those countries; other going like the Scandinavians to war with opposing and incompatible systems, forcing the customers either to choose, or at least to adapt to their different exigencies.

    The kind of channels you can find within each package will vary widely, according to each country. Some may only be encoded for distribution restrictions. However, most of the larger packages will contain mixtures of entertainment, documentaries, and often with film channels as option extras. Many of these also duplicate common European or English-language channels like Eurosport, Discovery, BBC World and BBC Prime, MTV and even CNN and other otherwise open channels, within their packages (sometimes with local language adaptations as well as local advertisements) for easier convenience for their subscribers (thus, in my Scandinavian case, both packages include BBC World, Hallmark, Nickelodeon, MTV and VH-1, while only one has CNN, Eurosport, CNBC and BBC Prime).

    -- The information on digital satellite TV moves rapidly, and the above is only true of the spring of 2001, and is of course only scratching the surface, no doubt also cutting some techincal corners here and there. Hopefully, it will however, help those who might have been interested, is figuring out what to look for in their further research for what they want and what they need to get it.

    Knut S. Vikør.
    April 2001


    See also the survey of digital receivers made by Chris Muriel.

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