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What’s the difference between cable and satellite TV?

What’s the difference between cable and satellite TV?

Dear Jon, I want to upgrade my Freeview to a subscription TV package, but I’m confused by the choice of services. I know that both satellite and cable are available in my road, as our neighbours on either side each have cable and satellite TV. So what’s the difference between the two, and which is better?

I’m looking for a package with the basic Freeview channels, plus Sky Sports.

Martin Young, Chiswick, via email, Friday 8 April, 2011

Our digital TV expert says...

Like you Martin, I’m sure many people switching to digital are confused about the various options available. There are currently four ways to get your TV service:

  1. Digital terrestrial TV - Provided by Freeview
  2. Satellite TV - Provided by Sky and Freesat
  3. Cable TV - Provided by Virgin Media
  4. Internet TV - Provided by BT Vision and TalkTalk TV

Though over 10 million Brits have Freeview’s subscription-free digital terrestrial service, many homes have opted for the pay-TV options of Sky, Virgin Media and BT Vision. Sky has over 10 million subscribers, and over 3.7 million homes have signed up to Virgin Media. But what makes these pay TV services better than Freeview? And what’s the difference between the two?

Cable vs satellite TV - the basics

The main difference between satellite TV and cable TV is the way the services are delivered.

Some channels and services are only available on satellite TV or cable TV

Satellite TV from Sky and Freesat comes via a signal from a satellite in space, sent directly to your satellite dish, which should be mounted to the outside of your home. This signal is then decoded by a satellite TV receiver - either a Sky+HD box or a Freesat set-top box.

Because the signal is sent through the atmosphere, it can sometimes be affected by bad weather. It’s important to bear in mind however that satellite TV is available to over 98% of the UK, making it a good option if your area hasn’t switched to digital yet.

Cable TV is transmitted to your TV using underground cables wired straight into your set-top box. Because the cables are underground it prevents weather from interfering with your TV reception. Unlike satellite TV though, Virgin Media is only available to 50% of the UK, so you will need to make sure that you are in a cabled area by doing a postcode search.

Some channels and services are only available on either satellite TV or cable TV exclusively, so it’s worth checking to see that the one you go for has the kinds of channels you want, such as high-definition sports or kids’ channels for example.

Below is some more information about the different TV services, how you can get each and the pricing…

Cable TV

The UK’s only cable TV service is Virgin Media ( - it offers three different levels of TV package, going up from 65 to 100 to 165 channels, so you can subscribe for the one with the channels that you want.

All Virgin Media TV packages come with catch-up TV as standard. You’ll get access to:

  • BBC iPlayer
  • ITV Player
  • 4oD
  • Demand Five

If you take the largest TV package - the XL deal - you can watch anything on Virgin Media’s TV Choice menu, which offers entire series of popular drama and comedy programmes on-demand and thousands of music.

Find out more about Virgin Media at

Satellite TV

Sky ( is Britain’s biggest satellite TV provider; however you can also get subscription-free satellite TV from Freesat.

Freesat set-top boxes can be purchased for as little as £20 from retailers like Amazon, Argos and Comet - this is a one-off cost as there are no monthly on-going fees with Freesat. However, channels with Freesat are limited, and it doesn’t offer Sky Sports or Sky Movies.

If you’re looking for a little more, Sky may be the better satellite TV option for you. Sky’s channels are separated into “viewing packs”, letting you opt for a combination of any one, two, three, four, five or six packs. You can then choose to add on Sky Movies or Sky Sports (for an extra fee) if you want even more TV channels. Sky packages start from £19.50 a month for one pack, going up by £1 for each additional pack you add. Sky customers can also bundle their digital TV with their broadband and home phone to save on the overall cost.

There are several reasons why Sky may suit your household, including:

  • Choice of channels - Sky has the widest range of channels in the UK, including a dedicated 3D channel and Sky Atlantic, which is exclusive to Sky
  • High-definition TV - With over 55 high-definition channels available, Sky is a great option if you want to watch your favourite shows in super sharp HD
  • Bundles - You can combine your home phone and/or broadband services with your Sky TV, reducing the number of bills you receive and the amount you have to pay each month.

Find out more about Sky at

Sky or Virgin Media?

Now you know a little about what each service offers, you’re probably wondering which is best for you. Ultimately this will depend on the kinds of channels you want, but other factors that sway your decision may include:

  • Whether you want a free or a pay-monthly service
  • Whether you want to bundle your other utilities, such as your broadband and/or home phone
  • Whether you want catch-up TV or TV on-demand
  • Whether you want the ability to record your favourite programmes with a digital video recorder.

Compare prices online using out digital postcode checker to see what’s available and then sign-up online.

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