Satellite TV vs. Cable vs. DSL
Here at InternetLion.com we know how tough it is deciding on whether to order DSL, cable or satellite TV. To be sure, it was never easy. But with a gazillion websites weighing in, it’s now become doubly confusing: Some reviews seem perfectly logical until you realize the sites they’re on are selling ad space. And then, of course, you have the providers themselves; it seems all the DSL, satellite and cable TV providers in the United States publish numbers proving they’re the best in the industry.
And so, with so many contradictory facts floating around, it might seem impossible to determine who’s actually telling the truth. Heck, we wouldn’t be surprised if, after researching only an hour or so, you’re already ripping your hair out. But seeing as you’ve just landed on InternetLion.com, your hair (at least what’s left of it) is once again safe.
As one of the few websites to publish fair and honest reviews, here at InternetLion.com we’ll give you the real numbers and facts. The following review, for instance, will explain everything you ever wanted to know about how DSL differs from cable and satellite service in a side-by-side satellite TV vs. cable vs. DSL comparison.
As always, in this article we won’t pull a single punch, and we won’t make a speck of information up. In fact, we’ll even point out our advertiser’s weaknesses because we’re confident that, despite these failings, DISH Network’s® deals are superior to its competitors’. Our main goal is to simply help you decide whether DSL, cable or satellite TV service is right for you. And, as far as we’re concerned, the only way to do that is to be as straightforward and forthright as possible.
Cable vs. DSL
Probably the first thing you’ll want to know when deciding on whether to get DSL, cable or satellite TV service is how these three technologies differ. In the case of satellite services, the difference is pretty obvious: Instead of using ground-based wires, satellite service providers use large dish antennae to send signals to and receive signals from satellites. On the other end, satellite subscribers send signals to and receive signals from these satellites using smaller dishes attached to their homes.
Comparing cable vs. DSL, however, is a little trickier. Both use ground-based wires to transmit signals to and from their subscribers. But their means of doing so is extremely different. DSL, which stands for the misnomer “Digital Subscriber Line,” utilizes a traditional copper wire to transmit signals to and from subscribers. The reason we say “DSL” is a misnomer is that these signals are not “digital”—they are not computer-compressed—but are analog signals sent over a “virtually split” line.
What this “virtual split” means is that providers dedicate half a copper wire’s bandwidth to sending subscribers signals, and half to receiving signals from them. Because consumers rarely send as much information as they receive, DSL providers often split the bandwidth so the top and bottom portions of the total available frequency range comprise the consumer-sent, or “upstream,” line. Doing this, they force analog static into the upstream line in a way similar to how digital technology cuts off the low and high ends of a signal wave.
Of prime importance to DSL, then, is how companies can increase their copper wire’s bandwidth within a certain radius from about 3 KHz to between 10 and 100 KHz. Doing so, they can send both Internet signals and phone signals. The only necessary additions to the system are in-home filters between the copper wires and subscribers’ phones to weed out Internet signals.
Of course, there are limits to DSL: Namely, DSL signal quality is dependent on the number of subscribers accessing the line and a prospective subscriber’s distance from the line’s origin. The reason for the first drawback is that copper wire can become overloaded if too much bandwidth is taken up on the “downstream” line. The virtual split, after all, halves the bandwidth available for both incoming and outgoing virtual lines. And if too many signals eat up all of one half’s available bandwidth the system has to reallocate some of the other half’s bandwidth, slowing transmission rates.
As for the second problem, beyond a two-mile radius telephone service is only possible if a company inserts “load coils.” Load coils, in essences, filter out any frequency above the 3.4 KHz frequency of human voices. If the coils are not inserted, voice signals degenerate beyond the two-mile limit. But Internet signals, which are beyond voice’s 3.4 KHz frequency, can’t pass through the coils. For this reason, DSL providers must either run two separate lines beyond the two-mile mark or only offer one of the two services.
What’s more, DSL doesn’t often allow for TV service because of its limited bandwidth over long distances; one of the few companies to offer DSL TV, in fact, is AT&T, whose U-verse uses immense, unsightly Video Ready Access Devices. Put simply, a “VRAD” gets its TV programming from a fiber-optic cable, then converts the signals to DSL for subscribers in its immediate vicinity.
This is one way to break DSL’s two-mile barrier. But it’s also problematic. DSL lines, after all, are only effective within two miles, and adding TV to their bandwidth load means fewer subscribers can use one DSL line at once. With more DSL lines necessary, more VRADs are also necessary, and VRADs can still only service within two miles. This, in turn, means that VRADs are only possible in cities where there are enough people to make building them (and more DSL lines) worth it.
Naturally, since land in urban centers is either at a premium or worthless to AT&T for lack of residents, AT&T’s U-verse is fighting a no-win game. The system’s overhead ensures that VRAD-based DSL TV is beyond the budgets of enough consumers to make it virtually profitless. And, as proof positive of this fact, U-verse is only available in 22 states.
