4DTV Satellite receiver Page 2

Sales of C-band systems have fallen like a rock since the launch of PrimeStar and DSS four years ago, but C-band still has a lot to offer. With their "steerable" dishes that are 6 to 10 feet in diameter, C-band systems can point to any satellite in the sky. There are too many variables to calculate the exact bandwidth of all the available birds, but my guess is somewhere in the terabit-per-second range. In fact, there's so much capacity that many transponders sit unused much of the time.

For hard-core channel surfers, a C-band system might be the ultimate home-theater source component, delivering an almost embarrassingly large array of channels with superior video quality and lower subscription costs than DBS or cable. This is especially true of the General Instrument 4DTV receiver under review here, which can currently pull in over 600 free and encrypted (subscription) analog and digital channels. (Until this product was introduced, C-band was strictly an analog affair.) And if that's not enough, you'll be glad to know that more channels are added regularly.

However, there's no such thing as a free lunch. A DSS setup runs $300-$500 installed, while a C-band rig will set you back about $3000. Even if money is no object, accommodating such a big antenna is simply out of the question for many people, including just about everyone who lives in an apartment or condo. Fortunately for me, our Santa Fe home is surrounded by several acres of beautiful undeveloped land, bisected by a large arroyo. (That's a dry streambed for you gringos.)

Ups and downs
Before I dive into the nitty-gritty about the 4DTV system itself, a little history is in order. HBO established the first operational satellite-broadcasting system in 1975 to transmit programming to their cable affiliates. Just one year later, Taylor Howard of San Andreas, California, built his own TVRO (television receive-only) system and became the first individual to receive C-band satellite TV signals. For the next 10 years, the Direct To Home (DTH) industry experienced steady growth; many programmers joined HBO, and TVRO hardware prices fell from over $30,000 to under $3000.

Then, in 1986, HBO became the first programmer to scramble its signals, and the bottom quickly fell out of the TVRO market. One year later, reports began to surface that the descrambling technology of the time, VideoCipher II, had been compromised, and signal piracy soon became widespread. A few years later, General Instrument introduced the more robust VideoCipher II Plus system, which remains in use today. The DTH industry once again began to grow, reaching its peak in 1994.

In that same year, the fully digital PrimeStar and DSS DBS systems were launched, and PrimeStar implemented a GI digital encryption technology called DigiCipher II (DCII) to prevent piracy. Although there is still plenty of analog C-band programming—both "in the clear" (free) and VideoCipher-scrambled (subscription)—more and more programmers have converted to the digital DCII format. As a result, it was only a matter of time before a consumer integrated receiver/ descrambler (IRD) capable of analog and digital C-band reception appeared. The 4DTV is that unit.

General Instrument arranged to have a local company—Blue Moon Audio & Video of Santa Fe—install my 4DTV system. After performing a site survey to determine the best dish location (out of sight on a slight rise behind the house), installer David Hutson dug a hole and sank a heavy metal pipe into concrete. The next day, he returned to mount a 10-foot-diameter aluminum-mesh dish with a VonWeise actuator and a Chaparral feedhorn with a dual C-band/Ku-band low-noise block converter (LNB).

Hutson seemed to enjoy installing a new dish from scratch; all but a handful of the 4DTV installations he performs are upgrades to existing analog-only systems. (The 4DTV receiver can use just about any existing C-band dish.) A bundle of four coax cables was routed from the dish, under the house, and up through a hole in the floor to the 4DTV receiver in my equipment rack.

In addition to a variety of low-voltage connectors for the dish, the 4DTV receiver has composite-video, S-video, and analog stereo outputs, which I connected to an unused A/V input on my Denon AVP-8000 surround processor. (I'll have more to say about the 4DTV's outputs later.) Like the DSS receiver that sits directly above it, the 4DTV unit must be connected to a phone line in order to confirm pay-per-view orders. A simple T-connector plugged into the phone jack behind my equipment rack took care of this detail.

With everything hooked up, Hutson used the unit's onscreen menus to align the dish and program the exact positions of the 27 satellites accessible from Santa Fe. (As you travel farther east, other birds become available; here, they're below the horizon.) Performing this crucial step is straightforward once you know what's what, but this C-band novice was very glad to have an experienced installer on hand.

Later that day, two GI sales reps, Joseph Cornwall and Brian Cotter, arrived to run me through the unit's features. But first, Cotter inserted a VideoCipher module into a slot on the unit's rear panel. At this point, the user or installer would normally call a 4DTV service provider to activate the system, selecting from the many available programming packages. Each 4DTV unit has a unique ID number that the service provider uses to unlock encrypted digital programming; the VideoCipher module has its own serial number and must be separately authorized before encrypted analog channels can be accessed. In my case, Cornwall called a service center and supplied a special authorization code that activated just about every channel—and I do mean every channel—under the sun. (My job does have its perks!)

General Instrument Corp.
6262 Lusk Boulevard
San Diego, CA 92121
(800) 225-9446