Free-To-Air Satellite TV

It is not that difficult to explain what “free-to-air” satellite TV is. I will start with the basics so that hopefully you’ll have a better understanding of the entire FTA industry. Satellite TV is widely used throughout the world now with millions and millions of users worldwide. Most people are familiar with the concept. The user would own a satellite receiver and a satellite dish. With the dish properly aimed at the actual satellites in space and the receiver connected to the dish, you would then connect your receiver to your television set.

For decades now, satellite TV has been available to the general public. Maybe you remember the “big ugly dishes” (BUDs) from years ago. Things have definitely changed since then, though BUDs can still be used as well. Satellite dishes are now available in many different sizes that are all much smaller than the originals. You’ve probably seen the new style of dishes on your neighbor’s houses. Setting up satellite TV to get channels to watch almost always comes with a cost either from the satellite TV company or from a third party vendor. There is usually a monthly charge for the services and for the rental of the equipment (dish and receiver).

Now that I’ve explained the basics of satellite TV and how it works, we’ll move on to Free-to-Air (FTA). FTA satellite TV works on the same premise as regular satellite. You would still own both of the main components, the FTA receiver and the FTA satellite dish. The equipment is usually purchased online or from computer stores/satellite stores and can range in price from $100 and up. Free-to-Air means essentially what it says. You can receive channels that carry regular programming, sports and news feeds, and live events, which are totally free and don’t cost a monthly fee. Many are in high definition. The only thing you need to buy is the FTA receiver, LNBF, and dish.

Let me be clear about one thing. What I’m talking about here is not piracy or stealing encrypted subscription satellite signals. The satellite signals I’m talking about are unencrypted or “in the clear” and are available for reception by anyone who has a DVB-S or DVB-S2 digital satellite receiver. These receivers are sold by reputable satellite equipment dealers and available for purchase by the general public.

Now that you have an understanding of FTA satellite television, let’s go over the two types of free-to-air satellite systems you can get:

Stationary Systems

Fortec Star Ku-band dish
Pictured is a 36-inch (90 cm) Fortec Star FTA dish with a linear Ku-band LNBF. A good dish for Ku-band reception.

If you would like to point at just one satellite, you would need one LNBF (remember, one LNBF per satellite). If you want to point at more than one satellite, and they are WITHIN 35 degrees of each other (97.0, 101.0, 123.0 for example), then you can use a multi LNBF holder to hold each LNBF together onto the satellite dish arm. You can also use multiple stationary dishes, with each one pointed at a different satellite. All the dishes are connected to a DISEqC switch, which is used to allow the user’s receiver to switch between satellites when changing channels or performing scans.

Motorized Systems

SG2100 dish motor
Pictured above is the DMS SG2100 dish motor used for dishes up to 1.2 meters in size.

If you would like to view as many satellites as possible, then a motorized free-to-air satellite system works best because the dish is going to move from east to west (or vice versa) and point to any satellite you choose within the dish line of sight. To get the most out of your Ku-band FTA system, a motorized dish is essential. Some people prefer to use multiple stationary dishes as well. This makes for a better viewing experience when changing between channels that are on different satellites by eliminating the delay inherent in motorized systems.The motor has a shaft extending out that the satellite dish attaches to. No external power is needed for the motor as the satellite cable will power the motor. This is the best way to get maximum satellites and channels. The most popular satellite dish motor is the DMS SG2100. This motor is capable of moving a satellite dish up to 1.2 meters in size.

What you absolutely need:

  • A clear view of the southern sky (or northern sky, if you’re in the southern hemisphere)
  • A dish, 30 inches or wider
  • A linear Ku-band LNBF
  • True RG6 coax cable and connectors
  • A Free-to-Air DVB or DVB-S2 receiver

To hit multiple satellites from one dish, add:

  • A dish-moving motor such as the DMS SG2100.

Really helpful stuff for installation:

  • A compass with degree marks
  • A level
  • A signal strength meter
  • A portable TV

Big Dish C-Band

6 ft. C-band dish
A big ugly dish (BUD), such as this 6-foot (1.8 m) dish, is necessary for receiving C-band FTA channels.

There are still many C-band free-to-air channels available today. But in order to receive those channels you generally need a big dish 6-feet (1.8 meters) or larger and a linear C-band LNBF. The same FTA receivers used for Ku-band reception will usually also work for C-band FTA reception. So if you still have one of those BUDs sitting out in your yard, it can still be used to watch free TV.

24 inch actuator arm
A motorized actuator is necessary for moving a big C-band dish. Pictured above is a TA-24 24-inch actuator attached to the back of a six-foot C-band dish.

Getting Started

Amiko HD-8240 Hi-Def Satellite Receiver
A free-to-air HD satellite receiver capable of receiving DVB-S and DVB-S2 satellite signals. Works with both C-band and Ku-band satellites.

Most FTA systems are not plug-and-play like subscription satellite TV. There is a short learning curve you have to go through in order to properly setup and use most FTA systems. Fortunately, there’s lots of good help on the internet to get you started. This article covers just the basics of FTA satellite television. To learn more, you can go to a FTA forum. Personally, I recommend Ricks Satellite Wildfeed and Backhaul Forum as one of the most helpful.

VBOX 7 Actuator Arm Mover
An actuator mover, such as this VBOX 7, is required to control a C-band dish actuator arm. It uses DISEqC 1.2 commands relayed from the satellite receiver.