Baltimore vs. Tampa Bay Spring Training gameFebruary always means the start of a particularly happy season for me and other free-to-air satellite viewers – Spring Training baseball season. Regular-season games are always scrambled or handled through terrestrial pipes, but plenty of the February and March exhibition games are freely available as they’re beamed back from Florida and Arizona.

For example, today I checked on Rick’s Satellite Forum for likely game candidates. I had my choice of Toronto vs. Philadelphia, Atlanta vs. the Mets, Tampa Bay vs. the Orioles (pictured), and later the Angels vs. Oakland. And that’s just for this first day of intersquad games; the list typically grows longer as February turns to March.

As with most sports wild feeds, these FTA satellite broadcasts usually forgo commercials, substituting candid shots of the field, or the crowd, or the next set of graphics they plan to show when the game resumes. It’s part of the fun to be able to peek behind the scenes like that.

As construction equipment jackhammers the street by my office and the temperature outside struggles to stay above freezing, it’s great to be able to glance over at my satellite monitor and see palm trees, short-sleeve shirts, and baseball. It’s going to keep me happy over the next few weeks.

Close-up of the side of a dish motor showing angle marks

This close-up of my old motor mounted to the dish pole showed me how to mount my new motor.

Hey, all you free-to-air satellite viewers who hopefully frequent FTAList! I remembered today that I forgot to tell you what I did last month. My FTA system stopped working, but I was able to fix it.

It started months ago. Once in awhile, when I would tell my receiver to tell my motor to point my dish to a new satellite, it would go there, then continue on just a teeny bit too far. The channels on that bird simply wouldn’t be visible until I told the motor to switch to another satellite then switch back to the one I wanted in the first place. I shrugged and figured my 1.2-meter Ku-band dish had just shifted on its mount somehow.

The glitches came more frequently. Finally last month, the motor just refused to turn in response to most commands. That STAB HH 120 motor is one of the few that can drive my large dish, and I’d had it for years, much longer than I’ve kept any one receiver. To isolate the problem, I swapped out a different receiver, different quad-shield coax cables, and bypassed the DiSEqC switch. As you can guess by the photo, nothing else helped; it was the motor that had gone bad.

I remember the work it took to set up and point that motor when I first installed it, so I went looking for an exact replacement. I wound up at Ricks Satellite, home to the best wild feed forum that I know of, and Rick had just what I was looking for. I bought it, Rick shipped it, and two days later I installed it to match the photos I had taken of the old motor. In less time than it’s taken me to type this note, my motorized dish was ready for action without any repointing or tweaking.

So take this as a reminder, if you happen to have a motorized FTA system, that pieces of it will go bad over time. When that piece is the motor, a few photos and an exact replacement can save hours of set up time. For once, I got it right!


Close-up of antenna splitter box with many cables connected to it.

My antenna signal splitter

The UPS driver delivered my new DVR+ from Channel Master yesterday, and I got to work setting it up. I needed a new HDMI cable and another quad-shield coax cable, so I bought those from the hardware store down the street. I connected the HDMI cable from the DVR+ to my Slingbox, then connected the Monster coax cable to my powered antenna splitter (shown at right) and the DVR+. Next came the internet and power connections, and soon I was running through setup.

I was a bit surprised and unhappy with the DVR+ after it scanned my channels; there weren’t as many of them as I could see on my other devices. For example, KCDO, my local Channel 3, was invisible to the DVR+ even though it was loud and clear everywhere else. In particular, it was easy to switch my desktop TV from HDMI to TV and watch KCDO.

Channel Master has a support page devoted to that very symptom: Why Does My TV’s Tuner Receive More Channels Than My DVR+? To summarize, the page says that just happens sometimes, and the best solution is to improve the signal by moving the antenna to a better location or getting a better antenna. What that page doesn’t mention is what was the real cause and solution in this case. If you read the title of this post, I’ll bet you’ve figured it out.

I’ve run into enough weak cables in my years of satellite TV that I knew to try a simple test. I disconnected the cable that ran directly to my desktop TV and swapped it with the new cable connected to the DVR+. Sure enough, the DVR+ could now see all of my local channels, but when I tuned my TV to Channel 3, it showed a silent, black screen. Then as I began to unscrew the new cable from the splitter, the TV came to life. It could see Channel 3 now, although other channels were still missing.

I’ll need to find a better cable for the TV, but the good news is the DVR+ is working fine. The Slingbox runs it very easily, and I’ll write more about that combination after I’ve had time to try it out. I just wanted to stop so I could remind you that sometimes, reception problems are simply the cable‘s fault.

Update: I bought some new cables, tightened them the same way with the same bad result. Then I tried the suspect Monster cable on the last empty connector on my splitter and it worked fine. Sometimes it really is the cable’s fault, but this time, the problem was that particular splitter node. The deeper lesson here: Test everything.

1.2-meter dish with C-band LNB

My 1.2-meter dish with its C-/Ku-band LNB

I’ve been having a great time lately with my 1.2-meter dish. Smaller, normal-sized Ku-band dishes are easier to precisely aim, but that larger surface area prevents rain fade and enables some C-band fun. Let me explain.

