Why can’t you get local channels from other markets from your satellite dish?

If you live in the middle of North Dakota, it may seem awfully enticing to watch those slickly-produced programs on WABC in New York City. I know that when I’m out west, I would love to watch the late night shows at 8:00pm, too. The problem is, you can’t, and here’s why.

First of all you’re not allowed to.
The whole world of satellite TV rests on a law called STELA, which gives satellite TV providers the right to include local channels. See, without STELA it would be illegal to do that, since it’s illegal to broadcast local channels outside a local area, and satellites are definitely outside of everyone’s local area. STELA provides a very specific exception to the rule; DIRECTV and DISH can provide local channels to people in the areas they serve provided that they have an ironclad way of making sure people don’t get out-of-market locals when they shouldn’t. This is done using “conditional access” technology, where your receivers are only authorized for the programs and channels that the provider says. If the central computer says you can’t get it, you can’t get it.

And then, it’s sort of impossible technically most of the time.
The other piece of the puzzle is that both DIRECTV and DISH use what is called “spot beam” technology. Spot beams let the satellite companies use the same broadcast frequencies over and over by focusing their transmissions on small areas that don’t overlap. For example (and this is only an example) they can use the same frequencies for Washington DC and Seattle WA because there’s no overlap. This is similar to what “terrestrial” broadcasting does — it’s why there can be a channel 4 in New York and a channel 4 in Miami. The signals just don’t touch.

Spot beams are used because it would be cost prohibitive to have 4,000 different broadcast licenses and because, thanks to STELA, the local channels don’t need to go all over the country anyway.

What about “distant network service?”
A generation ago, before DIRECTV and DISH had local channels. you could get a waiver to use what are called “DNS” or “distant network service” channels. These are channels that are broadcast nationally and if you are authorized to get them, you get them. The trick is you could only be authorized to get them if DIRECTV or DISH didn’t carry your local channels. Since the pay-TV services now cover over 95% of the country with locals, it’s hard to get a waiver for these channels. It’s technically possible if you get a representative from every local channel in your area to sign a waiver, but realistically that never happens. DNS channels are provided as mirrors of the New York and Los Angeles feeds and are carried on satellites that broadcast them nationally, but only a small percentage of people actually qualify to get them.