Why doesn’t the US have free satellite TV?

Go to many countries in Europe, and you’ll see buildings littered with satellite dishes. It seems like there’s one on virtually every window of some apartment buildings. DIRECTV and DISH once reached about 3% of American homes combined, but it seems like satellite TV in Europe is much more common than that. Are the Europeans seeing something we’re not, or is there something more at play?

Obviously I’ve given away my hand a little bit in the title of this article. Many countries in Europe have what amounts to free satellite television. Tax dollars pay for the service, and folks just need to buy the equipment themselves. So naturally, there are going to be a lot of people who take advantage, because there’s no monthly cost to it whatsoever.

Why Freeview TV makes sense there

The big difference between US television and TV in most European countries is ownership. Many countries have at least one state-run TV station and sometimes more. In some cases the stations are partially state-supported and in others there are local, privately-owned stations that mix with state-run TV. It’s different from country to country. In cases where the state provides most of the TV service, it’s been easy to transition from local broadcasting to satellite. It ends up actually being cheaper to operate one satellite service than dozens of small broadcast towers all over the country. This transition came about in the last 20 years as broadcast operations went from analog to digital, much as they did here in the US.

When you’re talking about this “Freeview” satellite service in Europe, you’re generally talking about just a handful of channels. That’s the other difference. Satellite service in the US gives you hundreds of channels and you pay for that. With Freeview service, the channel selection is limited. This means that the satellite hardware can be simpler to set up, and less expensive to buy. There are premium satellite services in Europe similar to DIRECTV and DISH, and they are priced pretty similar to what we pay here as well.

Could the US have free satellite TV?

Anything’s possible. The way the laws work right now, it wouldn’t be hard to set up a national satellite network based on the broadcast networks. After all, a lot of TV content comes from a satellite anyway. But it would mean disassembling the entire spread of local TV stations that broadcast those feeds. It would take years for existing contracts to run out and for the transition to happen. Because this is all private enterprise, it’s harder to see where there would be a real return on investment.

It’s also worth pointing out that Freeview satellite service was created at a time before streaming video existed. Today, if Europe had it all to do over, they might simply use internet connections instead of satellite. This would make installation even easier and less costly for areas that have good broadband, as most of Europe does.

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.