Long ago, I bought this fine, huge dish, then had to spend a couple of weeks wrestling with motor mounts till I got it set up to scan the skies. Then I tried to attach a combination C- and Ku-band LNB, which required a lot of tweaking and eventually conical scalar rings, which helped quite a bit. You see, C-band dishes tend to be prime focus dishes, where the LNB is in line with the direction it’s pointing. Ku-band dishes tend to be offset, where the LNB is mounted to catch the signal’s reflection. Those rings help collect that reflection for a stronger, better-quality signal.

Anyway, I experimented a bit with C-band to see which channels I could pick up. Based on Global Communication’s fine FTA C-band list, I was getting about 30% of the channels a regular, full-sized C-band dish could receive. After awhile, I swapped my sensitive Ku-only LNB into place and put away my thoughts of C-band.

A few weeks ago, a kind soul pointed out that a couple of Ku-band news channels had appeared at 99W. After I’d pointed the dish and verified those, I remembered that 99W was the best place to find viewable C-band channels. So I took off the sensitive Ku-band LNB, reached for my C/Ku combo on the porch and, yick! The year or so of exposure to the elements had not been kind. The label was off. A little bit of plastic that had kept me from looking all the way inside the LNB was gone. It was dusty and a little cobwebby. I figured I was going to have to order a new one, but what the heck, I might as well try this one first. I cleaned out the LNB, used its same old mounting bracket, whipped out my SatHero signal meter, plugged it into the right C/Ku connector on the second try (you’d think that the C would be the one in back), and Beep, Beep, Beep. Galaxy 16 was coming in clear as a bell, and I soon verified that the dish was already in position for peak signal quality.

Here’s what’s available for me just from that position:

  • KRBK (Fox Osage Beach MO) and MeTV
  • KCWY (NBC Casper WY)
  • NBC, Fox, and This TV affiliates from the Virgin Islands
  • KNLC (independent St. Louis)
  • A cluster of channels, including Cozi, from LeSEA
  • Living Faith TV
  • GEB America and God’s Learning Channel (bleeding over from 101W)
  • Heroes & Icons, Movies!, and TouchVision (101)
  • AMG TV, and The Walk/Dr TV (97)

Those bleeding-over channels aren’t always available (more on that later), but I could still make a case that this little bunch of English-language, general-audience channels are more valuable to me than all current FTA Ku-band channels combined. (Especially if you don’t count the PBSs of 125W, where that dish in the background of my photo is always pointed.) I watched an out-of-market NFL game Sunday (even though I already subscribe to Dish Network’s NFL Red Zone) just like the good old days of Equity Broadcasting and Galaxy 10R.

I kept looking around, and it just got better. Over at 87W, I’m able to pick up the 30+ Luken Communications affiliates and channels, including Retro TV, Tuff TV, My Family TV, PBJ, Heartland, and Rev’n. At 91W, I see BYU TV, KLUZ (Univision, Albuquerque) and TV Montana. There are a few feed sources and other oddball channels, but this is nifty!

It’s all great stuff, but it’s erratic. Sometimes channels won’t come in for me, especially those bleed-over channels I mentioned, no matter where I point the dish. Other users tell me that similar setups pick up more or fewer C-band channels depending on latitude, satellite footprint, and who knows what. These are the reasons why I can’t easily add them to for folks who use a certain dish size. Maybe there’s a way to map who gets what where, but I can’t wrap my head around it yet. For now, I just wanted to share this with you. Maybe it will inspire your own mini-C-band experiments.

At a booth at CES, man with his head on a table

I pity this poor guy. CES fatigue is real, but it normally takes a while to develop, and this was the afternoon of Day One.

The 2014 edition of the International CES is over, and all reports suggest that it was the largest yet. That’s true for automotive fans or health gadget followers, but for us satellite folks, it was a little disappointing.

Once upon a time, I could count on CES to show off the latest in satellite free-to-air equipment, the FTA in this blog’s name. That presence dwindled, and in 2014, there was absolutely zero satellite FTA at the show. Searching for “satellite” in the over 3200 exhibitors’ descriptions turned up only 15 matches, including “satellite offices” and companies that supply to satellite and cable providers. Even Dish Network’s “Be anywhere, watch everything” description didn’t mention that s-word; Dish just happens to deliver most of its content through geosynchronous whatchamacallits.

On the other hand, a few companies showed a renewed interest in over-the-air free TV viewing. I got to hold simple.TV‘s second-generation receiver, fresh off the boat. Tablo exhibited a OTA receiver that’s very, very similar to simple.TV’s but with a tablet-oriented interface. Even venerable antenna manufacturer Channel Master introduced its own OTA receiver, the DVR+, which will launch with no guide subscription fees. The DVR+ also won a CES Innovations 2014 Design and Engineering Award.

And most importantly, CES draws together all sorts of people to meet. I talked with technological innovators, iPhone case demonstrators, and some of the other folks who write about what’s new. I was even present for a friendly meeting of attendees from SatelliteGuys and DBSTalk at the Dish booth. There’s a lot of noise at every CES, but the connections make it worth it every year.