Why I won’t give up my C band dish
By Tim Alderman
A 9 month odyssey started when they took away my analog
feed of the History Bistory Channel
While I knew it was coming, it was still a shock. My twelve foot Paraclipse Dish, similar to the ones I built for Sat FACTS back in 1995 and 96, has seen a decline in programming available on analog for years now. On January first of this year, Turner Classic Movies suddenly, and with only 4 hours notice, disappeared from the arc. This affected a good friend, who watched it all the time, but for me it was just another sad note of the fact that people have been tearing out their C band and going to either Directv or Dish Network, the two DBS or “little dish” providers.
I give funny names to favorite things. It wasn’t just the History Channel, but the History Bistory Channel that I watched, when not on the news. Late last year the East Coast feed had gone, just suddenly, it was off the air. But I still had the West Coast feed, which gave me my fix of “Modern Marvels” and of course WWII coverage almost wall-to-wall. It was analog, pure, direct and full of the sharp inner detail that digital lacks.
I had been eyeing advertisements for some time, even on CNN, about a third DBS provider just making it’s debut. It was called VOOM, and it offered to lease me 3 IRDs and install them for a dollar. The ad said, “why even your couch has a dollar”. On January 31st, the remaining analog feed for History Bistory Channel was gone, poof. ARRRRGH, they hit home!
A&E Networks, owner of the channel, sent me an email suggesting I subscribe to one of the DBS providers, and named two, or get cable. They don’t know that I spent 3 years of my life volunteering to build and maintain a satellite dish owner radio talk station a decade before, that was driven off the air by cable. My C band programmer, National Programming Service (NPS), said “We are sorry, but they have discontinued service”, and offered me a credit for the remaining portion of my $12.95 a year programming fee.
My heart sunk, the giant money machine corporations that control access to the public park in the sky had once again refused to deal. NPS said the service had gone to SA PowerVu. I said “hey wait a minute, I HAVE ONE”. That was like pissing against the wind in a cyclone. BUT, maybe if I can find 2 friends to split the cost, and go for the VOOM package deal, I could swallow my pride and mount one of those steenking MONOPOLY DISHES on the side of my house.
The VOOM Lady, Kelly Dalton, came to visit my dealer, and part time employer, Myron. I had talked to him about the new service, and he decided to see if he could re-enter residential market sales by offering this service. Yes, yes they had HD all over the place, all about their HDTV programming, “twenty one channels of high definition bliss”, but that was a side show for me. I wanted my History Bistory Channel, and here was a way, all be it rather expensive, to get it back.
Myron hired me to erect my custom feed (see SF120) and try to bring in terrestrial channels that were offered as part of the VOOM IRD package. He also talked me into trying something new, leasing equipment. The demo with Kelly had been a success. The low-to-the-horizon VOOM feed at 61.5 degrees west may have presented problems for the average DBS installer, but for me, a piece of cake. After the meeting, it was all set. I would pay 1/3rd of the $65 a month fee to get what I wanted, to see, once again, the H in the lower right hand corner of my screen, and recover the History Bistory Channel. Never mind the fact that I was supposed to keep all 3 IRD’s. Kelly said that was the least of their problems, and it would be two years at least before they installed software that required the IRD to be connected to a phone line, and report where it was calling from. So, problem solved, all be it for a ridiculous price, I hid the DBS dish in the back where nobody could see I was a traitor to my beloved C band.
March 2005 came and went. In the meantime, NPS had managed to find a way to convince A&E Networks to allow Digicipher access to their HITS feed on Galaxy 4 Ku, the same feed they supply cable. As soon as I heard that, I subscribed to the “Absolute Digital Package” offered by NPS, for $199 a year. 42 channels on top of 65 from VOOM, nickels rolling out of the bag everywhere. I just had to have “diverse and redundant routing” for my view of the big H. It was a good thing I did this, as you will soon see.
I quickly discovered that, yes indeed Matilda, there ARE differences in “digital quality”, even of the same signal. CNN on VOOM, C-SPAN too, had tearing from the analog signal they were downlinking at their uplink site on Long Island, New York. And the big H was not where near as sharp on the small dish. I could immediately tell it was a copy, as the signal was delayed by the all to familiar 780 millisecond delay from the satellite relay.
Yet I also watched some of the VOOM channels, and discovered TVRO programming of not-so-commercial nature on those HD channels was an interesting and eclectic mix. My friends also raved about the programming they were getting. But it was not to last.
On April fool’s day, VOOM took down their web site and said, in it’s place, it was no joke. They were going off the air at the end of the month. The New York Times newspaper had a couple of articles about a boardroom battle between father and son of a cable company that owned VOOM. The very next day the furor subsided, and they were suddenly back in business. A week later came the news they were adding channels.
