Information to assist you in choosing the right satellite TV system for your motorhome.
By Mark Quasius, F333630
Watching television in a traditional stick-and-brick residence is pretty straightforward. Over-the-air broadcast television can be viewed on either a digital TV or an analog TV equipped with a converter box. If you aren’t satisfied with over-the-air content, you can call your local cable company or a satellite provider and have them come to your home and set up a system of your choosing. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite that simple for motorhome owners because of the very nature of their travel lifestyle.
Some RVers choose to rely on over-the-air broadcasts when on the road, but reception can be nonexistent outside of metro areas. Many campgrounds offer cable TV service at the utility post, and most motorhomes are outfitted to hook up to this service. But if cable service isn’t offered at the campground you choose to stay at, you’re out of luck.
A number of folks have chosen to have their motorhomes set up to receive satellite TV service so they can enjoy TV programming no matter where they camp.
Satellite TV has evolved quite a bit since it was introduced in the 1980s. High-definition (HD) video and interactive programming are joined by digital video recorders (DVRs) that can record up to eight different channels at once on hard drives that are capable of storing hundreds of hours of programming. Season passes and wish lists automate the process so that your favorite shows automatically will record while you are away.
Motorhome technology also has changed to embrace these technological advances, and it’s common to find coaches with multiple high-definition flat-screen televisions and surround-sound systems all interconnected with high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) cables. However, it can be daunting to get everything to work together. The equipment usually is made by different vendors, and there are several content providers to choose from in the United States and Canada.
To help you gain a better understanding about the intricacies of the various systems, let’s first discuss the basics of satellite television.
How Satellite TV Works
Satellite TV operates by originating a signal at the provider’s base station and transmitting it through a large dish, called the uplink, toward a specific satellite. The signal then is relayed from the satellite to a subscriber’s dish, called the downlink, where it is sent to the receiver so that it can be decoded and viewed. The satellites circle the Earth in a geostationary orbit, which means that each satellite is always in the same location in reference to the Earth beneath it. This is necessary because any satellite dish must be precisely aimed at the satellite in order to receive the signal. The satellites are orbiting approximately 22,000 miles above the Earth, so even a slight amount of misalignment in the dish moves the target many miles away from the satellite, and reception is lost.
Each service provider has a number of satellites in orbit in the southern sky above the equator. Each satellite is referred to according to the longitude of its orbital position, such as 101W, 119W, 93W, etc. Because the satellites are located near the equator, the vertical angle between the satellite and horizon is shallow, and the satellite will appear to be lower the farther north you go. Satellite signals don’t pass through trees or other objects, so you’ll find less interference when you travel in the southern United States than you will in the northern portions.
The satellite dish is aimed at a specific satellite, but each satellite is equipped with 32 transponders, which relay the signal back to earth. Each transponder is capable of handling multiple channels via digital signal compression and multiplexing, so it’s possible to broadcast a large number of channels if desired. Further expansion of the satellite’s capabilities is accomplished through spot beaming. If a given transponder is set to broadcast a narrow spot beam to a given geographical area, that same transponder also can be used to broadcast additional spot beams to other areas of the country without requiring additional frequencies. The most common use of this is in providing local channels. A single transponder can send a spot beam of the Milwaukee channels to a 150-mile radius around that city, a second spot beam of the Denver channels to the Denver area, a third spot beam to Seattle, and so on, using the same frequency without any interference. Any nearby cities with spot beams that may overlap will use a different frequency. For a motorhome owner, this means that you will lose your local channels when traveling; however, you can subscribe to national East Coast or West Coast feeds that will give you access to the major broadcast networks when traveling.
Most programming is sent over the KU band, which is 12 to 18 gigahertz (GHz). However, the KU band is very popular with commercial satellite users, and that band is running out of room; so, DirecTV has begun sending additional programming via the higher-frequency KA band, which is between 26.5 and 40 GHz. The KA band can pack more information into its bandwidth, and any future expansion of satellite usage will take place in that spectrum.
The satellite receiver is useless without an antenna. Satellite systems use a dish-type antenna in both uplink and downlink applications. The actual dish itself is a parabolic reflector that collects the signal and focuses it to the round receiver, known as the low noise block converter (LNB), which is mounted on the end of the arm. When you select a channel on your receiver, it will check the integrated software to determine which satellite and transponder it needs to see. It then sends a signal to the LNB to power it.
A single LNB is capable of seeing only one-half of the transponders at one time. The receiver sends a 13-volt signal to the LNB to view the even transponders or an 18-volt signal to view the odd transponders. This works fine for a single receiver, but if you have two receivers, you won’t be able to watch separate channels unless they are all on the same even or odd bank of transponders. To handle this, most satellite dishes now come with a dual LNB. A dual LNB allows multiple receivers to view any available channels, because one LNB can be set to receive a 13-volt signal while the other can receive an 18-volt signal from either receiver.
