Cable Television vs. Satellite Television

Both cable and satellite television deliver affordable options, plenty of channels and great up-time. How they deliver them differs, though, and understanding these differences can help when choosing between cable or satellite TV.

Delivery Method

As its name implies, cable television comes through a cable that leads directly into the home and connects to the television. It requires less equipment than satellite television, but it is dependent on a local cable provider and may not offer the flexibility of satellite television packages.

To receive satellite television, a dish is necessary equipment. The dish receives streaming information from satellites in geosynchronous orbit around the Earth, so the receiving dish must have a clear reception line to the transmitting satellite. Satellite television providers are trained to attach and position dishes for maximum signal strength. Because of the way channels are delivered, satellite television lends itself to a wider range of packages, many of which allow customers to choose individual channels in an a-la-carte system.


Cable providers typically offer competitive prices for basic and premium packages; however, satellite providers do as well.. Some satellite companies may require a larger initial investment to cover the cost of the dish and its installation, but monthly fees may be smaller to offset the start-up cost. Installation fees are often waived for first-time customers or as part of promotional deals, so these costs may not be a factor. Longer commitments can also drive prices for satellite service lower, whereas cable costs are typically consistent regardless of the initial subscription length.

Available Channels

Both cable and satellite television provide access to hundreds of channels. Which one offers a wider selection depends on local providers; in some regions, cable has more channels, but in others, satellite television gives subscribers more choice. Major premium channels are typically available with either option, but potential subscribers should check with local providers to ensure that a favorite channel is part of the package.

Cable television includes local channels as part of any basic or premium package, but a few satellite providers do not include local network affiliates. For those who enjoy local programming, this could necessitate installing an antenna and switching to a local feed to watch these local or regional broadcasts. The majority of satellite TV packages in urban and suburban areas include local channels, but rural homeowners should check the status of local affiliates with their provider. Satellite providers’ coverage of local networks has become considerably more complete over the past few years in response to subscribers’ requests.

Reception Quality

Satellite signals are broadcast in fully digital format, so every channel is in high definition for televisions equipped to broadcast in HD. Many cable channels are also broadcast in HD, but some stations still use analog signals and broadcast in standard resolution. Fans of high-quality audiovisual entertainment should examine the details of the package each provider offers and note the availability of HD channels.

Both cable and satellite TV have occasional outages. When cable goes out, it usually goes out across a large area and may take time to restore. If the service interruption is due to damage to a main antenna or amplifier, the problem could take days to resolve. More frequently, the feed to a particular station may be lost for a few seconds but quickly come back online.

Satellite reception is highly dependent on weather; storms can cause partial or complete signal loss across some or all channels. However, this possibility can be minimized with proper installation and positioning of the satellite dish. New technology has also given dishes improved performance, and most satellite owners now report no more service interruptions than cable television customers on average. In a recent J.D. Power and Associates premium television service, satellite providers consistently ranked higher than cable providers for reliability and continued up-time.


Cable and satellite subscribers both have access to pay-per-view events, movies on demand and quick DVR installation that allows them to record favorite shows. Cable subscribers can also select timed on-demand services to receive a channel for a few hours, an evening or a weekend. This feature is handy for a weekend of major sporting events or other special programming.

Satellite subscribers often have the option of installing a DVR system as a native part of the satellite service, often at a considerably lower cost than buying a separate DVR. By choosing this option, some homeowners with multiple televisions can opt for a service that allows every television in the house to record or play content from the central DVR. Movies can be downloaded for later viewing, a convenient option for those whose plans are subject to change on short notice.

Both cable and satellite television offer excellent entertainment value. In areas that offer both options, satellite TV has gone from about a tenth of all homes five years ago to a quarter of the market today, a share that continues to rise as satellite providers continue to offer outstanding service at competitive prices.