Strange thing was also happening at NPS. They had a new ceo, and this fellow was not about to do what had been done previously, let C band slide slowly back to what it was when I first worked in satellite, with no programming at all. NPS not only brought back my History Bistory Channel, but Turner Classic Movies, and a bunch of other programming that had died and gone to DBS and cable in recent years. So here I was, starting to feel good about the fact I had dedicated my life to C band, almost two decades before. One man CAN make a difference, and two men, in different places, had decided they wanted my business, sending them money every month.
But, it was not to last. The son gathered strength and soon ousted the father from his nest in a boardroom coup, according to the Times. VOOM had been an $800 million mistake because they entered with to little and to late. It seems that they were fighting even bigger money from Charlie Ergen (Dish Network) and Rupert Murdoch (Directv), who were intent on squashing a nascent competitor before it could achieve critical mass. Struck me like a familiar tune, a de-ja-vieu from my days at the radio station, watching as giants swung battle axes at eachother, and hearing their thunder seep under the boardroom door.
By April 30th, VOOM was all but gone. Yet their satellite was co-located with Ergen’s at that 61.5 degree west orbital slot. And so Ergen had brought their satellite, already in orbit, for a paltry figure, reported to be $200 million. Paltry in giant money machine business terms. As the day approached, VOOM started to advertise “VOOM lives on, on Dish Network”. It seems that Ergen had realized there was NO unique and original programming, HD or otherwise, on DBS that was not copied, like my beloved H, from C band.
So I watched to see if VOOM would send a “kill signal” to unsubscribe the ATSC portion of their IRDs in the field as they went off the air. Fortunately, they did not. These IRDs could still have a life after VOOM as free-to-air terrestrial equipment. In fact, I used one to diagnose signal-to-noise problems on the roof of that rich man’s house, “Too Much Signal”, published in SatFACTS.
I had also become hooked on the “VOOM HD originals”. Quirky, slightly offbeat channels about exploring the world, and viewing art gallery paintings, RAVE HD “This channel should be played LOUD”, and not to mention “GuyTV, TV for Guys” which showed some movies in black and white HD, which looked surprisingly good.
I wasn’t interested in “Americas Top 60” or anything like that, that Ergen promoted. I had my programming from my C band dish, and I paid only a fraction of the DBS prices either one of the remaining DBS services wanted. So I called up Echosphere, the corporate name behind Dish Network, after I read of their offering 10 of the original VOOM channels for a mere $5 a month. BUT, there was a catch, two in fact. Ergen, greedmaster that he is, had a deal, well sort of. If I agreed to pay him an “access fee” of $5 a month, AND if I were to subscribe to his HD package, at $9.99 a month, I could get my VOOM channels.
Such is temptation for programming from satellite. You get all used to the schedules, bypass the programs that repeat ad infinitum, and find just those offbeat gems of real interest, seeing things not normally associated with TV. Things I had loved with my C band dish, watching programming from Shawn Kenny’s “Boresight”. Programming JUST for TVRO.
Ergen even offered a promotion, “Subscribe and get HD pack for free for 6 months”. Pretty good, if it worked. So I bought his “Dish Pro 811 HD” IRD. I had the subscriptions I wanted, and was back in the cat bird’s seat with the best of the best. Or so I thought. Then the troubles began.
The 811 was no sweetheart IRD. In fact, it was a real dog. One of the local free-to-air channels from San Francisco, KQED, offers 5 digitals in addition to their analog. This is from PBS, which is a partially supported public broadcast service from the taxpayers in the US. No commercial station was going that far, only offering 1 or 2 digitals to go with their analog. KQED decided to do something called “dynamic channel remapping” when, at 8PM nightly, they switched OFF 3 digital channels and turned ON their HD.
My original ATSC tuner supported this. Not so, mister Ergen’s 811. Not only did it refuse to remap, it went, putting it mildly, catatonic. It stopped receiving any channel, even satellite. Fortunately the troubleshooter in me managed to figure out that if I unplugged it, and then did a “master reset”, it would come back. Back all naked, with my favorites, everything I programmed into that bloody box now gone.
I pounded on Myron’s desk.. “Ergen sold me a piece of crap, this IRD goes beserk when KQED remaps nightly. Their customer support knows of this, and there is no fix available. I want my money back”. So I packed it up, every last piece, the remote, warranty card, cables, everything. And took it to the shop.
