Why did the 16APSK mux at 97°W 3980H disappear?

If you have read some of my previous posts you may have discerned that I am no big fan of any of the free-to-air satellite forums out there. In my opinion most of those sites are run by people who make up arbitrary rules that do not apply equally to all users, and also at least some of them exist specifically to further someone’s commercial interests, and if you happen to say anything negative about a product sold by the dealer that runs the site or another “favored” dealer, you may find that your posts silently disappear, and you may even be banned from the forum. And, if you have been on multiple free-to-air satellite forums, you may have noticed that there is a lot of bad blood between the operators of some of the competing forums (probably in part because some of them are business competitors trying to grab a slice of an ever-shrinking pie). Therefore anything you read on these forums about another forum, particularly if it’s negative commentary, has to be taken with a few grains of salt.

So with that caveat, when the 16APSK mux at 97°W 3980H disappeared earlier this month, some guys in a “hidden” forum on the SatelliteGuys site (note that link will only work if you have been granted access to that forum, and log in to the site) started remarking how coincidental it was that shortly after some other posts had been made on another site, including one where someone had said he was going to contact the uplinker of those channels (a HUGE no-no for anyone that cares about free-to-air satellite), the mux in question disappeared (you can read this thread for more commentary). I’m sorry that I cannot quote specific posts from the SatelliteGuys thread, but it is against their rules to share information on that particular forum outside of the forum, for good reasons.

If I am reading it correctly, the allegation seems to be that a particular dealer, possibly in part because of a long-running feud with the operators of the SatelliteGuys site and some other sites, but mostly because he is selling a rather unattractive package of subscription channels and because few people were buying his package, wanted to see that 16APSK mux go away because he thought people were watching the “free” channels rather than paying him. Now if that is true, my opinion is that if he’d been selling a package of desirable channels at a reasonable price he might have had enough business to satisfy him, but no matter what else may or may not be available, few people are going to buy a package of channels if it doesn’t contain the channels people really want to watch. And also, he probably has lost a lot more business to devices like the Roku and FireTV, and similar Internet-connected devices, and to streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. than he’ll ever lose to people watching free satellite channels.

Now, my view from up here in the balcony while munching the popcorn over the last few years has been that the guy offering this service has managed to piss off a lot of people in the free-to-air community. When the thread appeared on SatelliteGuys I was not even sure at first which forum they were talking about, because it had been so long since I’d been to that forum, and one of the reasons I’d stopped visiting there was because of the lack of useful information and because of what I felt to be mudslinging and venom directed at various parties. I’m not saying that none of it was deserved, because I don’t know everything that happens behind the scenes. But apparently this forum is sponsored or in some way linked with the guy selling the subscription service. Anyway, it seemed to me as though a high percentage of threads there were bashing somebody and while sometimes the bashing seemed valid (in that it discussed some of the shortcomings and biases of other sites), it sure did not seem like a very helpful site for the average satellite hobbyist, at least not compared to some of the other sites they were bashing.

One thing I did notice, and honestly felt somewhat offended by, was the notion put forth in some of the posts on that forum that if you want to watch free satellite TV you are a cheapskate, or a pirate, or in some way doing something illegal, and of course nothing could be further from the truth – if it’s not encrypted, you’re allowed to watch it, period (also, I have sunk a lot of money into equipment for this hobby, but that’s beside the point). What I feel would be despicable, though, would be if someone tried to sabotage free satellite TV just because they believed it might help them sell their own package of fairly undesirable channels. I cannot say for sure that is what happened, because I don’t know who was uplinking those channels, or what was the actual motivation that caused them to discontinue the uplink. But that post I linked above sure does not make me want to do business with the company mentioned in the signature block. Personally, and this is just me, I would never do business with that company as long as I live, no matter what they might offer in the future. I am not telling anyone else what to do, but in my opinion anyone who tries to ruin the hobby of receiving free and legal satellite television by contacting an uplinker is not deserving of my business.

