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.

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