Satellite TV For RVs

Among the most common questions RV owners ask on RV forums are those about satellite television. I hope the following information will answer some of those questions.

How It Works

Television programs are relayed through satellites located 22,240 miles directly above the equator and moving at over 8,000 miles per hour. The satellites' movement through space exactly matches the rotation of the earth so as seen by an observer on the ground they seem to remain in the same spot, making it possible to point an antenna at them.

If you want a better understanding of where the satellites are find a map globe. We will look for a particular satellite called 101 because it is on the 101 degrees west longitude line. That line runs from the north pole to the south pole and passes through Texas near Amarillo. Find Amarillo on the globe (about in the middle of the Texas panhandle) and follow the nearest line of longitude to the equator. Now now move your finger straight out about 6 times the diameter of the globe. That is about where the 101 satellite is.

Later on when you are trying to aim your dish for the first time remember where and how far away the thing you are aiming at is and you will understand why is might seem hard until you get the hang of it.

A note about digital television:

In February 2009 all of the major television stations will stop broadcasting analog television programs and switch to digital. Satellite television is not directly affected because satellite programs have always been digital. If you have an older non-digital television receiver it will work with satellite television, as will the newer digital receivers.


How To Get It

Satellite service to the US is provided by two companies, DirecTV and Dish Network. They have similar packages of programs and cost about the same. I chose DirecTV (DTV) because it seemed easier to set up. All of DTV's regular programs come from a single satellite but Dish Network splits them between two satellites. That complicates things a little bit because the antenna must be aligned to receive both at the same time and the receiver has to switch back and forth depending on what channel you are watching. All of that it pretty much automatic with the latest dishes and receivers.

If you intend to subscribe to High Definition channels with either company you will need the ability to receive multiple satellites, so the single-satellite advantage of DirecTV will go away.

Since I use DirecTV the information that follows is slanted to their system but Dish Network is very similar, so most of it will apply to them as well.

Equipment

If you already have a home system you can use a receiver from the house or buy an extra one for the RV. Receiver prices are $50 to $100 in the stores but I have seen them go for as little as $5 plus shipping on eBay. Get one that is programmed for the broadcast service provider you have chosen because they are not interchangeable. Each receiver must have its own access card, which is a credit-card size piece of plastic that goes in a slot inside the receiver. You cannot move access cards from one receiver to another because they are "married" by serial number. If you buy a used receiver with a card that has been previously registered you may have to buy a new card. They cost $20 from DirecTV.

New subscribers can get a dish and one or more receivers "free" from either DirecTV or Dish by signing up for one year of service. Typical deals offer to equip up to four rooms in your home, which means one receiver per room, all connected to one dish. You will be required to pay an additional subscription fee of about $5 per month for each extra receiver whether you use it or not so don't buy more than you need. If you already have a dish and/or a receiver don't worry about it - take a package deal and sell the extra stuff on eBay. (That is why you can find cheap receivers there.) Free or low cost installation is included in the deals. The installers typically will not install on a RV but some will. A lot of RVers that have stick houses just sign up for the home system and then take care of the RV part on their own.

In past years the receivers were bought outright and became the property of the subscriber. Now, the DirecTV receivers are leased by the subscriber and remain the property of the company. The momthly cost is the same either way.

It is a pain to move a dish from home to RV and back because of the alignment required so most people buy a second dish for the RV. The least expensive way is to buy a standard dish and something to mount it on. You can get dishes on eBay or you can buy one from a supplier such as Satellite Relay. They cost around $30 to $35, but you can sometime get one cheaper or even free from a local installer. There are several types and configurations of dishes depending on which network you are on and what services you subscribe to. Ask your chosen service provider or equipment vendor about that.

The most popular way to mount a dish is on a tripod made for that purpose. You can probably get one of those at the same place you buy the dish, or you can make your own mount from PVC pipe or other material. Another option is a portable folding dish. Winegard makes a nice one that you can buy at Camping World. Then there are permanent roof mounts, either manual or with semi-automatic or automatic alignment, and "in-motion" roof systems that can automatically track the satellite as you drive down the road. Roof mounts sometime have problems because of trees blocking the satellite signal. Some people prefer the portable dishes for that reason, or have both.

