illustration courtesy The Edmonton Journal
on the digital satellite bandwagon...
By Jim Bray
click here for an update from this original
Canada has finally entered
the digital satellite TV age.
Well, okay, the "legal"
DSS age. "Pizza-sized" dishes have dotted the skyline for years
as Canucks, with their "grey market" American systems, thumbed
their noses at the CRTCs vision of whats good for us.
But for the past few months
weve also had ExpressVu and Star Choice, CRTC-blessed homegrown
companies and our best reason so far to tell the cable company where to
stick its wires.
Ive tried to like my
cable company, which has some fine people working there, but until competition
reared its ugly head the service was a joke as is the "picture"
I get. Throw in the "negative billing" fiasco, programming packages
offering a few decent channels bundled with a bunch of crap (but ya gotta
take em all!), and their habit of overriding the signal with their
own ads, and Im one disillusioned puppy.
So Im a prime target
for Star Choice and ExpressVu, both of whom gave me a long term loan of
hardware and programming (and bless them for that!) with which to get
a handle on their current services and the ones they say are coming this
These systems require the purchase
(up to $750Cdn or more, though theyre also heavily discounted) and
installation of the dish and decoder box, and the wiring of one to the
other. Setups supposedly easy, but youd have to be some kind
of nut! Pay the couple of hundred bucks and let the pros do it.
installation was straightforward, except the dish had to be moved when
the technician discovered my castles built like a shack and
the first wind of autumn would blow the dish to Newfoundland
Unfortunately, the Star Choice
installation on my partners dwelling was the hookup from hell. Not
only were multiple locations tried, but the technician fried himself (and
the house) drilling through a wall and a wire. This led to electrical
repairs, a wall patch, and copious cussing.
Im sure it was the exception
rather than the rule, but I would be remiss not mentioning it.
Some DSS models include a UHF
remote control (as opposed to infrared) which, since UHF signals go through
walls, will operate the decoder from virtually anywhere. I found this
handy when watching the dish on my offices computer monitor.
Activating the programming
is as simple as a phone call and both systems were up and running in no
The programming packages give
pretty well everything you can get from cable, with some extras and some
omissions. Each companys packages are fairly similar, the differences
being mainly in the choice of the "local" stations (Canadian
broadcast TV channels) and the mix of US broadcast channels.
Star Choice prices start at
$14.99 a month and reach $44.95 for their "Platinum" collection.
Theres also a selection of "mix and match" channels for
about a buck a month each, depending upon what other programming you order.
ExpressVu ranges from the $7.95
"Starters" (basic Canadian TV, 30 audio channels and a couple
of radio stations) to the $45.95 "All You Can Eat."
If youre expecting HBO,
ESPN, and the cornucopia available from US/"grey market" systems,
forget it. Except for the smattering of American "superstations,"
and the additional Canadian offerings (Like CITY TV: hey, more Toronto!),
what you get looks suspiciously like cable, from TSN, TNN and Bravo! to
TLC, Teletoon, Space, and Speedvision.
Its partially a "rights"
issue (broadcast, not human!), but I wouldnt be surprised if its
also those wonderful CRTC folk wanting to dole out the signals as they
Whatever the reason, you cant
necessarily get what you want.
This may change somewhat this
fall when both companies up their antes. Theyre being pretty secretive
about what will be offered (besides pay-per-view), so we may only get
more Canadian stuff. Ill let you know whats up in a follow-up
What Id like
to see offered is everything thats available anywhere you
want it, you pay for it, you get it. Thats freedom of choice!
I shant hold my breath
I really like the digital all-music
channels. Both ExpressVus "Galaxie" and Star Choices
"DMX" beat the pants off local music radio: 30 channels of real
genre choices, from classic rock and big band to show tunes, country,
folk, etc. The sound quality is very good, with no commercials or DJs
- though my favourite DMX channel sometimes exhibited a "pumping"
I wish there were a readout
of the artists and selections (on the TV would be fine), and hopefully
this will happen in the future.