The size of the dish plays a big role in the reception of the signal. A larger dish gathers more signal to reflect onto the LNB. Smaller dishes don’t gather as much signal, so the LNB will receive less, possibly resulting in interference or bad reception. Satellite signals don’t pass through objects, so it’s important to have a clear line of sight with no trees or obstructions in the way. In addition to solid objects, satellite reception also can be impacted by rain fade and cloud cover. The satellite signal can diffuse and scatter when it passes through rain or dense clouds. If the interference is severe, the signal can be lost. Having a larger dish will help minimize rain fade, because it is able to gather more of the signal.
Satellite dishes can be permanently mounted or portable. Portable dishes have to be precisely aimed in order to work. For an RV owner, this means the dish has to be set up and dialed in every time you move to a new campsite.
Setup consists of acquiring the desired coordinates from the Internet or by entering your ZIP code into the satellite receiver and then adjusting the dish to the parameters displayed on your television screen. The location of the satellite from any point on Earth is described by two measurements in degrees — azimuth and elevation. Azimuth refers to the magnetic compass direction that the dish is rotated to (north is 0 degrees), while elevation refers to the angle above the horizon at which the dish is raised. You’ll need a compass to set the azimuth, but the dish should have elevation markings, and using them will be close as long as you use a level to ensure that the dish tripod is set up vertically and not at an angle.
A signal strength meter is then used to fine-tune the alignment to gain the best possible signal. Oval dishes that look at multiple satellites add a third adjustment called skew, which rotates the dish upon the mounting pole to cock it at an angle. Manually adjusting a portable antenna on a tripod can be tedious, so most motorhome owners opt for a roof-mounted dish.
Automatic-tuning units also are available. They feature an enclosed case that can be set on the ground next to the RV and connected to the RV via a coaxial cable. The Winegard Carryout (also requires a power cable in addition to the coaxial cable) and the VuQube and Tailgater antennas from King Controls (require only a coaxial cable) are popular examples of these handy, portable units. The drawback to these is that the dishes inside them are small, so their signal strength may be marginal in less-than-ideal conditions.
Roof-mounted dishes can be manually operated or fully automatic. Automatic dishes greatly simplify the task, because they seek out the signal and fine-tune to lock on it. Automatic dishes come in two versions — open reflector and enclosed dome. The domes are popular as original equipment offerings on many motorhomes and are available as either stationary or in-motion models. In-motion models utilize sophisticated technology to lock on to the satellite and stay with it even while the motorhome is moving, so that your passengers can watch TV while you drive. Domed units also never have to be retracted and are protected from the elements by the cover. The downside to any dome is that the reflector dish must be small enough to fit inside it; therefore, the signal won’t be as strong as that of a larger dish. Rain fade problems are much greater with a dome, and early morning frost or dew that condenses on the dome can affect the signal. Lastly, most domed units that are currently on the market support only the KU band satellites, so if you want DirecTV’s HD programming you’ll need to find another alternative, because that programming requires the KA band.
Satellite Service Providers
Four primary satellite TV providers operate in North America. In the United States, your options are DirecTV (www.directv.com) and DISH Network (www.dish.com), while Canadians can choose between Bell TV (www.bell.ca) and Shaw Direct (www.shawdirect.ca). All four offer different tiers of programming, including both standard (SD) and HD channels, pay-per-view options, and digital recording devices (digital video recorder — DVR — in the U.S.; personal video recorder — PVR — in Canada). If you have one of these providers in your stationary residence, you probably will want to stick with that service on the road. But if this is your first foray into satellite TV, you will want to compare the programming offered by each and choose which best satisfies your viewing needs while traveling.
Both DirecTV and DISH Network offer plans specifically for RVers. The DirecTV Choice Mobile plan includes access to more than 185 channels. DISH Network offers four different plans for RVers, including a “Pay-As-You-Go” option for those who may not travel year-round. While mobile TV is available from Bell TV and Shaw Direct, at this writing neither have specific plans just for RVers.
No matter which service provider you decide on, each requires special equipment (dish and receiver) manufactured by KVH (401 847-3327; www.tracvision.com), King Controls (952-922-6889, www.kingcontrols.com), MoSAT Systems (801-441-2060; www.mosatsystems.com), RF Mogul (801-895-3308; www.rfmogul.com), or Winegard (800-288-8094; www.winegard.com). If you do not have satellite TV service at home, or this is the first time you are adding this to your motorhome, you may want to call one of these companies before contacting the service provider. The reason is that they work with mobile consumers all the time, while the content providers deal mostly with residential customers. There are also many companies throughout North America to help select and install the system of your choice. A list of some of these companies can be found on page 307 of the January 2013 issue of Family Motor Coaching and at the RV Marketplace page on FMCA.com.
Putting It All Together
Motorhome installations of satellite TV can vary greatly, depending on which provider you choose, what type of dish is installed on your coach, how many receivers or DVRs/PVRs you want, and where they will be located.