Since no one knows for sure why those channels were on the satellite to begin with, no one knows for sure why they disappeared, except of course for the people responsible for the uplink, and so far they aren’t talking. It may have been something completely unrelated, such as a one-year contract that expired and was not renewed. But just the fact that someone might TRY to get those channels removed or encrypted in order to advance their own narrow business interests, whether or not those efforts actually bore any fruit, is enough to lower my opinion of them to the degree that they will never get a penny from me.

Here’s how to find a satellite dish installer, but should you?

I suspect that most readers of this blog install and maintain their own satellite dishes, either willingly or reluctantly. Just as some people like to tweak an automobile until it’s running perfectly and exceeding the manufacturer’s specifications, some people enjoy the challenge of setting up and maintaining a satellite dish system. But there are others who would prefer to simply pay someone to get a system installed. I don’t recommend that approach, because the more you know about your system, the easier it will be for you to resolve any problems that occur down the road. But if you really want to just pay someone to set up your system for you, I suggest you take a look at this article:

8 Ways to Find a Satellite Installer

HOWEVER, don’t just find someone through that site (or any other site) and call them up without first taking the step of entering their company name (and their personal name, if it’s given) into your favorite search engine. If one of the returned results goes to a well-known satellite forum (and I stress well-known here because anyone can set up a forum, and some dealers have done so, and not all of them are good guys), then I strongly suggest you go there and read the comments. The reason I say that is because there are a few guys out there (one in particular) that are selling overpriced crap systems that will only pick up a small number of channels, and meanwhile they are doing their best to kill the Free-To-Air hobby in the hope that you’ll have to come crawling to them for one of their inferior systems, or else pay for service from a cable or commercial satellite company. Even if you don’t get that asshole, you could wind up with an installer that badmouths free satellite TV throughout the install, then tries to sell you one of the small dish pay services that he conveniently offers (and on which he receives a nice fat commission when he sells one).

I will also point out that before searching an online resource you might check to see if there are any older guys still around that were in the TV repair business during the 1980’s. Particularly if they were installing TV antennas back in the day, they may have also installed satellite TV systems, or they know someone who did. Many of those guys have since retired, both because fewer and fewer people get TV’s repaired anymore, and because climbing antenna towers isn’t exactly safe for older people (or anyone, really). But there are a few still around, particularly in smaller towns, and some of them might not mind lending you their expertise for your install. Another possible avenue to explore would be the amateur radio community, if you know any “hams”. Those guys often tend to know people who’ve installed towers and satellite dishes back in the day. If there are amateur radio “swap meets” in your area, you might want to go to one and wander around and ask some of the guys if they know anyone locally that does C-band or Ku-band satellite dish installations.

If you do pay for an installation I suggest you watch the entire install, and if the installer doesn’t mind, take pictures and ask questions. Your goal should be to learn what all the parts are and how they work together, and what is involved in aiming a dish. That installer won’t be around forever, so learn what you can while you can!

Are phase-locked loop (PLL) LNB’s a good idea?

A PLL-based LNB with the telltale cooling fins

A PLL-based LNB with the telltale cooling fins

It seems that the new rage in C-band LNB’s are the PLL (phase-locked loop) models, which are made in China and imported into North America. They can typically be identified by the presence of a heat sink (cooling fins) on the side of the LNB.

There have been various reviews on them but most tend to be positive. They seem to perform on about the same level as some of the older LNB’s they replaced, which are sometimes referred to as DRO (dielectric resonator oscillator) models. I am talking here about single-piece LNB-feedhorn combination units that use voltage to switch the polarity, not the much older LNB’s that bolted onto a separate feedhorn, and that utilized a small motor to switch polarity.

However I have noted that some of the positive reviews for the PLL-based LNB’s seem to come from people who are trying to use very small (for C-band) dishes of perhaps four to six feet in diameter. They will sometimes also use a conical scaler ring, particularly with a four foot dish, and aim it at a very strong C-band signal in the hopes of getting at least a few of the strongest stations. Sometimes this actually works, at least when atmospheric conditions are right, in other words when it’s not pouring rain. I personally would not care to rely on such a small dish for C-band, but if you live in a place where a larger dish might attract unwanted attention from the wrong people, I can see the appeal of at least trying to get something on C-band.

