Is DIRECTV abandoning the Ku band?

OK, for those who aren’t total satellite geeks– DIRECTV uses two broadcast frequencies for its satellite transmissions. There’s the Ku band at 12-18 GHz, and the Ka band at 26.5-40 GHz. When they originally started in 1994, the Ku band was the only one used and the Ka band was added when DIRECTV needed extra capacity to add HD channels. Since then, there’s a rumor that DIRECTV will stop broadcasting on the Ku band because SD channels aren’t that interesting.

That rumor is wrong in a whole bunch of ways, so let’s take them one at a time.

The current fleet of Ku satellites still has years left on them.
In order to convert its older satellites to Ka band, DIRECTV would literally have to go get them, bring them back down to earth, refit them, and send them up. This would not only be prohibitively expensive but also nothing like this has ever been done. Contrary to what you saw in the movie Gravity communications satellites orbit the earth about 22,000 miles higher than the international space station. Even if we had a working space shuttle which we don’t, we have no strategy for getting a satellite from up there.

What we could do is have the satellite waste all its fuel getting down to an orbit of about 250 miles and then go get it. Which, you know, isn’t going to happen.

If DIRECTV wanted to do this, they would have to replace every dish in use today.
I mean every single dish, period. That’s got to be about 20 million dishes, and let’s say with labor and parts you’re talking $200 per dish. As you can see this is not a terribly attractive proposition.

DIRECTV’s Ku-band licenses are still good.
Seriously, why would they give up on Ku-band broadcasting when there’s no need for it? Those licenses cost millions of dollars to get and they’re non-refundable. DIRECTV would have to wait until those licenses came up for renewal (which you’d think would be something you could find out, but I can’t find that date) and then… not renew them.

Not to mention…
DIRECTV is still pumping out standard definition service to millions of receivers in commercial establishments, hotels, restaurants, and the like, and all those receivers would have to be replaced too.

Look, I’m not saying it’s never happening. There could come a point ten or more years down the line where there isn’t a need for that sort of bandwidth and all the satellites are aging and no more get launched. But that’s a long way away. Honestly DIRECTV started broadcasting HD service in earnest in 2007 and here we are 8 years later and they still broadcast SD. They just stopped offering SD service to new homes last year. It’s an incredibly slow process and not likely to get faster, because of the immense cost involved. The best strategy, which DIRECTV is doing, is to incentivize people to go all HD and upgrade to the latest stuff, and sooner or later you’re down to just a few hundred thousand people with SD and then you deal with it.

So how did this rumor start?
Well a couple of possibilities. DIRECTV is still testing a method to increase satellite TV capacity using what are called RDBS frequencies, the frequencies normally used to send signals up to the satellite. That may make people think that Ku isn’t needed anymore, which isn’t true.

Most likely, the rumor originated because DIRECTV’s own installers won’t put a round dish up for a new customer, and they won’t put in an SD receiver in for a new customer, leading installers to think that the underlying technology of those older items was being phased out. What they didn’t think about is that all receivers use at least some of the Ku bandwidth at the original 101 degree location, and phasing that out would take replacing… literally everything.

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 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.