One of the simpler installations is a pair of receivers, one located in the bedroom and the other in the main living area. A dual-LNB satellite dish or dome will come with a pair of coaxial cables so you can run one cable to each location. DVRs are a bit different. DVRs have dual tuners and feature two inputs so that you can watch or record a show on one channel while recording a second show on another channel. (DISH has a single-tuner HD receiver that can be turned into a DVR by adding your own external hard drive.) You can connect one DVR in the same manner as two standard receivers, except that both of the coaxial cables are connected to the two inputs on the DVR rather than split off to a second location.
It gets a bit more complex when you want to add a second receiver or DVR in addition to the first DVR. You will need either three or four cables, depending on whether the second unit is a dual-channel DVR or a single-channel receiver. Your dish has only two output cables, and adding a splitter doesn’t work for satellite TV. The receiver needs to send a 13-volt or 18-volt signal to power the LNB, and it also needs to connect to the correct set of transponders. To accomplish this, a multiswitch must be installed. A multiswitch will pass bidirectional signals and automatically switch the receivers to the input cable that is connected to the correct transponder. Multiswitches generally have two inputs that connect to the dish and four, eight, or 16 outputs that can feed the various receivers or DVRs on the system. One input line will apply 13 volts to the LNB while the other will apply 18 volts, so that all transponders are available at the multiswitch. The output terminals will automatically switch and connect to the appropriate input line according to the signal sent up from the receiver or DVR. To connect a pair of DVRs or an additional receiver to the above system, a simple 2×4 multiswitch will work fine and provide the four cable connections needed to feed your entertainment system.
The biggest issue with having dual DVRs is the physical running of the coaxial cable. It’s easy enough to add a multiswitch in the front of the coach where the receivers are located, but most coaches are equipped only with a single satellite coax feed to the bedroom receiver location. In order to feed a dual-channel DVR located in the bedroom, you’ll need a pair of coaxial cables, but it’s not easy to fish a second cable back to that location once the coach is finished. However, it may be possible for you to use single-wire multiple-channel (SWM) technology to overcome this hurdle.
SWM (pronounced “swim”) represents another technological advancement in satellite TV. Without SWM it takes a pair of cables to handle the even and odd transponder feeds from a dual LNB. If more than two feeds are desired, a multiswitch is needed to raise that number. SWM requires only a single coaxial cable to do all of this. It does so by utilizing a bandwidth between 950 megahertz (MHz) and 1,800 MHz and dividing it up into eight dedicated frequency ranges of 100 MHz bandwidth each. This allows up to eight receivers or four dual-channel DVRs to communicate with the dish or dome via one single coaxial cable. High-bandwidth splitters that are rated for SWM use are then used to split the signal off to the desired locations.
In order to use SWM technology, your DVR or satellite receiver must be SWM-capable. If it is an older unit, chances are it may not be compatible and will need to be upgraded. You’ll also need a SWM dish. (No dome dishes used in the RV market can use SWM technology.)
For satellite dishes that are not SWM-ready, a SWM-8 multiswitch (requires a 29-volt power inserter) can be used to convert any dish or dome to SWM. Traditional systems use the satellite receiver to power the LNB via 13-volt or 18-volt tones. SWM systems don’t need that kind of switch, because all of the data is encoded, multiplexed, and then decoded at the proper receiver. But the LNB still needs to be powered, so a power inserter is connected to the coaxial cable via an unused port on the high-bandwidth SWM splitter, allowing it to send 21 volts upstream to power the LNBs. Because this power inserter requires an available port, you’ll have to add a second 1×2 splitter or replace the original with a 1×4 splitter. SWM technology makes it easy to integrate the latest DVRs into any motorhome with the least amount of effort.
DirecTV also offers whole-house viewing, which allows any one receiver or DVR to view recorded programming on another DVR. This requires communication between the various DVRs, and a DirecTV Ethernet coaxial adaptor (DECA) is used to connect your DirecTV system to the Internet. This allows Internet communications to utilize the existing coaxial cabling within the SWM system by placing the Internet data in the 500- to 600-MHz band, where it doesn’t interfere with the programming content.
If you choose to implement a whole-house system, you will need a wireless router, such as a Cradlepoint, and an air card or WiFi/MiFi connection. You then can connect the DECA to the router with a Cat5 cable so that the DECA can communicate with your DVRs via the coaxial cabling. This gives you access to a number of Internet features. You will be able to view local data on The Weather Channel instead of the regional information during their local forecasts, view YouTube videos, play music, and even watch your DirecTV programs on an iPad if you have a wireless connection to your motorhome’s router.
The various systems available offer many possibilities. You can add an A/B switch or two to utilize multiple dishes so that you can switch between a powered automatic dish and an in-motion dome. A wide choice of programming packages and hardware is available to meet anyone’s expectations. That way, even when you’re camping in the wilderness, you won’t miss any of your favorite shows or the big game.