Program Subscription

DTV offers several programming packages. When you buy a system under one of the package plans you sign a one year service contract. After the year is up you can continue on a month-to-month basis.

Note: Some RVers have said that after the first year they are able to activate their service only when they are traveling and pay for only the time it is activated. I haven't tried that so can't verify that you can actually do it.

RV owners have the option of filing a Mobile Vehicle Declaration Of Intent stating that the system is being used exclusively in an RV. Doing that allows DirecTV to offer nationwide access to the major broadcast channels through Distant Network Service. (The Declaration is required to satisfy a FCC rule that prevents satellite broadcasters from taking market share away from local broadcasters.) A downside to filing the Declaration is that since you presumably won't have a telephone line connected to the RV receiver you will not be able to use certain premium DirecTV program packages and features.The following clip about that was taken from their web site (March 2005):

To be eligible for some programming services, such as seasonal sports subscriptions, pay per view ordering with your remote control and "mirroring" subscriptions to additional receivers, we require that your DIRECTV System be continuously connected to a land-based phone line. Therefore, most RV and boat customers are not eligible for these benefits.

Many RV owners who have DirecTV in their home simply move one or more of the home receivers to the RV, either for travel only or permanently. You don't have to file th Declaration to do that. Some people notify DirecTV when they do that, others don't.

Now here is one of the little mysteries of life with DTV. In the past they have at times allowed subscribers who acknowledge moving a home receiver to an RV to "mirror" their residential service to the RV receiver for an additional charge of five or six dollars per month. Their written policy now is to not allowed that, requiring that an RV receiver have a seperate subscription. Your results may vary, depending on who you get when you talk to them.

Local Channels

DTV offers local channels in many areas of the country. They are broadcast on "spot beams" that cover only the area they are targeted for. When you drive out of the "spot" you can no longer receive them. The size of the spot varies depending on where you live. This map purports to show coverage areas. I don't know how accurate it is.

Per DTV policy you cannot subscribe to local channels if you are operating under the RV Declaration and are getting Distant Network Services. Again, it does not always work that way.

National Networks (Distant Network Service)

Distant Network Service (DNS) provides two channels each, one from Los Angeles and the other from New York, for ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox. Those channels can be received anywhere in the US. FCC rules dictate that DNS can be offered only to Residential Subscribers who cannot receive network broadcasts off the air or on cable and to some Mobile Subscribers including RVers. To become eligible for DNS you have to file the Mobile Vehicle Declaration Of Intent along with a copy of your vehicle registration.

Note: In early 2007 Dish Network was forced by court order to cease providing nationwide broadcasts of the major network channels. Dish Network subscribers can still get them using a third-party service, and they are still available on DirecTV's Distant Network Service.


Installation

The first step is installing the satellite receiver. Many RVs these days have an "entertainment center" or cabinet where all of the TV stuff is located. If there is room there for your receiver that is the best place for it.

The receiver needs to be connected to the dish through a coaxial cable, and that is where a lot of people run into their first problem. Chances are your RV already has a cable installed by the manufacturer intended to be used to connect a park cable system. In some cases you can use that cable for the dish but a lot of manufacturers run it through a signal booster that is also connected to the regular TV antenna on the roof. The dish signal cannot get through that booster. If your RV is wired that way you will need to run a seperate cable or modify the existing cabling to bypass the booster.

If you can use the existing cable unplug it from where it is connected to the TV or video switch inside the RV and connect it to the satellite receiver input. If you want the ability to use it for either satellite or cable you can do so by installing a coaxial A-B switch. In that case you would connect the existing cable to the common side of the switch (often marked "TV"). Connect the A side of the switch to the satellite receiver input and the B side to where the factory-installed coax was originally connected, or visa versa.

Connect the output of the satellite receiver to your TV, or to the video switch box if your RV has one. The most common way to do that is with coax cable from the VHF Out connector. For better picture quality you can make the connection using component video cables (RCA type) or S-Video if you have compatible inputs on the back of the TV.

If you have two TVs and a dual LNB dish you can put two receivers so the TVs can watch different programs. For that you will need to run two coax cables from the dish into the RV and from that point to the two receivers.

