18 December 2005

Big Dishes Disappear

Remember the big satellite TV dishes of yore, usually reserved for distant locations (where cable TV was unavailable and broadcast signals are poor)? They were about 6-8 feet in diameter (unlike current satellite TV dishes which are about 18 inches). The old dishes are part of the "C Band" system which now has just 150,000 customers nationwide, down from 2.6 million in the early 1990s (for the math impaired that is a 94% drop in customers over a little more than a decade).

This number is likely to decline. Programming providers, like Starz and the provider of local television service to satellite viewers in the Denver area have discontinued their C band offerings. And, at this point it is a vicious circle. Each channel that departs will take with it customers who wanted it, and the declining number of customers will encourage more and more customers to bolt.

C band will likely disappear entirely. Unlike other retro technologies, like tapes, records, and 8 tracks, legacy users can't just keep using the content they already have. Television requires a constant stream of new material and someone has to run the system. As the number of customers shrink, those costs will be shared less widely, and subscription rates will go up, while the quality of the service will go down. Now, there are a few people out there who still want cut rate service with their clunky existing dishes (the going rate appears to be $28 a month), but when it becomes cheaper to use a small dish (Dish providers are now offering to provide new dishes for free and charge a $60 a month subscription fee) even for bare bones service, many of the last hold outs will convert to small dish service.

The fact that existing broadcast television won't work without an adapater in a few years as we convert as a national to digital TV, will likely force more people who could live without local TV service because they put up with fuzzy broadcast signals to make some decision on what to do and cause them to choose small dish service as well.

The big benefit of this, of course, is that it frees up the C band for something new and better. Radio frequencies are valuable real estate and I suspect that there is no shortage of high value users out there with ideas for it.

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