Where I live in rural Idaho we can get only 1 CBS affiliate and 2 PBS stations, using a large outdoor antenna. Free To Air or FTA satellite TV seemed like a good option for free network TV.
I purchased a CaptiveWorks CW-700s FTA receiver on eBay, and a 31-inch Winegard DS-2076 dish from an online store. I bought a standard linear LNBF and an inexpensive satellite signal meter on eBay. The LNBF is the small part that fits on the dish at its focal point and grabs the signal. RG-6 antenna cable was purchased locally. Total cost was right at $250.
The current best choice for Ku band (smaller dish) English language free satellite TV channels in North America is Galaxy 18, aka G18 at 123West.
There are 35 free unscrambled channels being broadcast on G18 as of September 2008. Ten are Spanish or Urdu. That leaves us 25 English language channels. The networks represented include Fox, ABC, MyNet, and RTN. There are also some university and other channels. The Spanish channels have good quality programming too, if you are fluent in that language.
Now for the bad news. There are many Ku band satellites transmitting in the Clarke Belt; that area of near earth space where geostationary orbit is possible. Finding G18, which is a relatively weak signal, took me several hours. My $9.95 satellite signal meter was a huge help, but it will not identify the satellite by its signal, as the $300+ professional models will.
An FTA receiver can be tricky to set up. There are a lot of options, and careful study is needed to figure out the correct choices for your equipment and choice of satellite. Much information is available online, and I would have been lost without it.
The dish antenna is more rugged than a regular TV antenna, and does not require a high mast. The actual mounting of the dish is straightforward, it's the precision aiming that is tricky. You will have to sweep snow from your dish when it accumulates, and heavy precipitation may block the signal from the satellite and render the system temporarily unusable.
I hope this report from my hands-on FTA satellite TV experience helps you.
UPDATE October 18, 2009: The good channels are gone from G18, but we still enjoy our FTA system, using several dishes aimed at different satellites.
UPDATE August 2011: Many FTA signals are now MPEG4 instead of the older MPEG2. If you buy a new receiver, get one that is capable of receiving MPEG4 signals. You can read about the currently available North American FTA Ku band channels here: http://www.ftalist.com
Buy It Now