Chuck Husick: Techno-Talk,
November 2001 BoatUS Magazine (updated July 2009)
Some of us go boating to get away from TV. Some suffer from an addiction to the tube and must satisfy their habit regardless of where they are. Others like to see a broadcast program at the end of a fine day on the water.
Some means for TV watching on your boat are obvious. You can use a VCR. You can watch DVDs on your TV or on a lap-top computer. If you are close to a TV transmitter a TV set's built-in digital tuner and antenna may work well. If the signal is not strong enough to produce a clear image you can use a marine TV antenna to capture the off-the-air signal. If your TV set does not have a digital tuner you can buy one for less than $70. For less than $100 you can buy a circular skeletal aluminum antenna that can be hoisted in the rigging when needed, provided you have rigging. Fixed-mount omni-directional antennas costing between $100 and $130 can be used when anchored or moored. (The Government rebate program for converters expired July 31, 2009.)
The really good news is that the switch from analog to digital TV broadcasting brings with it a very welcome improvement in our ability to enjoy local TV broadcasts on our boats. The improved signal to noise ratio inherent in the use of digital modulation has, in almost all instances, increased the number of TV stations you will be able to receive at a quality level sufficient to allow really enjoyable viewing. In addition, many TV stations are broadcasting multiple programs, in some cases as many as three or four. The added wealth of program material will be accompanied by improved, CD quality audio. Your boat's existing TV antenna will work with the digital TV signals, however if your TV set does not have a digital tuner you will need to buy a digital-to-analog converter box and install it between the antenna and the TV set.
Either type will also serve your FM radio, allowing you to claim that the antenna is there so that you can listen to the opera on Saturday afternoon, not for watching TV. (Being politically correct can be important!). Plug into the marina's cable system and you can surf through 100 channels before settling down to watch that "educational" program.
TV watching gets to be a bit more involved when your TV needs can't be met from a nearby source. You can receive satellite relayed TV signals from almost anywhere south of about 70 degrees N. and north of about 50 degrees S. In most of North America you can use a house-size satellite dish, provided you mount it on something stationary like the piling next to your boat. Mounting a dish on your boat will not work well - even docked boats move about a bit too much to keep it properly aimed at the distant satellite. (Remember to ask the dockmaster if it's okay to nail the antenna base to the conical copper piling cap before driving the spikes.)
The next step up in satisfying your onboard TV addiction requires a stabilized, automatic tracking antenna. In relatively strong signal areas the most basic of these systems, a one-axis (azimuth only) system costing about $1,000, may be sufficient to compensate for the movement of a boat moored or anchored in very smooth water. To receive a viewable image when things are not totally calm, you will need a more capable automatic tracking antenna system.
For about $2,500 you can buy a multi-axis satellite tracking system. Enclosed in a dome, the smallest units are just over 12 inches in diameter and 15 inches high. Boat owners capable of installing a VHF radio will be able to successfully install the new systems. If your voyaging includes more remote areas where the satellite signal is less robust and if your TV watching must go on even when the seas are up you will need a more capable type of antenna system. The antenna will be a bit larger, about 20 inches in diameter and 21 inches high. The system will contain a more sophisticated heading sensor as well as more advanced tracking and stabilizing circuits. Somewhat larger and more costly systems, ($6,000-$9,000) will keep you supplied with your favorite programs even as you enjoy your own perfect storm.
There is one "fly in the ointment" with regard to your enjoyment of satellite TV on your boat. Unless you tell the satellite provider that your boat is actually a recreational vehicle (RV) or a truck you will not be able to view satellite rebroadcasts of local channels. This nonsense is the result of the way Congress wrote the law that governs the operation of the satellite TV operators. The RV and trucking industries were aware of the desire of their clients to receive the local channels regardless of where they were located. Boating was not represented when the rules were written.
If you choose to use a satellite TV system you may find that once you voyage away from your home area (the address you furnished to the satellite company when you registered your system, you may not be able to receive broadcasts that originate in your new location. When the rules that govern the satellite broadcasting of locally originated signals were written exemptions that allowed reception of local signals in areas away from the system’s home location were allowed for two types of users; trucks and recreational vehicles. Boats were not included, therefore unless you claim that your boat is either a truck or an RV you will not be able to view programs from the local stations in areas you may visit. Unfortunately it appears that changing this obvious error in the law will likely require action by the Congress and it will be difficult to convince them that this is an important issue – but you might want to try. The impact of this annoying problem has been mitigated with the introduction of digital TV broadcasting, the digital signals will often be strong enough to provide excellent viewing with even a simple omni-directional antenna.
The most capable and costly stabilized automatic satellite tracking systems include precision magnetic sensors that can deliver superior quality heading information for use by other instruments on your boat. Giving your autopilot precise and stable heading data will significantly improve its performance, especially in rough water. Those who use chart plotters that overlay radar information on the chart will particularly appreciate the value of the enhanced heading information.
You might be able to stretch things a bit and justify the satellite TV setup as a vitally needed navigation safety enhancement. Having the antenna dome topsides can also come in handy when the IRS auditor visits your boat to discuss your deducting all the costs of your boat as a home office. Point to the dome and tell him that is your communication terminal. Just be sure the TV is locked away where it can't be accidentally turned on and change the label on the antenna dome from TV to Satcom.
Don't forget to subscribe to the satellite company of your choice, without it all you will see on the screen is a remarkable snowstorm.