Onscreen menus walk you through
the available channels, either by categories, favourites you assign, or
in one swell foop. Star Choices menu is colour coded; ExpressVus
menu cuts off the audio, which I didnt like.
Though the idea is good, the
menus are clumsy and of limited use for planning your viewing. I pined
for a printed TV guide until I found "Mini-Dish," a $3.25 Star
Choice/ExpressVu guide that gives an entire months listings in booklet
Unfortunately, its occasionally
out of date, while the onscreen menu (which can be updated more frequently)
is generally bang on.
As the technology changes,
or channels are added, the new stuff downloads automatically. Im
pleased to report that a few new channels have appeared on both systems
so far nothing major, but the more the merrier.
Service with a
Both companies gave terrific
service. When I had some billing inquiries, everything was answered within
minutes via their toll free phone numbers. Likewise, when service abruptly
went off one afternoon, a phone call restored it virtually immediately.
I encountered only one major
service interruption. When we were hit by "the snowstorm of the century,"
the dish filled up with snow quicker than you could say "welcome
to spring" and the signal disappeared until it melted. I could have
climbed onto the roof and cleaned it out but, not being particularly graceful,
And to be fair, this storm
was extraordinary and shouldnt be held against the dish dudes.
Unfortunately, when a Canadian
and American channel run the same program, they yank the Yank signal and
override it with the Canuck. Cable companies do this, too, and I hate
it. It means you suffer through Canadian commercials and promos (during
the Superbowl for example) and, if its the CBC youre forced
to watch, you lose the stereo and therefore the surround sound.
And while the technology allows
for "crystal clear" pictures, the signal is controlled by the
quality of the originating broadcaster, so if the TV station sucks, so
does your dish. Some channels look great, others dont: "Garbage
in, garbage out."
Putting it into perspective,
ExpressVus picture is far better than my cables, but my partners
Star Choice signal is only equal to his cables. Why? My cable stinks,
Audio quality is very good.
ExpressVu claims Dolby Digital while Star Choice touts Dolby Pro-Logic.
I dont have a Dolby Digital decoder, so that advantage is lost for
now and since only the more recent movies (from about "Jurassic
Park" on) boast Dolby Digital, it may not be a big deal to you.
And remember, you need a decoder
to hear either version of Dolby sound.
Remember, too, the satellite
receiver overrides your TV tuner, and if youre hooking up multiple
TVs they all have to watch the same program. This shortcoming is
shared by cable companies digital cable/Pay TV boxes, and isnt
a big deal if you only have one TV or dont care about watching two
programs simultaneously but it was a big deal in our home.
Fortunately, both companies
offer upgraded systems that send two separate signals simultaneously.
Do the digital dishes mean
you can get rid of cable?
Thats a tough call. You
can get a few extra channels, but most of whats offered is
already on cable and urban dwellers should remember that theyll
also lose most, if not all, of their local channels. Keeping basic cable,
or buying a TV antenna gets around this, but costs more.
So, considering the costs of
hardware and software (and installation!), I dont think theres
enough incentive for city dwellers yet.
I may change my opinion when
I see what goodies (including Internet access!) the companies still have
up their sleeves. I certainly hope so Id love to see these
In the meantime, if you dont
have cable or want a relatively portable system, you may find these dishes
are just what the doctor ordered.
Digital satellite systems are
in their infancy and should have a bright future. The technology is sound
(DVDs show how good it can be!), and as the source signals go all-digital,
the destination signals should improve as well.
Which makes me confident that
my caveats (except for the CRTC!) will be easily rendered obsolete as
the systems mature.
Birds in the Sky
By Jim Bray
Canada's two satellite
TV broadcasters continue to carve out their market niche.
Bell ExpressVu and
Star Choice are growing forces in the Canadian marketplace, with the former
boasting over 200,000 subscribers and the latter claiming more than 150,000.
Since their "launch," both services - especially ExpressVu -
have enhanced their offerings somewhat and they must be having an effect
on the cable companies, because the wired carriers are running anti-satellite
ads that, while not outright lies, certainly shade the truth.
