Monday, December 15, 2003

Cable vs. Satellite

I've been a cable TV viewer for the past 4 or 5 years. Before that, in my old house, I owned a BUD (big ugly dish). My BUD was a big ole 10 foot dish that took up the entire back yard. Back then, the cable in our area was poor, which is why I bought the dish system. In the years that I was watching satellite TV, our local cable system was bought by Time Warner Cable, and the improvements came fast and furious.

Back then, owning a dish meant choosing between some 25 or so programming providers. That level of competition kept prices low. I bought my programming on an annual basis, and the monthly rate averaged about $22.00 per month. That's for a standard package similar to DirecTV's Total Choice package. Shortly after I purchased my big dish, the small dishes started to hit the market.

Every few months, I evaluate my cable package and comparable satellite packages to see if I should switch. So far, I have not found enough reasons to switch to satellite. The biggest reason of all is ease of installation. When I built my house, I ran cable to every room in the house. So now, if I want to watch the Food Network in my den, I simply carry a small TV in there and plug in the cable. Boom! I'm watching Food! The main cable comes into the house, and it is then split to all the rooms. In three rooms, we have a digital cable box. This box allows us to watch HBO, and in two of our rooms, gives us a handful of HDTV channels (I'm watching Monday Night Football in HiDef as I type this).

Occassionally, when our children need to stay home sick from school, we can simply move a small TV into their bedroom, plug it in, and then they are able to watch Cartoon Network in bed. Easy as pie.

The reason I evaluate my cable package every so often is because my cable is in the neighborhood of $80.00 per month, which makes me cringe a bit everytime I write that check. The HBO package is an additional $10 or $15 per month (I don't remember for sure), and each digital cable box is about $9 per month. Meaning, on top of my standard cable package, I'm paying an additional 30 or 40 bucks.

But, I've not had to go out and purchase any equipment. And, when new, better equipment becomes available, I can just take my old box to the nearby cable store and exchange it for the new-fangled device. For example, I will soon trade in a digital cable box for a DVR. That means I can have TIVO-like capabilities without having to fork over the $400 for the box and the extra $13/month for the service. The DVR adds about 4 dollars to my monthly cable bill.

With satellite, it's not nearly as simple to hook up multiple TV's. The satellite companies are trying by offering "3 room" or "4 room" systems. But in each case, a separate cable needs to be run from the dish all the way to the room where the receiver will sit. Which means instead of simply splitting it out to the house, I have to make sure each cable runs uninterrupted from dish to receiver. And, the dish antennas I have seen are limited to 4 receivers. And, each additional receiver costs an additional $5.00 per month. Granted, digital cable boxes cost twice as much monthly, but the box is not REQUIRED to watch cable.

Everytime I analyze the cost of purchasing the dish and all of the receivers I would need (at least 4, but right now I have 6 TV's hooked to cable), as well as the programming and the additional receiver fees, the total turns out to be very similar to my current monthly cable bill. Not to mention that some technical wizardry and expense is required to hook up more than 4 receivers (that may even require a second dish!).

I've been pretty happy with my cable service. The competition from satellite has forced Time Warner Cable to keep improving their service. I get all of the channels I want, in any room I want (without setting up additional equipment). I can get HiDef channels, and a DVR box is available. All for a price that is similar to the DirecTV monthly price.

Another comment about DirecTV. I recently had the pleasure of purchasing a DirecTV system, and setting up three receivers. At first, I was very excited about the self-service aspect of activating and purchasing my programming on-line at I set up the dish and three receivers, and was able to acquire the signal. I then went to the web site and proceeded to activate the primary receiver. Each receiver has a unique serial number as well as a unique receiver ID number. Then, each receiver requires an access card (looks like an American Express Blue card - smart chip and all) inserted. Each card has a unique ID number. So that's three unique numbers that have to be provided to "turn on" a receiver.

I entered all of the required information, and the activation failed. I eventually called the customer service line and a human activated the first receiver for me (very helpful, no hold time). I then needed to activate two more receivers. I attempted both on the web site, and both failed. In all, I made 4 calls to DirecTV to get the system up and running. Not that I hate talking to people, I just think it's much more convenient when the process can be automated. It's too bad DirecTV's systems aren't quite up to snuff.

I also feel like DirecTV is sort of a "big brother." To purchase the dish and receivers, I had to provide my name and address, as well as a credit card. I also had to sign an agreement that I would activate the system within 30 days or they could charge me an additional $150 per receiver. When making the purchase, the serial numbers and access card numbers are tied to me.

Then, when activating, all of those ID numbers are required. The receivers are "required" to be plugged into a phone line. The whole thing makes me feel very uncomfortable.

Of course, just like the "activation" process for Microsoft Office products, these tactics are the direct result of crooks. People buying DirecTV systems and hacking them to receive programming for free. It's a pain in the ass, but I suppose necessary in today's world.

One last note. Since DirecTV is the only provider of programming for this system, there is no (or very little) competition. I preferred the days when I could choose programming from more than 20 providers. I wonder what the effect of the DirecTV/Dish Network merger would have been?

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