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Cable vs Satellite TV - Or Free-To-Air?

We have a number of choices when deciding which method of TV service is best for us. Among other things, there is cable vs satellite TV to choose from, but also a range of free-to-air services.

In some cases, we are restricted in the ways we can receive our TV pictures due to where we live and the services that are available. We can also be limited by the technology that we need in order to get the right services.

In this article we will summarise some of the different ways we can receive TV shows in the UK and US.

Cable vs satellite TV - many TV types representation

Types of television providers

One of the most confusing issues when trying to figure out how we are going to receive our TV shows, is understanding the different types of delivery available to us.

If we break it down, it can be easier to see what our options are.

The main types of television available in the US and UK, can be broadly categorised into five main categories:

  • Broadcast Television (Over-the-Air or Terrestrial TV)
  • Free-to-air TV (FTA - or Unencrypted Satellite)
  • Cable Television
  • Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS - or Satellite TV)
  • IPTV and Internet TV

Broadcast television

Broadcast television, sometimes known as terrestrial TV, can be viewed as the most traditional type of TV delivery.

This type of TV can be received for free, and is traditionally picked up by an antenna (or aerial) on your home - which is then sent down a cable into a tuner integrated to your TV set. For many years this type of TV would have been sent using an analog signal. However, analog signals are starting to be replaced by digital signals - which can be known as Digital Terrestrial Television.

BBC and NBC Logos

Digital or analog, the basic method of transmitting and receiving is very similar.

While the TV tuner is often built into the TV set itself, it may be that an external box is used to receive the signal from the antenna, and this box is then connected by cables to the TV or home entertainment system.

In the US, this is how many people would have historically received the major broadcast networks - ABC, Fox, NBC, CBS and The CW.

In the UK, the main broadcast channels are BBC1, BBC2, ITV, Channel 4 and Five.

Free-to-air TV

Free-to-air TV is similar in many ways to traditional broadcast TV transmissions - and can be seen as an extension of broadcast TV.

All the main channels available for broadcast TV can also be categorised as free-to-air, and will be available using this method.

The main difference is that this type of TV is often sent using unencrypted satellite transmissions and can be received for free (or without subscription) by anybody with the right equipment to receive the signals. However, the method of delivery doesn't have to be restricted to satellite transmissions, and so the boundaries of this type of television and broadcast TV can be somewhat blurred.

Compared to traditional terrestrial TV, there are more channels available to the consumer via free-to-air services. There will also be many radio stations as well as TV channels.

Free-to-air in the UK

In the UK, there are various free-to-air services which can be received depending on the type of equipment you have.

Freeview Play and Freeview HD can be received over a standard TV aerial on the roof of your house, and the receiver can be an external unit or integrated into your TV.

Freeview Play Logo

Additionally, other free services include Freesat and Freesat from Sky. These services require a satellite dish to receive the transmissions, plus a digital box to decode the signals.

Technically, there are two categories for this type of TV. Free-to-air TV can be viewed without having a viewing card in the receiver box, and free-to-view which requires a card in the box. In the example above, Freesat is free-to-air (no card) and Freesat from Sky is free-to-view (card required).

Free-to-air in the US

In the US, you need to buy the correct type of satellite dish, LNBF and FTA receiver. You then have access to hundreds of free-to-air channels and radio stations that are transmitted from dozens of different satellites.

The receiver can be a standalone box that is connected directly to your TV, or a card that is installed into your computer.

There are two main types of free-to-air dish in the US. There are the large old style 'C' Band dishes, and the newer (and smaller) Ku Band dish.

You will get access to all the major broadcast networks plus many more independent channels which cater for more specialised subjects.

Cable television

Cable television companies provide TV, radio, phone and internet services by means of a cable network which is connected to your home.

This delivery method usually requires a subscription, but this will provide a far greater choice of TV programming than is available for free-to-air.

Fibre Optic Cable

You will need a cable box in the home to transmit the picture and sound to your TV - and you will usually be able to choose between a standard play-only unit and a more advanced digital video recorder (DVR) which allows scheduled recording to an internal hard disk.

One advantage of cable television is that there is no need to have external equipment like an aerial or dish on the outside of your home. The picture from a cable service will also be unaffected by poor weather and atmospheric conditions, which can sometimes be a problem with a satellite TV service.