For instance, the
cable company says all your TV's have to watch the same satellite program,
which is true - to a point: you can get extra receivers and split the
signal to different TV's, though it's pricey. Besides, the same is true
with digital cable boxes and traditional set top pay TV boxes.
Cable operators also
prattle that there's no local news on satellite and, depending where you
live, this may be true. It's less true now than it was, however: last
fall ExpressVu added several additional Canadian broadcast channels, so
there's actually quite a bit of local misinformation - er, news - available.
ExpressVu also offers all four Sportsnet feeds, though these extra local
and sports channels add $4 a month to your tab.
Star Choice has also
upgraded its channels with some new local offerings, a few specialty channels
(like Prime and CNBC) and the 30 musical genres of Galaxie (on top of
the 30 existing DMX music channels it already had). DMX is still the better
of two music services, at least in my opinion - and now both give you
artist/title information on the TV screen - a wonderful feature. Galaxie,
meanwhile, has started interrupting its service periodically to remind
you that you're listening to its uninterrupted music, a bizarre and annoying
Both satellite services
offer a variety of pay per view movies and events now as well.
TV guide has received a welcome boost: it's now translucent, so you can
see the program behind it when you're getting info. It's still relatively
ponderous, though and I think the Star Choice interface is still better.
A nice complement
to ExpressVu's onscreen menus is "Vu" magazine, an Edmonton-based
print publication that sells for $4.50 a month. That's a lot of money,
but the glossy magazine is clearly laid out, and offers articles and programming
insights along with TV listing grids that beat the pants off either service's
onscreen guide (the guide, by its nature, can be more up to date, but
this isn't usually a big deal). Star Choice subscribers can get a printed
guide to their service for $4.99/month.
The new satellite,
Nimiq, will eventually push ExpressVu's channel capability to "at
least 200." Star Choice is going to remain with the Anik series of
bird, so both services will have more transponders available for programming.
For ExpressVu customers this means Eastern and Western feeds will have
the same programming - so you'll get some new channels as well as more
opportunity to "time shift," or watch TV programs from different
time zones. This is nice, because you can't watch one program and tape
another with the satellite (or digital cable) receivers and time shifting
lets you watch or record more conveniently.
In the future, satellite
carriers will also offer Internet service, which will give them one more
weapon with which to compete with cable. No one's saying when this will
On the whole, Star
Choice and ExpressVu offer very similar services (thanks, undoubtedly,
to the CRTC), though as a corporation ExpressVu seems to have its act
more together. Getting information from Star Choice was dfficult and I
had ongoing billing problems with them, despite supposedly having a complimentary
account. This has all been worked out now, but it was a hassle for months.
ExpressVu, on the other hand, bent over backwards to be helpful; calls
were returned promptly, and questions answered with neither song nor dance.
Having run the satellite
and cable side by side for about a year now, I've grown to really like
the dish systems and am hoping the companies forget they're here! Neither
service is by any means perfect, and sometimes there are strange (but
mercifully short) "blackouts," but on the whole it's terrific.
So is it time to
pull the cable yet?
Boy, I still have
to hem and haw there. If the hardware costs were the same as cable (including
the second receiver required to split the signal to multiple TV's), I'd
give the edge to the satellite - and hardware prices are dropping like
a stone, so it may not take too long before they're on an even footing..
As of today, however,
cable and satellite dish are pretty well neck and neck as far as programming
goes - give or take a channel here and there. Satellite is a great alternative
if you don't already have cable, or just want to send the often-complacent
cable company a message.
As for overall channel
availability, what I still really want to see - and this applies to satellite
and cable alike - is a completely open sky where you can subscribe to
whatever you want, instead of being shackled to whatever channels CRTC
deigns to let us see.
And rather than being
forced into satellite programming "packages" or "tiers"
I'd like to see true mix and match where you aren't forced to take channels
you don't want. But I guess Sheila Copps and her brigade of social engineers
wouldn't like that
Bell ExpressVu programming
packages range from $9 to $50/month
Star Choice programming packages ranging from $15 to $45
Tell us at TechnoFile what YOU think