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Cable vs satellite TV

Which one is best for your home?

Last Updated 6/4/18
by Kate Williams, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team
Two men installing a TV

Introduction

Moving is draining, and at the end of a long day of unpacking and setting up your new home, you probably want to kick back and relax with your favorite show. That’s why you’ll want to get cable or satellite set up quickly after a move. If you’re moving locally, this may be a matter of simply transferring service to your new address. Otherwise, you may need to plan ahead so you can get set up as soon as possible.

So which is better for your new home: satellite or cable TV? We narrowed down the key factors that you’ll want to consider when shopping for your next communications provider.

Person watching TV and eating popcorn

Availability

If you’re moving to a rural area, satellite may be your only option.. Rural areas are less likely to be within a cable provider’s coverage area, but satellite is available anywhere, as long as the dish can face south without any obstruction (trees or tall buildings).

If you don’t live in a rural area, you still have other ways to narrow down your options and decide whether cable or satellite is the way to go.

Bottom line: If you’re rural, you might not be able to get cable. If not, use these other factors to decide which is best for you.

Cable bill with pen on top

Price

Both satellite and cable of companies offer bundled packages, meaning you get an overall lower price when you get TV, internet and phone service from one company. This can be a great way to save some cash if you need internet and phone. Ask about special offers when you sign up, since companies usually give significant discounts to first-time customers.

Cable

Cable companies usually allow customers to pay month-to-month instead of signing a contract, which is a bonus if you don’t want to be locked into a set monthly payment for a year or more. The price for cable depends on how many channels you want and ranges from about $15-$50 per month, depending on which channel package you go for.

Satellite

Satellite companies usually require customers to sign a one- or two- year contract for their service. This isn’t a big deal if you plan on using your satellite provider for a year or longer, but it can be a deal breaker for people who don’t want to be locked into set monthly payments. Satellite packages start around $50 per month, but their basic packages offer more channels than basic cable.

Bottom line: If you only want the bare minimum programming and cheapest price, cable is your best bet. If you want to have all the channels, cable and satellite will likely cost about the same. Not all satellite companies offer internet in all areas, so if you definitely need internet and TV options, you might be better off with cable. Check with your local providers for a breakdown on price to see if one offers a better deal.

Red and yellow TV cables

Equipment and installation

Both cable and satellite require equipment and installation. Factor this into your decision based on the equipment’s cost and installation constraints.

Cable

If your home isn’t already set up for cable, you might need a professional to come out and set you up. They’ll hook up a cable wire and insert a cable card into your TV so you can receive cable channels. To get digital channels and other features, like On Demand, you’ll need to get a digital converter box, which you can rent from your cable provider or find for as low as $25 at retailers like Walmart.

Satellite

Satellite requires a satellite dish that sits on your roof and a receiver, which sits inside your home. Some companies roll the cost of your satellite equipment into your monthly fee, while others don’t charge at all for equipment. You definitely need professional installation on your satellite dish, which is usually free.

Bottom line: Cable requires less equipment overall, since you only need a wire and a box. Satellite requires a receiver along with a dish, which sits on top of your home. Once everything is installed, though, there isn’t a significant difference between cable and satellite equipment.

Person holding a remote with dog on lap

Home type

What type of residence you have can impact whether cable or satellite is a better option.

Cable

Cable is pretty easy to install in any type of home, whether you rent or buy. If you’re in an apartment, your complex might have a contract with a specific cable company, which can mean a lower monthly cost for you. Ask your landlord about this before you sign on to a cable provider.

Satellite

Some landlords try to prevent renters from getting satellites installed. While some simply don’t like the look of a satellite dish, others have more valid reasons. Improper installation can lead to major problems like waterproofing issues and injuries if the dish falls or someone trips over the cords.

But according to Federal Communications Commission Order 98-273, landlords can only prohibit renters from installing satellite dishes in common areas (spaces shared by multiple tenants, like a rec room). They can install satellite dishes that are 40 inches or smaller in diameter in their private residences as long as they’re installed by a professional.

Bottom line: Cable is easier to install than satellite, but you can install either whether you rent or own. Satellite dishes only work when facing the southern sky, so you may be out of luck to use satellite if you’re in an apartment that doesn’t face south.

Couple watching tv eating popcorn

Reliability

Fewer things are more aggravating than having the connection go out when you’re in the middle of an episode of your favorite show. Both cable and satellite will go out at one point or another. Here’s what you need to know.

Cable

Cable is more likely to keep working during bad weather if the wires are underground. Older homes have above ground wires that can be subject to weather-related damage. If a cable line goes down due to bad weather, construction or something else out of your control, your cable will go out. In normal situations, though, cable is more reliable than satellite.

Satellite

Satellite dishes are outdoors, which means they’re affected by the weather. Rain and strong winds are a satellite dish’s nemesis. If your satellite dish is damaged, you’ll have to wait until a repair technician can come out to fix the problem, which can leave you un-entertained for days.

Bottom line: Overall, cable is more reliable than satellite. While satellite is generally reliable, storms are more likely to knock it out for longer periods of time than cable.

Man changing channel with remote

Channel options

The types of programs you like to watch may be the determining factor in choosing cable or satellite, and programming packages will affect the cost of your contract.

Cable

In general, cable is better for watching things like the local news and primetime broadcast  TV shows. You can opt in for pretty much any paid programming, though, if you want premium movie and sports channels.

Satellite

The fact that satellite offers higher HD quality than cable makes it a better choice for anyone with top-tier TV and sound systems. Additionally, satellite providers can tailor packages like those for sports fans who can add on premium sports channels to keep up with their favorite teams all year long.

Bottom line: If you’re a stickler for image and sound clarity and want to get the full viewing experience every time, go with satellite. If you aren’t, you can get all the channels you want from either.

Woman holding a remote control

Conclusion

There’s no question that Americans love watching TV, especially as a way to unwind after stressful events like moving. Cable and satellite are the most practical and widely-used options available for people who want to watch their favorite shows and sports teams when they air live. Research your new location to determine which one makes the most sense, and schedule an appointment so you can keep up with your favorite TV shows from the comfort of your new home.

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As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kate Williams, Ph.D. believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase. She spends countless hours researching companies and industries before writing buyers guides to make sure consumers have all the information they need to make smart, informed buying decisions.

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