Circular polarity: Nothing to see here?

Invacom dual-polarity LNBSomebody piqued my curiosity a little while ago about circular-polarity channels available in the clear through free-to-air equipment. The question was pretty basic: Are there ever any channels to watch on circular these days?

Quick background: To maximize satellite transponder bandwidth without large allowances for interference at the edges, transponders are stacked like Lincoln Logs using opposite polarities. Most medium-power Ku-band channels use linear polarity; each is either horizontal or vertical. Most high-power Ku-band channels use circular polarity, clockwise or counter-clockwise. This makes the small dish LNBs easier to install because they don’t need to be skewed to match the satellite reception angle as is required for stationary linear-polarity LNBs.

Those high-power channels are designed for smaller dishes, and almost all of them are meant for satellite TV subscribers, mostly to Dish Network or Bell TV. And so almost all of those channels are scrambled. But we FTA viewer are optimists, so we don’t care about what we can’t see. We want to know what we can see.

Once upon a time, only a few years ago, there was good reason for that optimism. Dish regularly left three channels in the clear: Angel One, NASA, and Gol TV. Bell left all of its music channels unscrambled for a long time. Beyond that, there were sightings of other channels that were available for weeks at a time. Dish left dozens of Ion network channels to be found. Bell had extra camera angles from NASCAR races. I even saw a steamy movie channel on Bell one night.

Pirates, or the satellite industry’s reaction to them, eliminated these free channels. Bell was first, scrambling all of its music just so it could be sure that every Bell dish in Canada was connected to either a subscriber or a crook. Then its investigators could just drive down the street looking for dishes and comparing addresses against their subscriber list. Later Dish also scrambled pretty much everything for pretty much the same reason.

Those memories of odd bits of programming spurred me on as I dug out my old Invacom dual-polarity LNB (pdf) and hooked it up to my system. My FTA receiver is too new to have entries for the satellites that Dish and Bell use, so I had to modify its satellite list. Then I had to figure why the signal from these high-powered satellites was coming in so weak. Some troubleshooting narrowed that down to a faulty DiSEqC switch, so I swapped in a new one.

After all that work, I scanned what I could and found next to nothing.

The reports that Nimiq 4 had changed its satellite footprint to cover Canada and very little else appear to be true. On Dish everything was scrambled except for four channels, all running its Dish 101 orientation program. And those are the most interesting bits of information I got out of the whole exercise.

It’s entirely possible that I missed something. There used to be a couple of channels that were marked as scrambled but were actually in the clear, but I couldn’t find any of those out of the couple dozen I checked. If you know of a good circular-polarity channel, or a position where they often have circular-polarity feeds in the clear, please leave a comment here so we’ll all know. It’s fun to explore, but not if you never find anything.