What Is the Difference Between Cable & Satellite TV?

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Cable and satellite TV differ in how and where you can receive their services. Both of these broadcasting options bring a broad range of entertainment programming into your home through subscription packages that include varying numbers of channels and pay-per-view choices. If you live in an urban area, you probably can choose either type of service. Beyond city limits, however, your choices will be narrowed because of the differences between the two delivery methods.

Service Availability

Some service providers require that you sign up for a specific number of months of your chosen package in exchange for a guaranteed monthly fee over the course of that agreement. Because cable TV relies on a physical connection to bring its transmissions to subscribers, you can't receive its programming unless you live within the area connected to a cable company's wiring, which typically excludes remote or rural areas. Satellite TV transmissions reach virtually any location that can point a dish in the direction of the hardware a service provider maintains in Earth orbit. You'll need an unobstructed path between your dish and the orbiting "bird," free from intervening structures or tree limbs.

Technology and Installation

Because cable TV reaches its subscribers through a hard-wired connection that transmits its signal over buried fiber optics and above-ground cables, its installation procedure connects the service to your house and wires it from room to room. Satellite services transmit through the air from orbiting satellites and bring their signals to your home wirelessly, with reception through a small dish mounted on the roof of your dwelling or on a mast alongside it. Both cable and satellite services provide you with hardware, including a set-top receiver that may incorporate a digital video recorder.

Program Reception

Both cable and satellite TV offer HD broadcasts and require an HD-capable TV set. Once an installer connects your home to cable or satellite TV and you hook up your entertainment system to the provider's hardware, your service provides an onscreen guide that shows you what's playing now and at least several days into the future. Your reception equipment typically includes a remote control that can operate your TV and audio system as well as your cable or satellite receiver. Even without DVR hardware, you can program your receiver to tune automatically to programs you want to watch.

Problems and Interference

Cable TV signals remain viable as long as the cable that connects you to the transmission source remains intact. Unless a contractor digs a hole without verifying the location of utility lines in advance, your service should stay active even in bad weather. Satellite signals can drop in strength when precipitation interferes with the path between your dish and the geosynchronous orbit of the service provider's hardware. When the signal strength drops, you may see picture dropouts and hear audio distortion, or your reception may fade to black. Although this interference can occur during snow or sleet, most subscribers refer to the phenomenon as "rain fade."