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illustration courtesy The Edmonton Journal

"Pictures from Heaven"

Canada gets on the digital satellite bandwagon...

By Jim Bray

note: click here for an update from this original article

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 CRTC’s vision of what’s good for us.

But for the past few months we’ve 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.

I’ve 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 I’m one disillusioned puppy.

So I’m 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 fall.

Getting Wired

These systems require the purchase (up to $750Cdn or more, though they’re also heavily discounted) and installation of the dish and decoder box, and the wiring of one to the other. Setup’s supposedly easy, but you’d have to be some kind of nut! Pay the couple of hundred bucks and let the pros do it.

Subtle MountingExpressVu’s installation was straightforward, except the dish had to be moved when the technician discovered my castle’s built like a shack – and the first wind of autumn would blow the dish to Newfoundland…

Unfortunately, the Star Choice installation on my partner’s 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.

I’m 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 office’s computer monitor.

Package Deals

Activating the programming is as simple as a phone call and both systems were up and running in no time.

The programming packages give pretty well everything you can get from cable, with some extras and some omissions. Each company’s 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. There’s 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."

Sky’s Limited

If you’re 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.

It’s partially a "rights" issue (broadcast, not human!), but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also those wonderful CRTC folk wanting to dole out the signals as they see fit.

Whatever the reason, you can’t necessarily get what you want.

This may change somewhat this fall when both companies up their antes. They’re being pretty secretive about what will be offered (besides pay-per-view), so we may only get more Canadian stuff. I’ll let you know what’s up in a follow-up article.

What I’d like to see offered is everything that’s available anywhere – you want it, you pay for it, you get it. That’s freedom of choice!

I shan’t hold my breath…

I really like the digital all-music channels. Both ExpressVu’s "Galaxie" and Star Choice’s "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 DJ’s - though my favourite DMX channel sometimes exhibited a "pumping" quality.

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.

Software & Menus

Onscreen menus walk you through the available channels, either by categories, favourites you assign, or in one swell foop. Star Choice’s menu is colour coded; ExpressVu’s menu cuts off the audio, which I didn’t 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 month’s listings in booklet form.

Unfortunately, it’s 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. I’m 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 Smile

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, I didn’t.

And to be fair, this storm was extraordinary and shouldn’t be held against the dish dudes.

Downlink Downsides?

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 it’s the CBC you’re 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 don’t: "Garbage in, garbage out."

Putting it into perspective, ExpressVu’s picture is far better than my cable’s, but my partner’s Star Choice signal is only equal to his cable’s. Why? My cable stinks, his doesn’t.

Audio quality is very good. ExpressVu claims Dolby Digital while Star Choice touts Dolby Pro-Logic. I don’t 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 you’re hooking up multiple TV’s they all have to watch the same program. This shortcoming is shared by cable companies’ digital cable/Pay TV boxes, and isn’t a big deal if you only have one TV or don’t 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.

Bottom Line

Do the digital dishes mean you can get rid of cable?

That’s a tough call. You can get a few extra channels, but most of what’s offered is already on cable – and urban dwellers should remember that they’ll 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 don’t think there’s 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 – I’d love to see these systems succeed.

In the meantime, if you don’t 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 (DVD’s 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.

UPDATE: June 1999

Birds in the Sky Growing up

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 habit.

Both satellite services offer a variety of pay per view movies and events now as well.

ExpressVu's onscreen 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 happen, though.

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


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Updated May 13, 2006