Why does DIRECTV even have standard definition any more?

Standard definition. It’s the way television was presented for about 60 years. It’s the old-school, tube-TV,small-screen, blurry presentation we all remember from our pasts. Officially, the transition away from analog TV, which carried standard definition, to digital which carried both standard and high definition, took place in 2009. But it was more of a slow roll. I’ll say this. In 2005, practically everyone watched TV in standard definition. In 2015, practically no one did.

Except…

DIRECTV still offers over 90% of its national channels in glorious standard definition, as well as a very good percentage of local channels as well. This was going to end. We were told that by 2019, standard definition would be a thing of the past. That date came and went. Here we are years later. Standard-def is still here.

This is good news for users of older marine and RV dishes. Those technologies are expensive, and so folks try to get the most use out of them. Even today, most of the RV satellite antennas only get standard definition DIRECTV. Marine dishes are more commonly HD. That’s because you need a bigger dome for HD and RVs… where are ya gonna put it?

It would be tempting…

..look I’d love to say that AT&T is preserving all this standard definition content for the benefit of the folks with marine and RV dishes. Problem is I don’t buy it. Marine and RV customers represent about 1% of the total subscriber base. In these days of shrinking subscriber numbers, every 1% is important, but you have to wonder if AT&T is really keeping their “birds up in the air” for that fairly small group. Chances are, there’s another reason. In fact, there are two.

Reason one: airlines and other contracts

Several major US airlines still operate satellite systems that rely on DIRECTV’s standard definition programming. These are older planes to be sure. They’re bound to be updated or retired at some point. Newer systems rely more on onboard hard drives full of movies and a limited internet connection. That’s what people seem to want when they’re flying.

These contracts keep AT&T providing standard definition programming, and that means other folks, regular folks, can benefit. That’s good for everyone.

Reason two: maybe the satellites can’t do HD

AT&T has put a massive investment into new satellites. Its latest three satellites, T14, T15, and T16, could handle all of the satellite TV traffic right now if every other satellite went down. But there are a lot of other satellites up in the sky in perfect operating condition. This Wikipedia page lists seven other functioning satellites that can provide programming to people with a Slimline-5 dish. But some of them were not designed to do high definition and that may be a problem.

Satellites operate a fixed number of transponders and putting HD content on there doesn’t make use of the older satellite’s relatively small bandwidth. At one point an AT&T engineer suggested to me that if DIRECTV9S, the oldest satellite in the oldest working satellite slot, were converted to HD it would carry at most 16 channels of HD. That’s compared to the hundreds it’s capable of in standard definition. Not only that there would be a lot of wasted space.

When will DIRECTV SD finally go away?

It depends on who you ask. It looks like a large number of local stations are taking their SD feeds offline in 2021. At least that’s the plan. As we all know from the last 18 months, sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan. At some point the contracts that exist will expire. I don’t know when, but at some point DIRECTV’s last standard definition channel will go out of service. By then, we’ll all be ok with that.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.