Cable networks are also able to offer high bandwidths which are well-suited to transmitting high-definition pictures and supplying fast internet connections.

Cable TV in the UK

In the UK, there is only one main cable provider. Although there are a few smaller regional networks, Virgin Media have over 90% of all cable customers.

Virgin Media offer a high-speed fibre optic cable network and provide various TV packages - along with phone and internet services. They have a choice of DVR boxes supporting HD and 3D content, and have also released a new TiVo box into the market.

Cable TV in the US

In the US, there are two main types of cable networks - basic and premium. Basic cable is not encrypted and is available to anybody with a cable connection. Premium networks do encrypt their programming and require a subscription to enable viewing.

Time Warner Cable and Comcast Logos

There are a number of cable companies available in the US, some of which are limited to particular areas of the country.

Amongst the biggest cable networks are Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications and Cablevision. You obviously don't get far in the cable market unless your company name begins with a 'c'!

Satellite TV

Direct broadcast satellite, more commonly just known as satellite TV, is a commercial subscription-based TV service provided to home consumers.

With this type of delivery, the home-user will install a satellite dish on the outside of their home. This dish is then directed at the location of the transmitting satellite in the sky. A cable is then run into the home and into a receiver box, which connects to the TV.

In some cases, these systems can receive a limited number of free-to-air channels which can be viewed without charge. However, for the full range of entertainment, sports and movie channels, the user will need to pay a subscription.

Satellite TV in the UK

The UK only has just one option if you want a satellite TV supplier. Sky TV offer a range of TV channel packages, and can also provide DVR boxes in with standard or high-definition images. 3D sports and movies are also available.

Sky TV can also offer a wider range of services than just TV shows.

It is possible to combine your TV package with a phone and/or broadband internet. These other services don't come via the satellite dish however - they will use a standard phone cable into your home like any other telephone service.

Satellite TV in the US

In the US, there are two main companies that provide a DBS service - DirecTV and Dish Network.

Each of these suppliers provide different viewing packages which offer various combinations of programming. The user can pay different amounts depending on the type of TV channels they prefer - entertainment, sports, movies etc.

DirecTV and Dish TV Logos

There will also be a choice of receiver boxes to choose from. A standard box will just play the program on the TV (or home entertainment system), whereas a DVR (digital video recorder) box will allow recording and pausing of channels.

There will often be other options to choose between such as HD and 3D pictures. You would need to pick the right package depending on the other hardware you have in your home - for example, don't get the 3D package if you don't have a 3D TV!

IPTV and Internet TV

The final type of TV service is IPTV (internet protocol television) and internet TV. These types of service are delivered using a broadband connection.

Technically, there is a difference between IPTV and internet TV. Internet TV travels over an open internet connection in the same way as any other internet traffic such as email or web pages. On the other hand, IPTV services are specifically designed to use private, direct IP connections between the user and the provider.

The internet provides great freedom to deliver video and audio content, and there are a number of online-only television channels taking advantage of this.

Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video Logos

The advantage of content delivered to us in this way is that it is available wherever there is an internet connection present - from home networks to mobile phones and tablets. The disadvantage is there needs to be a fairly quick and reliable internet connection to allow acceptable streaming of video and audio - and this is still a challenge for many people.

See why is my router so slow? for more information on this subject.

The types of services offered can range from dedicated online-only TV channels, to catch-up TV services, to video-on-demand content collections. It is possible to access these services by going direct to a website using your usual web browser - but it is also becoming more common to have internet options and access to web-based content built-in to new flat screen TVs and Blu-ray players.

The main players are Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Hulu - however many of the companies mentioned in the other categories above offer some form of internet TV service, in addition to their usual cable, satellite or terrestrial delivery methods.

Cable vs Satellite TV Summary

Hopefully this guide to the different types of TV services will help you to understand your choices when considering the best type of system for you.

You can save yourself some money if you are aware of the different ways it is possible to receive TV programming in your home - and you could even get everything you require for free. It is important to think about the types of TV you will watch, and avoid paying for extras that you really don't need or use.

Cable vs satellite TV is one choice many people think about - but there are also many free-to-air and broadcast services which can be ideal for some users.

You should also consider which type of receiver boxes that are best-suited to your needs. HD, 3D and recordable devices are all great - but you will pay more for each option so think about what you actually need.


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