Well into June I asked “so where’s my refund”? and was told politely, Echosphere doesn’t give refunds. They take your money but they do not give it back, period. If you want it, go get an attorney. In the meantime, I was paying for subscriptions I was not getting. And two weeks later, I got a call “your replacement IRD has arrived”. Huh?
Turns out the only way to get anything for the $355 I had tied up in that IRD was to accept the unit and go on from there, dynamic channel remap failure or no. I had another ATSC tuner I could use, the old VOOM IRD. When I got the “refurbished” unit home, there was a tag to send the old unit back, but no manual, remote or cables. SO I had a unit and not much beyond the front panel to change channels or setup my favorites. I hollered about no remote, and a month later, one eventually showed up. In the meantime, I had called Dish Network and they wanted $49.95 for a new remote. Instead, I opted to try eBay, where I found dozens of them for $9.95 - $29.95, some brand new, up for auction. So I bought one to have some civilized control of my IRD while waiting for Echosphere to give that replacement. Eventually I also got a manual, but this I had to pay $10 for. I never did get warranty card or cables, ohh well.
When I reactivated the subscription, having been hooked this far, I figured, what the hey, let’s see how dealing with Ergen is for billing. Not to good, it turns out. Remember I said that Ergen takes money but policy prohibits ever sending any? Well, that “6 months free” for the $9.99 HD pack, was ONLY good if you called and they made an “adjustment”. How many people would remember to ask for their discount in this way? DBS moneymen makes their huge dollar investment pay by making the customer pay attention. By the second month, the customer service operator said “you already have that adjustment on your bill” When I asked to speak with a supervisor “Well, that adjustment is made by another department and we have no access to them here” Grrr.. I refused to take no for an answer, and eventually the second adjustment was subtracted from my bill. I had to repeat this every single month until the offer expired.
In the meantime, Myron’s rich client, whose roof I had visited with that VOOM box, wanted TIVO in his Directv box. The old HD IRD he had been getting programming on for years, from “Hughes” was suddenly available. I discretely asked if I could “borrow” it for research. I had this wild idea. If I am to lecture in Tasmania next spring at the upcoming Australasia trade show and conference, I need to be current on little dish stuff, right?
I also wanted to see just how the “cow ate the cabbage” on DBS. I knew that both Murdoch and Ergen used the same satellites. I decided to see if there was way to combine a single antenna farm on the roof of a commercial building, such as a highrise, and have Myron’s client, the landlord, be able to offer his tenants EITHER SERVICE. All I had to do was figure out how to make it work, and build an antenna “farm” just for DBS.
Reasonable people would take a standard DBS dish and use that. But, I am not reasonable. I knew that any experiments would involve a lot more LOSS. Not wanting to starve my newly conceived “test bed” I bought two 1.1meter reflectors and mounted them in an inverted position, or, as Myron likes to call it, “mushroom” the dishes. This is a slight of hand I used to save his lunch on the roofs of several commercial buildings, because inverted dishes are much less of a sail in the wind. DBS dishes, ALL OF THEM, are vastly different from the C band kind. They are stamped steel with no support. Give a consumer a chance and unknowing hands warp them like potato chips. I like my Ruffles to have Ridges but I want my satellite reflectors to be straight to the eye, within the Ku band tolerance of 20 thousandths of an inch. “De-warping” a DBS reflector is not a chore for the inexperienced, and even I have had failures in this.
The next issue was the LNBF. Ergen uses a “non-standard” mount that connects the feed to the button hook than the more universal directv kind, even though they downlink the same frequency band. That was not all Ergen did. There were several manufacturers of his “Dish Network” when he launched in 1996 or so, but by 2004, he had taken control. Not only did his big money buy programming from VOOM, but he wanted to make money from equipment sales also. Ingenious, when you control both the equipment AND the programming, you can act like a monopoly, just like cable.
Ergen’s method of doing this was to create a new product called “DISH PRO”. The LNBFs used by Directv use the DC power voltage to control polarity, 13V for one, 18V for the other. They have two F connectors. And therein lies the rub. In a multiple dwelling unit, you have to have BOTH polarities available. The switch that the IRD talks to, selects which to send. So unlike C band, the LNBF and the IRD have a two way communications set up. DISH PRO takes this a step further. The IRD can tell the LNBF to STACK both polarities, thus bringing the whole bird down on a single piece of RG6.
Ergen did not develop this overnight. He started out using the same technology as Directv but managed to take control away from those wanting to use common equipment. Yet he had to leave some semblance of backwards compatibility in his switches and his IRD’s. So how does one connect a Dish Pro IRD to a generic or “Standard” LNBF? Simple. It turns out that Ergen had a chief designer who quit and went to Korea. This man created a company called “Microroyal” and built Dish Pro compatible switches. “Under the hood” it turns out Ergen had used a standard called DiSEqC that changes satellites. Microroyal offered these, via sellers on eBay, for a pittance compared to the hundreds of dollars Ergen wants for his brand named units.
