Tiny Satellite Dishes Sprout in Rural Areas


In territory too remote for cable television, identical lawn ornaments for years have graced huge estates and rundown trailers alike--monstrous, yawning satellite dishes.

But like outhouses and milk cans, the dishes are giving way to the latest technology--18-inch dishes that are just as powerful as models 15 feet wide.

Cathy Nardozzo made the switch from an old C-band dish to a small one eight months ago when the motor that rotated the large dish broke.

“We figured instead of spending the money to fix the motor, we’ll just get a small dish,” she said.


Like a jalopy next to a sports car, the Nardozzos’ old dish sits dormant by the new one on their central Pennsylvania farm. Bird droppings cover the large black dish, and her dogs sometimes sprawl in its ample shade.

“I have no idea what to do with it,” she said.

Other owners have turned them into kiddie pools, landscaping ponds or birdbaths.

The C-band dishes first hit the market in the early 1980s and were scooped up by television-starved rural residents weary of snowy reception and the two or three channels available with an old-fashioned antenna.


The first dishes--advertised in Neiman-Marcus catalogs in 1979--cost $36,000 and were almost 20 feet wide. The price dropped to $3,500 by 1984 and, eventually, to less than $2,500.

The large dishes used to be status symbols in rural areas, and residents typically placed them prominently in front yards. People joked that Vermont, where 30% of the population can’t get cable, should declare the satellite dish the official state flower.

The first C-band owners were able to pirate almost any signal they wanted, from movie channels such as Home Box Office to raw network feeds that allowed peeks at what news anchors and sports announcers did during commercial breaks.

Most large-dish owners now pay a monthly fee to a provider who beams them a package of networks. All small-dish owners pay such a fee.


But the small dish is much easier to use because it is stabilized and doesn’t have to be programmed by the user.

“When we first got the big dish, I didn’t change the channel for three months,” Nardozzo said. “With the small dish, we don’t have to give baby sitters and friends training on how to use the television.”

The small dishes cost about $600, but most companies offer leasing plans. Basic service can run as low as $30 a month, although most subscribers receive optional packages that push the price higher.

The large dishes aren’t completely obsolete because they allow viewers access to programs they can’t get anywhere else, said Chuck Hewitt, president of Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Assn., a trade group for satellite retailers, manufacturers and programmers.


“People who like to watch religious channels, certain sports--especially college games from other parts of the country--and of course, adult programming,” he said.

The small dishes, available for just the last four years, already have more subscribers than their big brothers. About 2.37 million large dishes are being used in the United States, compared to 3.47 million small dishes.

The small dishes, because of their convenient size and competitive price, have appeal beyond non-cable areas. They’ve also been sprouting among yards and porches in suburbia, said George Morgan, director of the Center for Commercial Space Communications at Virginia Tech.

“The cable systems are quite afraid, and rightly so, that the small direct satellite providers are going to take a huge chunk of the business away,” he said. “In Europe, you can already see small dishes hanging out of windows from high-rise apartment buildings.”