What Is the Difference Between Cable and Satellite TV?

By Edward Mercer

Satellite television is transmitted through powerful satellite antennas.
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Cable and satellite television operate over very different technological platforms and require different equipment. These material dissimilarities also make for differences in the coverage both services provide, although prices and the content consumers receive -- depending on the area in which you contract the service -- tend to be roughly comparable. Even so, understanding the differences between the two services is an important first step in understanding the right choice for your needs.


While you may even get the same channels and content, the way information reaches your television is very different between satellite and cable technology. Satellite data signals are transmitted from powerful antennas to satellites orbiting in space and then down to personal satellite dishes in the homes of consumers who contract the service. Cable television, on the other hand, is transmitted through coaxial cables from the service provider to coaxial outlets in the homes of cable TV viewers.


Because the signal is different -- wireless in the case of satellite television and wired in the case of cable -- consumers need different equipment in order to receive television content with the two options. In addition to a coaxial cable connection, cable viewers often require a cable box or decoder provided by their cable company. Viewers of satellite television need a satellite dish to receive the content signal and sometimes additional equipment to route the signal to multiple television sets.


One of the advantages to satellite television is its wide availability. Satellite television is accessible from any location with a clear view of the southern sky (or the northern sky if installed in the southern hemisphere) and room for a satellite dish. Conversely, cable television requires that a home or office be connected to a coaxial cable network, making cable television inaccessible in many rural and sparsely populated areas. Cable television's network, however, is insulated from weather conditions, while satellite television can experience interruptions or loss of signal strength due to storms or cloud cover.

What You Get

From a consumer perspective, cable and satellite television packages can seem almost identical. Factors such as price and the channels you get depend more on your provider than the technology they use, although satellite dish packages often require a long-term contract to defray the costs of dish installation. Regarding the channels available, local television content can be transmitted through coaxial cable just as easily as through a satellite dish, yet satellite programs sometimes have more robust packages of foreign channels due to the greater ease of transmitting international signals through satellites in space.