So the DiSEqC switch gets commands from the IRD as to which satellite and polarity, which in turn controls the LNBF. Dishes have become so cheap that a standard evolved to use multiple dishes to change satellites rather than the traditional way used in C band, the actuator or jack to move the dish.
Ergen countered his former employee turned competitor with a real smart move of his own. He called it “DISH PRO PLUS”. In this method, Dish Pro switches only talk to Dish Pro LNBF’s, they simply do not recognize anything else. And Dish Pro Plus combines a multi-satellite “twin” LNBF with an INPUT that accepts signal from a third satellite. Put a Dish Pro Plus out at the end of the line, and even his Dish Pro switch gets bypassed. The IRD just doesn’t see it and talks through it, to the LNBF instead. Ergen had always been a “multi-satellite” provider, knowing that you can only pack so many channels at a single orbital slot.
With seven million customers, Dish Network is catching up on Directv, with eleven million. Murdoch’s Directv became sort of a giant, lumbering along slowly. They were slow to adopt a multi-satellite yet single dish, or what we used to call, a “simulsat” dish. Realizing they had competation, of a sort, Directv launched a catchup scheme by choosing 3 satellites, each nine degrees apart. In their setup, they call it an “oval” because of the reflector’s shape. First they had “SAT A” which was the bird they used at 101 degrees west orbital slot. You MUST have SAT A connected to a Directv box for it to recognize anything. Then they leased capacity on Ergen’s bird at 119 degree west orbital slot, needing more and more transponder space to carry all the “local into local” channels they wanted in every major marketplace in the US. And then they conceived of a way to further differentiate themselves by using a special LO for the third, or 110 degree orbit. So both companies made things difficult for some enterprising local business owner to combine the two on the rooftop. That third position Directv called “SAT C” and made installers buy a special switch to get HD programming.
By the time I realized all of this, I had a several hundred dollar investment made, and 6 DBS dishes. I also decided to try Dish Network’s version of Local-into-Local by getting what they call “local channels” for $5.99 a month. Once I had this, I decided to get another Dish Pro LNBF by having a dish network installer come and install a dish just for the locals, from an orbital slot of 148 degrees west. (It’s the dish on the far left in the photo above) It shocked me to find out Ergen installed this for free, all I had to do was sign a form. Yet he refused to put in anything but a standard dish, a twin, with the single feed.
So Ergen basically achieved his goal of separating his hardware from that of Murdoch’s Directv. Only one polarity, the 18v from the 119 degree west satellite, works on both. And Ergen has to be able to control that with it’s DC voltage, or the Microroyal switch won’t recognize it. Thus it took six dish reflectors to receive signals for both Directv HD and dish network HD IRD’s. Thank goodness for Myron’s client, loaning me that IRD! To pay $44.95 a month which is what Directv wants for ANY service, would send me to the poorhouse real soon.
I did manage to pull a coup, well sort of, on Ergen. Remember that 61.5 orbital slot, the one beside my house? To get a Dish Pro LNBF to physically fit on a standard button hook, I found a “satellite salvage” seller on eBay. They had found that Echosphere takes their used equipment, in this case LNBF’s, from the field and removes the outer plastic shell. This exposes the waveguide and ruins it for resale. But for me, humm, I need an LNBF throat to grab with the standard buttonhook feed support tube. I merely taped it with electrical tape and Scotchcoated the entire thing to weatherproof it. The distance between that dish and the remaining 5 is a distance of almost 200 feet. So I had to use RG11 cable to reduce the loss. Even though I had signals strength about 4 to 6dB hotter than standard, this was still not enough to have the DiSEqC Microroyal switch talk to it reliably. And once that was sorted out, the 811 Dish Pro IRD would see the LNBF, but not talk. So I had to add RG11 back from the switch to my room.
So, now, finally, peace of mind in signal gluttony land. With 4 operating satellite systems, I can watch my History Bistory Channel on C band, and fallback protect it with Directv. And be able to say something to the attendees at next year’s trade show about US DBS satellites.
So, if you plan to attend, you will be able to hear speakers who know what in heck is going on in TVRO today. And who still love their analog C band reception systems. At least one.
 HITS – Headend in the Sky. Around since 1997 or so on G4 Ku, this was strictly cable monopoly service until NPS cracked the mold and allowed TVRO to share in the feeding frenzy.