The Dish of Your Dreams?

How satellite TV stacks up against cable

Rising rates and poor service are sending cable-TV customers to satellite-TV providers. Last year, the number of households using cable, nearly 70 million, fell for the first time. Considering a switch? Here are answers to questions you may have:

What's satellite's biggest attraction?

Some say it's the picture. A 2001 survey by Consumer Reports of 2,000 cable and satellite subscribers said picture quality was "significantly higher" for satellite than for cable delivered digitally. Cable's older analog services were a distant third.

What about price?

Everyone's offering deals, including introductory offers of free HBO or discounted subscriptions. Generally speaking, satellite offers lower monthly prices than cable, especially if you don't need several news or sports channels. The Dish Network offers 50 channels and local service for $28.99, and DirecTV's best deal is $37.99 for 115 channels and local service, still less than what many cable operators charge for their expanded services. The best prices usually include purchase of the dish.

In how many markets does satellite offer local channels?

About 50, but that's expected to grow. Where available, both services charge $5.99 a month extra.

Are there "hidden costs" for satellite, as cable alleges in its ads?

Yes. Both DirecTV and Dish require consumers to sign up for a year for some of their plans. In some cases, both charge up-front fees to activate service. Additional sets cost $5 a month more. Both may require the purchase of hardware for additional rooms at costs of up to $99 each. Cable companies don't require equipment purchases, but some charge for installation and most charge for digital set-top boxes.

Does satellite have any technology limitations?

To receive a signal, your satellite dish will need an unobstructed view of the southern horizon. A telephone hookup, though not a separate line, is required to order pay-TV movies. Heavy rain or snow may interrupt the signal briefly.

Which provider offers better service?

A recent customer survey by J.D. Power & Associates gave DirecTV and Dish higher marks than cable. But the satisfaction levels were closer for cable in areas where it offered digital service.

What about price hikes?

Rising program costs will force up cable and satellite rates, although for now it looks as if the hikes will be greater for cable, which spent billions laying fiber-optic cables. This year cable rates are likely to go up nearly 6%, twice the inflation rate. Dish just announced a 4% increase, its second in as many years, and DirecTV is expected to raise rates soon.

Are there reasons to stick with cable?

Cable can use its wires to bundle two-way services such as telephone and Internet access, and offer them at reduced rates. Satellite providers don't offer phone service, and Internet offerings are limited. Dish customers get a $10 monthly discount if they sign on with DSL provider EarthLink. DirecTV sells satellite-delivered Internet for $99.99 a month, mostly in areas where DSL or cable is unavailable. The monthly price drops to $59.99 for consumers who pay $579.98 for the equipment to get Internet access via satellite.

By Ronald Grover

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