Thanks for the interesting question. Even though I thought I
knew quite a bit about satellite dishes (both small and large)
and other equipment, I didn't realize the small dishes had a
capacity, like the large ones, of picking up open feeds. I am
going to summarize the things I have learned, and follow that
with links to various sites.
Let's start off with some vocabulary. Free-to-Air (FTA) is
where you utilize a dish (a small one, around 30 inches in size
in this case) and a receiver to receive "clear" or unencrypted
signals from various satellites at no cost other than equipment.
These signals are in MPEG2 format, which is a way of compressing
that information. There are different "bands" that are used to
transmit the signal, with the "Ku" and "C" bands the ones that
are the ones that matter to FTA people. The easiest one to set
up is the "Ku" band, so I will concentrate on that. You will see
this all called a "MPEG2-DVB" system.
The unencrypted signals get encrypted at times, so there is no
certainty there will you receive that specific "channel," or for
that matter, any station on any one day. Currently there are
just under 100 channels you can receive from the most popular of
the satellites, Telstar 5. You also can also get music channels.
These channels are sort of esoteric for the most part. There are
shopping networks, various feeds of some new channels, a smattering
of "broadcast" stations, etc. You will not get any of the so-called
premium channels (HBO, Cinemax, etc.) this way.
If you can live with stations coming and going, then the main
question you have to answer is whether you want to be able to
use more than one satellite. If so, you will want to add a motor
(rotor) to the setup so you can have the receiver move the dish
to point to other satellites, etc.
Don't worry about the rotor too much, as it is relatively easy
to add later on if you want. You will want to make sure the
receiver can handle that upgrade though.
You will want to get a dish that is at least 75 centimeter (cm)
in size, or around 30 inches across. You can get larger dishes,
but the 75 cm ones should handle your needs.
You will also need a LNB/LNBF (Low Noise Block / Feedhorn)
which is the little box-like object at the end of the arm in
front of a dish. It boosts the signal from the satellite.
Other than cable and connectors, there is "just" the receiver.
Some of the popular brands are Pansat, which is made by Hyundai
and one of the brands that has been around the longest, BEC,
Coship and Sat Cruiser. Pansat seems to be the most recommended.
Each seems to have some features that are unique to those brands,
so you need to shop for the features you want, such as the ability
to upgrade the software yourself, or ease of controlling the dish
pointing mechanism, etc.
Some features to look for:
- able to get Ku and C bands for future expansion (most do)
- comes with DiSEqC 1.2 for rotor control and K band access (most do)
- has a S-Video output for better picture quality (nice to have)
- if they include cabling as part of a package deal
- RS232 for computer access for upgrades (optional, but neat)
- AC3 digital audio output (optional, but give better sound)
- comes with common interface (CI) slot(s)
The AC3 digital audio output option is only important if you
have an audio system that can utilize it and you plan on
listening to music on the system.
The last feature (CI) is another optional feature, but will
allow you to insert smart cards (CAM modules) to allow access
to certain pay services. Appears to be hard to get the cards
in the US, so might not be all that important.
You can get complete systems, or piece one together without
too much work so you can get the exact features you desire.
Complete packages start at under $200, so not too expensive
of a hobby.
Here are some links for more information, some dealers, etc.
Just what is Free to Air (FTA)?
Frequently Ask Questions (about FTA reception)
Free TV channels from United States.
Al Jazzera's Free-To-Air Reception - Basic and Brief History ...
LyngSat - One of 2 major resources for programming information.
"LyngSat presents daily updated satellite charts, with actual
transponder and channel data. You get access to packages,
footprints, launches, free radio & TV links and a satellite
LyngSat - Information on the Telstar 5 satellite.
SatcoDX - The other major resource for satellite information.
TELE-satellite International Magazine - The World's Largest
Skyvision - dealer
Sadoun Satellite Sales - dealer
Communications Research Group - dealer (English/Spanish site)
"The problem is the location. If you are living in California it's
almost impossible that you can receive Intelsat 806 or Panamsat 3
but you can receive many other channels available on the domestic
SATPros - dealer - Member of the Better Business Bureau (BBB)
Dish On Hand - dealer
EMAN Technology - dealer
Wave Frontier - They make a dish that can point at multiple
(up to 16) satellites. Costly, but very cool. Ku band only.
If you need any clarification, feel free to ask.
Google search on: "Free-to-Air" receiver FAQ
Google search on: "Free-to-Air" equipment
Looking Forward, denco-ga - Google Answers Researcher