If you have a larger dish, and particularly if it’s a ten foot diameter dish or larger, you may want to think twice about using a PLL-based LNB. The reason is that phase-locked loop circuity is subject to saturation issues. This means that if you are locking onto a very strong signal, you could potentially have problems because the signal is a little too strong. And with a very strong signal, you probably don’t really need the extra stability offered by the PLL circuitry.

I mention this because I know someone who purchased PLL-based LNB’s, and started noticing he was having occasional signal breakups on certain very strong channels (those that maxed out at or near 100% quality readings in TVHeadEnd from time to time). In the case of one particularly strong channel, received on a ten foot dish, he would occasionally see flashes of purple lines through an entire recorded program. But on another, slightly weaker channel on the same satellite, he’d never see that problem.  This did not happen with any degree of consistency; some nights it would never happen at all, and the on other nights it would make an entire recorded program nearly unwatchable.

Eventually he replaced the PLL-based LNB’s on his ten foot dishes with some older units that do not have the PLL circuitry. Without changing the position of the dish at all, he noticed that the signal quality varied a bit, but on some transponders it actually increased by a couple of points. It seems that the particular older model of LNB he used favored the higher C-band frequencies a little more than the lower ones. But he says that the stability seems better; that even on the channels that have slightly lower signal quality numbers, the stability appears to have improved. Since he only did this relatively recently, it’s too early to say definitively that going back to the older LNB’s actually solved all the breakup issues (at least those not attributable to a quirk in TVHeadEnd, where it acts a bit flaky for a day or two any time the server has to be rebooted), but he says so far he hasn’t seen the issues he’s seen in the past.

Obviously, if it’s a saturation issue, than those running these LNB’s on smaller dishes, where the received signal strength would be lower, would be far less likely to experience that problem. And the increased stability of a PLL-based circuit might actually be quite helpful on a very weak signal, much more so than on a strong one.

Of course, that assumes that the PLL-based LNB’s actually are stable. There is a Wiki page entitled “C Band PLL LNB External reference modification”, which says this:

Since being consumer products these LNBs provide only moderate frequency accuracy and stability. Below we will describe how to modify these LNBs to achieve superior accuracy and stability with relatively little effort.

And then that page shows how to modify these LNB’s by feeding 25 MHz from a stable frequency source into the LNB. Two different methods are shown, but unless you have some experience with building and modifying electronic equipment, you’re probably not going to want to use either one. In this case, “relatively little effort” is quite relative; if you don’t know which end of a soldering iron to hold then I doubt you’ll want to try the suggestions shown.

EDIT: One other potential problem that has been noticed in cold weather climates is that the performance of these devices can fall off when it gets cold outside, which means that if you live in the northern part of the USA or Canada (you know, those places where icy roads are common in the winter months), you may find that some transponders that can be received with no issues from late spring through mid-autumn suddenly have breakups in reception from late autumn through mid-spring.  I  don’t know if this is a problem common to all such devices, or only to a subset that for some reason is especially sensitive to temperature.  I will also note that I once experienced a similar issue with a non-PLL LNB, although in that case the LNB just stopped working altogether when it got below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit.  The presence of the cooling fins on the PLL-based LNB’s make me suspect that the designers were more concerned about the effects of overheating than of frigid winter temperatures. (End of edit.)

My opinion is that if you have adequate signal strength, you may find that an older style, non-PLL LNB works just as well for you, and maybe even better in the sense that you might experience fewer “glitches” in your video and audio. However, if you are dealing with a weak signal situation, and have taken extra time to aim the dish correctly, check the skew and focal point of the LNB, and do any other tweaks that might improve the signal and you still can’t quite get a high enough signal quality reading for stable reception, then a PLL-based LNB might help. However, a larger dish would almost certainly help a lot more, if you are able to get one and put it up.

But that said, I would not discourage anyone from trying both types to see what works best for you. In your particular situation, with your dish, you may find that one or the other type performs better. If you have one of the older style LNB’s and it is working well for you, and especially if you have good signal quality readings, I would not rush out and buy a PLL-based LNB to replace it. But on the other hand, if you have already purchased a PLL-based LNB and you are not having any problems with it, then be happy and, as the Beatles sang, “let it be”!