About telephone hookups: DirecTV might say you must have a telephone line hooked up to your receiver. That is mainly so that if you order movies or other Pay Per View features using the on-screen menus the receiver can call DTV and report the purchase for billing. If you never order PPV you don't need a phone line.

Note About Splitters: Ordinary coax cable splitters will not work when installed between the dish and the receiver because (a) they don't have sufficient bandwidth and (b) they will not pass the necessary control voltage from the receiver to the dish. If you want to try using a splitter get one that is made for satellite TV.

Getting Connected

The following describes how to set up portable dishes but except for the part about leveling most of it applies to roof-mounts as well. Roof mounts need to be level too but you do that by leveling the RV.

New users with manual dishes often get frustrated the first time they try to find the satellite. I think the main problem is not understanding that it requires a lot more than just pointing the dish in the general direction of the satellite the way you would with a regular antenna. The satellite is a very small target and very far away. An error of just a degree or two in pointing the dish can make the difference between success and failure. Don't be discouraged. After a little practice you will be able to do it quickly and easily.

1. Hook up the cables, turn power on to the satellite receiver and television, and tune the television to the input channel for the satellite receiver. If you have used coax cable to connect the satellite receiver to the TV that will usually be Channel 3.

2. Take a look at the television screen:

• If it is displaying a message saying "Unusable Signal" it means the satellite receiver is not connected. Check the cables.

• If it shows the satellite menu or a message saying "Searching For Satellite" the receiver is connected ok.

• If it is displaying an actual satellite program you have gotten very lucky and are already locked on.

3. Use the satellite remote control to show the Setup screen. See your satellite receiver user manual for how to do that.

4. Follow the user manual instructions for choosing the type of dish you have and the transponder that you will use for tuning and the ZIP code for your location. For DirecTV use transponder 2. After you enter the ZIP code the screen will display the azimuth and elevation pointing angles. Azimuth is displayed in degrees magnetic so will correspond to standard compass readings without any adjustment.

5. Go outside with a good hand-held compass and determine the direction to the satellite. The best compass is the type with a rotating ring that can be set to the azimuth you are looking for. Look around your camp site and find a spot to place the dish so it will have a clear view of the sky in the satellite direction. Trees or other tall objects in the line of sight might block the signal. If you never learned to use a compass you have lots of company but you can take a short lesson on line.

6. It is time to set up the dish. With any manual system an important first step, at least until you get the hang of it, is to make the mount square with the earth. That means using a bubble level to get the mast perfectly vertical if using a tripod, or the base perfectly level if using a mount with a flat base. If you skip this step the alignment will be harder because (a) you can't set the elevation angle accurately unless the mount is level and (b) every adjustment you make in azimuth will change the elevation, and visa versa. A handy but sort of pricey mast that makes leveling easy is the Accu-Dish mount. Make sure the dish is steady after you get it placed and leveled where you want it. Movement, caused by the wind for example, can cause you to lose the signal. You can use sand bags or water jugs to weight it down.

7. Set the elevation angle using the markings on the dish.

8. Use the compass to sight along the azimuth angle and pick out a distant object as an aim point. Rotate the dish so the arm is pointing at the aim point.

9. Adjusting the pointing is what gives people fits in the beginning. You need a signal strength indicator of some kind to let you know how you are doing. One option is the signal strength display on the television screen, but you have to be able to see the screen or have someone watch it for you. Some satellite receivers put out a tone that changes with the signal strength. I use that with wireless headphones that let me hear the tone when I am outside with the dish. Another option is a hand-held signal strength meter such as the Satellite Finder.

The key to success is patience. Rotate the dish back and forth around the given azimuth slowly and smoothly. Try going about 10 degrees in one direction. If that does not work turn it back to the original azimuth and try the other direction. If there is still no signal raise or lower the elevation by about 2 degrees and try again.

When you get a signal carefully fine tune the dish for the best possible signal. You should be able to get a strength of 80 or better, but anything above 60 will usually work. If you are using a Satellite Finder remove it after fine tuning. Taking it out of the line will give you a boost in signal strength.