Why receiving UK TV via satellite abroad isn't that easy

Television and radio services for the UK and Ireland are broadcast from the Astra 2 satellite cluster, orbiting the earth at between 28.2 and 28.5 degrees East.

These satellites are able to cover all of Europe with TV signals - but there's a problem with that, which means it's not that easy as it could be to watch UK television via satellite:

As broadcasting to all of Europe would result in the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and 5 needing to acquire the rights to broadcast such things as sports, film and dramas across multiple European countries, all of the main free-to-air channels restrict coverage by using a spotbeam that’s focused on the British Isles. 

In the early days, these channels were encrypted and needed a 'free-to-view' Sky viewing card. The BBC, who wanted to launch a free-to-air satellite service (Freesat), moved its services to the now-defunct Astra 2D because it offered a much smaller coverage area (known as 'footprint').  The next generation of satellites were created with an even tighter footprint -  the UK spotbeam.

That was good news for viewers in the UK and Ireland where the spotbeam enables strong reception with the oval mini-dishes common on both countries.

However, for viewers outside of the British Isles, the spotbeam means that reception quality drops rapidly across parts of continental Europe. Around the edges, a larger satellite dish will enable reception. Outside of the spotbeam, reception is either very difficult or impossible.

Parameters used to transmit satellite TV services also have an impact – viewers around the edge of the spotbeam may be able to receive standard definition programmes with no trouble, but notice drop-outs on HD versions, as a stronger, most robust signal is needed for fault-free reception.

To add to all this, the spotbeam is so tightly focused that around the edges, viewers may notice temporary drop-outs of signal at certain times of the day or times of the year.

Image: Eutelsat (who sub-let capacity on Astra 2E/F/G)
  • In the centre of the spotbeam, a satellite dish of at least 45cm (Sky zone 1 dish) is suitable for reception. Some viewers in the centre may wish to install a larger dish of up to 60cm (Sky zone 2 dish) to ensure reliable reception of both spotbeam and Europe beam channels (see below) in all but the most extreme weather conditions.
  • Surrounding the centre, across Shetland, most of the Netherlands, Belgium and Northern France, a 60cm dish is required. The western most areas of Germany (Dusseldorf, Cologne) may need up to a 80cm round dish for all-round reception.
  • Around the outer line of the spotbeam, a dish of 150cm is recommended for reception of SD/HD TV services. In this area, reception may be subject to daily fluctuations (see next paragraph).

Each satellite remains in a virtual ‘box’ that it must remain in whilst in orbit (otherwise satellite dishes would always have to move around to keep following the satellite around in the sky). However, within that box it may move slightly – unnoticeable to viewers in the middle of the spotbeam – but around the edges, enough to cause variations in reception.

Europe Beam
Not all TV services use the spotbeam. Some transmit on the main Europe beam, which covers a much broader area. However, the majority of such services are encrypted and part of the Sky UK subscription service – which is another way how broadcasters can get around the problem of the cost of acquiring broadcast rights across Europe if their services were freely available.

Channels currently broadcasting free-to-air via the Europe beam include: Sky News, Pick , Challenge, Forces TV and Together.

Image: Eutelsat (Astra 28G downlink - Europe beam)

  • Channels using the Europe beam can be received across Europe. Very few free-to-air channels use this option. Reception in the core is possible with a 50cm dish.
  • As you can see, parts of northern England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland receive a weaker signal. In order to receive both Europe-beam and spotbeam signals, installers in these areas opt for a larger zone 2 Sky dish of at least 60cm.