Beware of these used Eagle Aspen branded Ku-band LNB’s being sold on eBay!!!

This is a warning about a Canadian seller on eBay that is selling Eagle Aspen dual output Ku-band LNB’s as pictured below:

s-l1600

s-l1600

His eBay ad describes these as:

Condition: Used :
Seller Notes: “IN GOOD CONDITION”

Because the shipping charges on these are somewhat high when you order from Canada, we ordered three of them at once to get a break on the shipping. And right after we ordered them we has a spell of pretty lousy weather, and then other events that took precedence over messing with dishes, so it took us about a month and a half to actually getting around to try using one of them. The original plan had been to use one now on an old oval Primestar dish, and use the other two later or save them for spares, in case of a lightning strike or something. So last weekend we finally got around to trying to install one, and we could not get a signal no matter what we did. After fooling around with it for way too long we found the old LNB that originally came with the Primestar dish and hooked that up. Then we were able to get a signal and properly position the dish.

Once we had the dish locked onto the satellite we then tried swapping out the old LNB for the new one, and it did not work at all, which seemed weird. So we tried another one of the three, and STILL nothing. We were beginning to think maybe we were doing something wrong, but since it wasn’t a huge effort to try changing out the LNB yet one more time, we then tried the third one. And the moment we connected the third one, that one worked!

So OUT OF THREE IDENTICAL LNB’S, ONLY ONE WORKED!!!

And even the one that worked gave us a signal quality reading that was six or seven counts lower than what I got with the old original LNB that came with the dish, and that was even after we had peaked the skew setting. So the performance certainly wasn’t spectacular. We only purchased these because we thought they might yield better performance than a generic Ku-band LNB that’s not designed specifically for that type of oval-shaped dish, but even the one that worked was a disappointment.

The real kicker, though, was we notified the seller of this problem. This was his response:

Hello [eBay buyer] Please read the auction…once you have received the items, you had 14 days to return them and you are way, way past that. Sorry you are unhappy with our products, but we do not Guarantee anything past the return date.

Best regards
KenCo23

Now I realize that there was a bit of an unanticipated delay before we got around to installing them, but a month and a half is not a totally unreasonable delay in my opinion, and a seller that wanted to do the right thing might have at least offered some type of compromise instead of giving us the big kiss off. But then, his eBay ad did say,

Returns: 14 days money back, buyer pays return shipping

Since it’s rather costly to ship items across international borders, I suppose a lot of buyers who get a bad one don’t bother returning it. BUT – I find it very suspicious that two out of three units were bad! I mean after all, everyone gets hold of a dud product every now and then, but come on – it doesn’t concern him at all that out of three units sold, only one worked?

And what if just by chance we had tried the good one first (within the two week period), and then stuck to the original plan of saving the other two to use as spares or at a later date? We might not have realized that the other two were “duds” until much later.

Personally, my own opinion (and it is just my opinion) is that this guy probably knows what he’s doing. He probably just hopes that when someone purchases his LNB’s, they don’t get around to actually trying them within two weeks (and I wonder if he includes the shipping time from Canada, including the time it takes to clear customs, when calculating that two weeks?) so he can pocket their money. I suspect the only reason he doesn’t have a lower feedback rating (currently at 98%) is probably because the majority of the items he sells are not electronic, and therefore any problems or damage would be immediately apparent to a purchaser as soon as they open the box. Sadly, that’s not the case with something like a LNB.

So I just wanted to warn everyone about this seller and these LNB’s. As I write this, his user name on eBay is kenco23. And actually, I would not recommend buying these “Eagle Aspen” branded LNB’s from any source, given the less that great performance of the one that actually did work. A few people seem to think these are better than a generic dual output Ku-band LNB for use with an oval Primestar dish, but I have my doubts about that. Anyway, I guess we just bought one very expensive, poor quality LNB – at least ONE of them worked, or I would have thought we were doing something wrong!

Caveat Emptor!!!

(General comment in closing: More and more I am coming to believe that eBay is a haven for scam artists of all kinds, so it might be wise not to buy anything electronic there if it’s not from a reputable seller that has 100% positive feedback!)