How Does A TV Satellite Work?

Conceptually, satellite television is a lot like broadcast television when it comes to communications. It’s a wireless system for delivering television programming directly to a viewer’s house. Both broadcast television and satellite stations transmit programming via a radio signal (see How Radio Works for information about radio broadcasting).

Broadcast stations use a powerful antenna to transmit radio waves to the surrounding area. Viewers can pick up the signal with a much smaller antenna. The main limitation of broadcast television is range. The radio signals used to broadcast television shoot out from the broadcast antenna in a straight line. In order to receive these signals, you have to be in the direct “line of sight” of the antenna. Small obstacles like trees or small buildings aren’t a problem; but a big obstacle, such as the Earth, will reflect these radio waves.

If the Earth were perfectly flat, you could pick up broadcast television thousands of miles from the source. But because the planet is curved, it eventually breaks the signal’s line of site. The other problem with broadcast television is that the signal is often distorted even in the viewing area. To get a perfectly clear signal like you find on cable, you have to be pretty close to the broadcast antenna without too many obstacles in the way.

Satellite television solves both of these problems by transmitting broadcast signals from satellites orbiting the Earth. Since satellites are high in the sky, there are a lot more customers in the line of site. Satellite television systems transmit and receive radio signals using specialized antennas called satellite dishes.

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