Reach for the Sky

| September 04, 2002

If ever there were a product designed for truckers this is it. Having satellite television is like being able to carry your cable television all across the country.

One key to making satellite TV work is using a satellite in geo-synchronous orbit. Both DirecTV and DISH Network, the two major players in the market these days, use this kind of satellite. A geo-synchronous satellite is positioned 22,300 miles above the earth. At lower altitudes, a satellite needs to spin around much faster than the earth or it will fall out of the sky. But at this high an altitude, the earth’s pull is just strong enough that the satellite stays in orbit when moving right along with the earth. In other words, it stays above exactly the same spot on the earth, hour after hour.

If you stop and focus your dish on a satellite in geo-synchronous orbit, it will stay in focus for as long as you sit there. The downside of this kind of system is that it uses microwaves, which don’t travel around corners. Because of the distance of the satellite from the earth, and other factors, the antenna must always be properly focused. It needs to “see” something the size of an SUV that’s 23,000 miles away. So, it must be aimed within 1 degree to 2 degrees of the satellite, or you lose the signal and will get nothing but a freeze-frame or even snow on your TV.

It’s possible to build a system employing a number of satellites speeding across the sky at lower altitudes, not needing such a directional antenna, and handing off the transmitting job from one satellite to another. Such systems are in the works, but none has gotten off the ground economically, so far. For now, satellite TV means focusing a dish on one tiny point in the sky.

There are different types of systems, depending upon whether or not you travel as a team and want one of you to be able to watch TV while you are driving down the road. Most of you will need to put your dish up and focus it when you stop, and fold it down and out of the way of both harm and airflow when starting out.

Systems examples
The basic satellite TV dish is called a “pop-up” or “crank-up” dish. Chris Watson, communications coordinator for KVH Industries, a maker of several levels of satellite systems, says crank up or pop-up systems typically cost about $200. He has a lot of respect for them, saying, “They are very good at what they do.”

Michael Owens is accessory manager of Interstate Connections, a company that offers both DirecTV and, where that’s not available, Pegasus. The latter is available at most Petro Stopping Centers. Both the system and installation are free of charge. However, you’ll need a power inverter to supply 110 volt, 60-cycle household current to the system’s satellite receiver (sometimes known as a receiver-decoder). This is a basic pop-up type system, though Owens mentioned his company is exploring more sophisticated hardware.

You’ll pay $31.99 and up for the service, depending on what you order. The basic $31.99 service includes 110 channels. If your home base and billing address are in one of the few areas not offering DirecTV, Pegasus will be your carrier. The Interstate Connections dish is installed to a mirror bracket or on a telescopic pole mounted behind the cab. The unit must be mounted (and the truck or tractor parked) so the dish will have an unobstructed view to the south, over the Gulf of Mexico, where the satellites are, so it will be able to focus properly. Owens says, “With some experience, the driver can set up the dish and be watching television five minutes to 10 minutes after stopping.”

This satellite view of North America shows the area, in yellow, where you can receive DirecTV with an 8-in. dish antenna, and, in red, where you can receive it with a 24-inch dish.

“When traveling,” says Owens, “the driver should lower the dish behind the cab, or remove the dish and place it inside. These dishes are not made of the most rigid material, and will bend in extreme conditions.”

Owens recommends the shopper consider “ease-of installation, price of the programming you are interested in, and where payments can be made.”

Among all the owner-operator teams out on the road, there are some prosperous truckers who are into the ultimate in channel selection or who may even want to jump onto the Internet from the comfort of their cabs. For these folks, upscale systems offer some rather amazing advantages, although the cost picture changes radically, just as you would expect.

Watson’s KVH Industries offers four different systems that do some valuable things, beginning with simply eliminating the set-up and take-down process. Their TracVisionSA antenna system, like all their products, is what Watson calls a “protected” or “domed” system because it is housed under a dome. The antenna, which looks like a curved rectangle, sits inside a hemispherical plastic dome about 14.5 inches high. This is mounted on the roof, using a flat mounting plate on a fairly flat area. It’s placed far enough forward of the trailer or any other roof-mounted device so that it can have a clear view to the horizon in every direction, down to about 15 degrees above that horizon.

Since you can’t see or turn the antenna itself it is designed so that right after you turn on the power, it automatically searches the sky and “acquires” the proper satellite for the service you have. While it costs $1,599 plus installation, it offers 300 channels of DirecTV and more. But, the big advantage, says Watson, is protection from the elements-and a rounded shape that eliminates the job of setup and take-down without adding a significant amount of aero drag.

Watson says the benefits of this extend beyond mere convenience. First of all, you can use the dish when there’s rain, snow, or even hail in the atmosphere without worry. And, the dome’s height is limited to a dimension KVH has found to be safe from obstructions. Because people may occasionally forget about their dish being erected, they sometimes pull out of a truckstop only to have it become the victim of low-hanging wires or tree branches. A dish focused straight ahead will also catch a lot of wind, meaning they can even be broken off the vehicle by aerodynamic drag at higher speeds.

There are other things to consider in selecting a premium system.

