What is DBS?

Now here’s a term that will really take you back. Most folks don’t use the term “DBS” anymore, if they ever did. Occasionally someone from long-time fan site dbstalk.com will come over here, and they’re familiar with the term, but today’s satellite TV viewers might never have heard it.

Direct Broadcast Satellite.

That’s what DBS stands for. Now, if you’re thinking, “well that doesn’t tell me a whole lot,” I hear you. It’s not the most self-explanatory term. But in order to understand it, you have to understand the history of satellite TV.

Remember the “big ugly dish?”

Back in the early 1980s, cable TV was high-tech. For the first time, communities across the country had access to more than just their local channels. It was great, but for some people it still wasn’t enough. You might agree, since the average cable system back then was still locally owned and had maybe 30 channels.

The answer was “C-Band Satellite.” You put up a big dish in your yard, something like what you see above. (That was actually the smaller version.)  You then ran a cable to a satellite receiver that would let you move the dish using motors and gyroscopes. Using this system you could get programming from all over the world. It was usually free, too. The major content providers didn’t think anyone would actually go to all this trouble. So, HBO, ESPN and more were just free for the taking. You could also get behind the scenes footage and live feeds that no one outside the networks could see.

The problem, though, was that you had to aim the satellite every time. Using something like a printed phone book, you fed coordinates into the receiver and the dish would move. It would take 30 seconds or so before you got a live picture.

What we wanted was something like cable TV, but in satellite form.

Back in the 1980s we started to talk about “Direct Broadcast Satellite.” The theory was simple, and to you it might seem familiar. A company would aggregate a bunch of channels on one satellite. You would put up a small dish and get every channel without having to re-aim.

Of course that was a pipe dream back then. We talked about how small the dish could be. Could it be small enough to fit on top of a TV? We talked about the technology and how it might work.

Remember this was a world where you didn’t even get an electronic guide with your TV. A dish system like this seemed like magic.

DBS in the United States, vs. the world

In the US, DBS developed along strictly capitalist lines. Several companies hoped to launch their own satellites into space, take care of all the broadcast contracts, and repackage everything so it was easy for the customer. In the end, only DIRECTV (1994) and DISH (1996) managed to make it happen.

A key to their success was an FCC rule which let satellite companies encrypt their broadcasts. Before the FCC stepped in, encryption on over-the-air broadcasts was illegal. DIRECTV and DISH were able to make the case that their DBS systems were essentially equal to cable systems, and cable systems had always been allowed to encrypt because they were over wires, not over the air.

In other corners of the world…

DBS systems grew along more socialist lines. In many countries, over-the-air broadcasting is part of the government. You pay a tax to watch TV and then everyone gets broadcasts for free, largely without commercials. Satellite TV in Europe followed much the same model. Rather than keep up a network of broadcast towers, a single satellite was launched and after paying a tax to the government, anyone was free to use their own equipment to get free satellite TV.

This system worked in the past and still works, although many countries also have a pay-for-play satellite system. Sky, once a sister company of DIRECTV, operates a DBS system that’s very similar to what we have in the US, only for other parts of the world.

Will the term DBS make a comeback?

Pretty unlikely, I’d say. Still, it’s a nice term to pull out at parties to impress your geeky friends.

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.