Why can’t you get your local channels when you travel?

Our customers love getting satellite TV in their RV’s. It’s one of the reasons people come to Solid Signal — we’re the experts in getting satellite TV systems in boats, RV’s, cars, and basically anything else that moves. There’s only one part of the process that’s confusing… once you leave your local area you usually won’t get your local channels. To make matters worse, you won’t get the local channels for the area you’re in either. That can be kind of a bummer. I’ll tell you why that is, and then here’s the good news: I’ll tell you what you can do about it.

The real reason is…

…to protect small local businesses. For close to 100 years, local radio and television stations have been protected by laws that promise them exclusive rights to their local markets. Imagine if you owned a local television station in Ottumwa, Iowa. That’s a relatively small place, at least compared to cities like New York and Los Angeles. You wouldn’t have the money to make your local commercials look as good as those in a big city, and when it came to national advertisers, you couldn’t promise as much coverage as a big-city network station. Put it this way, if New York’s WABC broadcast a signal that people could get in Ottumwa, the Ottumwans wouldn’t need a local station, and that would mean a loss of jobs.

To protect the little guy, the FCC said that every TV market had to be served by its own broadcast stations, and that stations from other cities couldn’t compete. (See, there was a time the FCC actually looked out for the little guy.)  This was years before cable TV or satellite was even thought of, and even today this broadcast exclusivity is still part of the law even though there are national cable channels.

When satellite TV systems finally got the ability to carry local channels in the early 2000s, the FCC said they had to play by the rules… customers had to get their local channels and no one else’s.

And then… technology took over.

Since DIRECTV and DISH didn’t have to provide the local channels for every city to every other city, they didn’t. Both providers use a technology called “spot beams” to send local TV only where it belongs. This lets them use the same broadcast frequencies over and over, saving them billions of dollars in license fees. Unfortunately that also means that once you get out of your local area, there’s just no signal for you to pick up. Oh sure there are other signals, ones designed for the area where you are, but your receiver isn’t designed to get them.

Why can’t you get the local channels in the city you are actually in?

The law says that your local channels are tied to something called your “service address.” Unless you can get mail in your RV, your service address is your home. You could call DIRECTV or DISH to change your service address, in theory. They won’t let you do it more than once a month and you actually need a physical address. You can’t just call them up and tell them, “I’m driving down Interstate 696 toward Port Huron.” They don’t like that.

Why are New York and Los Angeles local channels so special?

Suppose you’re one of the lucky folks whose real service address is in the New York or Los Angeles markets. In that case you’ll get your local channels wherever you are in the US. They’re carried on national satellite broadcasts. DIRECTV and DISH still operate under special waivers that allow them to send NYC and LA local channels out nationally. They’re authorized for those very few people who don’t actually have local channels where they live. This doesn’t mean you can pretend to live in a big city to get local channels, though. That’s fraud and it’s against the law.

DIRECTV users know that the satellite at the 119 location is going away. So is all the standard definition programming. This may result in more local channels on the main satellites at 101. Unfortunately that doesn’t mean you can get them out of market.

What you can do…

Get an antenna. There are great ones for RVs. They mount on the window or on the roof of the RV. The antennas are durable enough to stand up to 65mph speeds (or higher.) DISH lets you integrate local channels through the receiver. DIRECTV may be bringing back this capability in the future. With programming in the guide, you won’t miss the programs you want. You can even record them if you have the right equipment.

It’s as simple as that. If you want local channels when you travel, you can get them inexpensively. It’s no big conspiracy, and guess what… you can find everything you need at Solid Signal.

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.