Stationary systems are fine for the owner operator or driver who travels alone; actually, it’s against the law to watch TV while you’re driving. But it’s different for a team. The team member who’s off duty may want to watch TV while the truck rolls along, and there are systems just for them. KVH, for example, offers an amazing stabilized in-motion system. Because an antenna must be focused precisely to get good reception, you’ll need it if somebody in the truck intends to watch TV when you’re on the move.

The robotic TrackVisionLM depends upon a gyroscope that tracks turns and other changes in truck attitude, like climbing a hill or rolling around a highly banked curve. When the truck turns right 90 degrees, it senses the change and turns the antenna 90 degrees in the opposite direction. The unit also measures the strength of the signal and reorients itself to stay perfectly focused on the satellite for the best reception. This system prices out at $2,199 plus installation.

Interstate Connections offers pop-up DirecTV service at many Petro Stopping Centers. The antenna is normally folded down or removed and taken inside the cab when you set out on a run.

Another choice you’ll need to make is whether or not you’ll want more than TV sent down from more than just one satellite. There’s a new technology called Digital Video Broadcast . Without DVB, either system’s satellite receiver-decoder gets programmed to find your required single satellite. With DVB, the antenna itself has access to software which identifies a number of signals from DVB-compatible satellites. The software includes a library of popular services, including DirecTV, DISH Network, ExpressVu, Astra, Hotbird, and Thor. This means a greater number of channels, commercial-free music, and access to DirecTV’s separate High Definition TV satellite and KVH’s TracNet high speed Internet service, if you want them. These can be selected with an optional switching mechanism or your personal computer.

You need DVB to use the Internet via satellite because, Watson says, it uploads using one satellite and downloads from another, meaning the unit must switch satellites depending upon which you’re doing. Downloading speed is 400 kilobits/second. You could look up stock prices, and use MapQuest, or Weather.com. The KVH stationary system with integrated DVB technology is known as the TracVision S3 and prices at $1,899 (plus installation). The stabilized in-motion version with DVB is the TracVision L3, which costs $2,999. These are base prices for the antenna system. The other components in the system add to the cost. For example, KVH offers receiver-decoders at $295 and $495.

The system parts
The Interstate Connections system consists of:

  • A satellite dish attached to the top of a post attached to the side mirror brackets or a telescopic pole mounted behind the cab.
  • An integral LNB attached to the arm of the dish (this is the electronic brain of the antenna-the dish is just a reflector)
  • A satellite receiver (or receiver-decoder, which looks like a VCR with no tape slot), powered by 110 volt, 60-cycle alternating current from an inverter you need to supply
  • A TV. This can be any modern brand equipped with a standard co-axial cable input or RCA-style input.

The KVH system consists of:

  • The TracVision antenna mounted to the cab or sleeper roof via a mounting plate. The antenna operates right off the 12-volt DC truck electrical system.
  • A receiver-decoder, which sits near the TV like a VCR or DVD player would, and is often, stacked with them. This is a standard consumer electronic product often manufactured by Sony or RCA. You’ll need an inverter producing that 110-volt house current to power it. This device decodes the satellite signal into a form the TV can use, switches channels, and handles system activation.
  • The antenna, in addition to needing a 12-volt power cable, has an RF cable that runs inside to the receiver/ decoder. The receiver-decoder plugs into your inverter for power. A second RF cable runs from the receiver-decoder to the standard RF connector in the back of the TV.
  • With DVB technology, no further wiring is needed. But, without it, a second RF cable is run from the antenna to the receiver-decoder. This carries information for identifying the satellite back from the receiver-decoder to the antenna operating mechanism.

How Does It Work And Can I Do It Myself?

The antenna receives the signal from the satellite. The receiver, or receiver-decoder, converts the signal from the antenna into the kind of signal your TV normally receives from the local broadcasting station. The TV then works the way it always did.

The receiver-decoder is the enforcement in the system. The manufacturer programs it so it will not operate until it is activated by a signal from the satellite. You make billing arrangements when purchasing the system. It is then activated when the satellite is instructed to send an activation signal that is coded for your particular receiver-decoder (much like activating a cell phone). If you don’t pay the bill, the satellite sends another signal that will instruct it to stop decoding the signal so you won’t receive the service any longer.

Do-it-yourself installation?
With companies like Interstate Connections that offer free installation, doing it yourself is not an issue. Watson says a competent trucker with a knowledge of electronics would likely be able to perform the work of installing a TracVision system, though he points out that a special tool is required to connect the RF fittings once the wires are run into the cab. You’d have to buy or borrow one of those. You’d also need to drill holes in the cab roof to install the mounting plate and run cables.

However, it is up to the dealer not only to determine the price he charges for installation, but to bless the work and sign off on the warranty. If you were to do the job yourself, you’d have to convince the dealer to look over the job and approve your work.
You could end up in the position of having a failure, and needing to pay for a fix even though you were under warranty because the problem was with your workmanship. “Why take a chance on shortchanging yourself when working with this kind of investment?” asks Watson.


For further information contact:

Interstate Connections
(512) 989-9393
www.InterstatePetro.com

KVH Industries
(401) 473-3327
www.kvh.com

Dominion Sky Angel (provider of religious programming via satellite)
(293) 403-9130 x 213
www.skyangel.com

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