If you need Internet, telephone and TV service, then, it’s obvious how DSL stacks up in a satellite TV vs. cable vs. DSL comparison. Unless you’re contented with non-subscription TV’s limited channel offerings—or unless you’re willing to risk getting caught for stealing subscription services—you’ll likely have to go with a cable or satellite TV provider even if you have DSL.
A Short History of Cable TV
Turning now to how cable works in our satellite TV vs. cable vs. DSL comparison, the main thing to realize is how much cable has improved over the past century. At its inception in the 1950s, “Community Access Television,” or “CATV,” was merely a system of ground lines that provided cable TV households access to basic network programming. Now it is a separate industry unto itself.
The reason people would subscribe to CATV was the U.S. government limited the number of TV licenses available. Cable TV providers in the United States, who had licenses, would therefore send the basic TV programming they received through their antennae over networks of coaxial wires to cable TV households for a marginal fee.
Eventually Congress freed up some bandwidth so major networks could broadcast analog signals from affiliate stations. This allowed some non-cable TV households to access a limited number of over-air signals without licenses. But this system was also extremely inefficient because the analog format stations broadcasted in included high and low signal ranges and, therefore, immense amounts of static.
Even worse, all signals degenerate over long distances if transmitted through the air. As a result, networks had to have affiliate stations in every city, and fewer than 10 stations could broadcast at once. Many people who already had cable continued to receive subscription programming because CATV companies’ coaxial cables ensured better picture quality. Though it was a luxury, cable was simply the better option.
Of course, the federal restrictions on bandwidth might seem strange today. But there was a very real reason government officials put them in place: Congress had to make sure every region had enough over-air bandwidth for emergency services to send and receive signals. Police departments’ two-way radio transmissions, after all, were far more important than watching “I Love Lucy.”
In fact, the only reason for laxer restrictions on Cable TV providers in the USA was their coaxial cables’ prevented the transmissions passing through them from interfering with over-air signals. Put simply, their insulated environment gave coaxial cables a full, separate range of frequencies to work with and prevented their signals from jamming emergency-service radios.
As a result, cable TV providers in the United States could offer their subscribers a greater channel selection and, eventually, telephone and Internet services as well. But first came expanded programming following Congress’s liberalization of the program-production industry. Many cable TV providers in the USA began putting together their own cable-only channels (a micro-industry satirized in “Wayne’s World”) and many other companies got in the game of creating programming to sell or rent to CATV providers.
Eventually, many cable TV providers in the USA began replacing their coaxial lines with fiber-optic lines. This allowed them to transmit more signals and provide even faster Internet and phone services. Additionally, the computer industry’s invention of digital compression allowed CATV companies to expand their offerings and the quality of their programming to a never-before-seen level—what we know today as HDTV.
Satellite TV vs. Cable
With DSL out for either price or lack of TV service and the history of cable TV behind us, it’s now time for our comparison of Satellite TV vs. cable. Notably, when Consumer Reports asked whether they preferred cable or satellite TV, Internet and telephone bundles, customers were happiest with satellite providers. The only exception to this rule was Verizon FiOS®, the only cable provider to run fiber-optic cables directly to subscribers’ homes.
This stands to reason because fully fiber-optic systems offer far greater bandwidth, allowing providers to send exponentially more TV, telephone and Internet signals over them. To compete, every other cable company would have to follow suit, but they haven’t. In fact, every cable company that’s gone fiber optic besides Verizon has only replaced its main lines and still runs coaxial cable to subscribers’ homes. And that’s just a portion of cable companies. Many others are still completely reliant on their outdated coaxial systems.
Likely, this in itself is enough to make customers consistently happier with satellite TV providers, which typically transmit in 950-2150 MHz frequency ranges. That’s quite a bit of bandwidth, and unlike cable, such providers can bring it to bear for anyone with a compatible dish antenna. What’s more, satellite companies rarely need to launch new satellites. And subscribers themselves usually rent or buy their dish antennae, thereby lowering providers’ overhead costs.
As with in any industry, a company that can provide its products faster and more cheaply to a greater number of consumers will naturally be able to offer lower prices. This is a hard and fast rule of Capitalism, and satellite TV providers like DIRECTV® and DISH Network adhere to it. Their average monthly subscription fees are about 1/3 cheaper* than comparable cable packages, and over the long run, that means more money in their subscribers’ pockets.
And when it comes to keeping more money in subscriber’s pockets, be sure to check out the DISH Network deals listed here at InternetLion.com. DISH Network has the best value in TV entertainment with the lowest all-digital price nationwide…every day!
*Note: Please visit our Satellite Versus Cable TV Costs page for a breakdown of price differences.
Disclaimer: Please note that this article was written when the satellite TV provider DISH was branded as DISH Network. As of 2/1/2012 DISH Network has changed their branding name to DISH. Article post date: 07/16/2010.