Media Services (Television & Internet) possible at Goldmine Hill Condominiums  

written by Rick Mears
(mostly current, written October 2001, with updates through January 2003)


Internet Services:  Dial-up, Cable Modem, DSL, Wireless, Satellite - Price Comparisons 

Off-the-air, Cable-TV, Satellite

Digital TV background information 
Links to more digital TV  information

Internet Services

Dial-up accounts, such as AOL, don’t involve anything special.  Your connection to the internet is just a phone call and it ties up your phone line.  Anyone calling you will get a busy signal until you disconnect your connection (the phone call to AOL, etc.)  To get online this was, just select a dial-up service such as AOL or Earthlink and open an account with them.  Most charge about $20 to $25 per month, but I recommend trying Juno first --it's only $10 a month.

Cable modem, not available in our area yet (as of October 2001 and still waiting as of January 2003).  Maybe someday through AT&T Broadband, the cable TV monopoly (supposedly regulated) in San Francisco.  In July 2002 they were installing street lines, but as of January 2003 they're only selling more cable TV channels and raising prices about three to four times faster than inflation.

DSL – It can be added to your existing phone line.   Service is theoretically possible from other vendors.  In the past Pacific Bell (they changed their name to SBC) reportedly made it difficult for other vendors to actually provide a connection for you over their wires.  I have had service from two providers other than SBC in the past few years, but neither is available anymore, and the only practicle service available now comes from SBC. 

Various vendors other than SBC also offer DSL service.  Earthlink is one example.  Here’s another which I use:
DirectTV DSL:  This was good service, but they decided to leave the business at the end of 2002 and stick to satellite TV only.
SBC:  (also marketed as Yahoo DSL):  Simplest bet might be just to go with the local phone company.  It is added to your phone line as an optional service (like call waiting) and appears on your regular phone bill.  Several of our Goldmine Hill neighbors have this service and have given it mixed reviews, so you might ask around before deciding; I have no experience with them.  Basic service (384Kbps - 1.5Mbps download / 128Kbps upload, single computer support) :
Cost is usually about $50 month-to-month, includes their ISP account, with a $100 equipment charge (plus $50 more if you order by phone instead of online, and another $200 if you can’t cope with self-installation).  Promotions vary from time to time, but the 1 year contracts and $40 to $50 a month seem to be the going rates.
They provide you with several email addresses and some storage space for email and personal web pages.
Enhanced service available (multiple computer support, faster speeds).
Wireless – Sprint:  uses a square looking rooftop “dish” antennae to reach their cell phone (or other) towers.
(Jan. 2003 - need to update:  this service may have been discontinued already).
We would need to have a Sprint technician determine if our buildings have “line-of-sight” to their transmission towers first –I don’t know if we do.
They claim 512Kbps to 1.5 Mbps typical download (about same as DSL) with 5 Mbps theoretical bursts, 256 Kbps maximum upload.
Cost is $50/mo. includes Earthlink services, or $40/mo. if you sign up for their 7 cents anytime long distance service.  Not sure about existing 7-cent customers.
Currently Sprint is offering free installation ($299) but you have to buy equipment –they sell it cheaper if you are willing to sign a longer term service contract:  $300 with month-to-month, $200 with 1 year, $100 with a 2 year contract.  They also charge an extra $100 to hook up your computer if you don’t know how.
Satellite - DirecPC Satellite service is available completely independently, but you can also get it on the same dish used for DirecTV satellite television service.  However, it isn’t faster than DSL and costs quite a bit more for the equipment and installation, unless if you have or want DirecTV television service anyway.
“Up to” 400 Kbps downloads (about the same as DSL and Cable Modem). 
Uploads can be done through either a regular phone dial-up connection (cheaper) or through the satellite dish itself for an “always-on” connection (costs more and installation is harder).
Cost:  $50/mo. includes ISP account.  $40 per month for connection only and presumably you can keep using your regular AOL/Earthlink/Juno/etc. ISP account.  Basic dish costs $150, $330 if you want both TV & internet.  The 2-way satellite dish system (no phone line involved) costs $700 and includes professional installation.

Price Comparisons:  * 

Yes, it's about as much fun as comparing cell phone plans...

  Total Dollars Spent after**
Provider Service Speed ISP Monthly Charges Equipment Cost 1 yr with a 1yr contract 2 yrs with a 2yr contract
PacBell DSL 384 to 1500K PacBell $40 1st 3mos
0-$150 520 1120
Sprint Cell Dish* 512 to 15000+K Earthlink 40 100-300 680 1060
DirecTV Satellite Dish (up to) 400K Any 50 200 1300 1900

   *Probably no longer available.
**All providers now require 1 year or longer contracts.


Television Services at Goldmine Hill

Summary:  I recommend Goldmine Hill repair the building antenna systems on all buildings to enable reliable local channel reception of both the analog and digital TV signals being broadcast from Sutro Tower (and possibly nearby channels 11 & 36).  I believe most owners will be happy with either that or AT&T cable.  A few owners may want small satellite dish services for TV and/or Internet service, and the board should continue to consider these requests to mount separate rooftop dishes with separate cable runs on an individual, case-by-case basis.

Digital Television Background

 Television is changing

A new standard for digitally broadcasting OTA (over-the-air) television is in place.  ALL the major San Francisco TV channels are already broadcasting digital signals.  The pictures are crystal-clear with vivid color and can even be sent as super-sharp high-definition with Dolby 5.1 surround sound if the program was created that way.  There is no bad, snowy reception with ghosting images or smearing colors - you  get a perfect picture (or none at all).

In the past we had only standard black & white or color pictures on TV, with poor mono and, later on, stereo sound.  These are the only pictures that most TV’s, VCR’s, and Cable TV systems are capable of handling. 

To get the new pictures, you need a digital TV, or a digital TUNER.  Digital tuners can be attached to your regular TV for very sharp pictures and even Dolby sound with your stereo system.  If the picture is broadcast in high-definition you won't be able to see it in HDTV on your regular TV, but you'll still see the sharpest picture your regular TV can show.

VCR’s that can record the new signals digitally are virtually non-existent at the moment, mainly due to piracy and copying concerns of the movie and TV producer industries.

Don't confuse so-called digital cable TV and digital hard-disk recorders like TIVO with digital TV.  Most of these only handle regular old TV, not the new digital signals broadcast by the TV stations.  Update:  as of mid-2002, newer units are becoming available which can handle digital and HDTV signals.

The new digital standard specifies some 18 different ways to show television pictures, and the TV station can switch between these at any time as appropriate for the program, although so far only channel 9 does this.  Of these 18 types of TV pictures:

several look similar to regular TV (but much clearer and better color, similar to that from DVD disks)

with the regular quality pictures, a TV station can broadcast up to 4 different programs at the same time on their 1 channel, giving 4 "sub-channels" from the same station to choose from,

some allow showing movies with the same 24 frames per second that the movie was made,

some provide VERY sharp, high resolution pictures called high-definition television (HDTV), and some of these take up the whole channel so the TV station can only broadcast one program on their channel at a time - no "sub-channels".

Digital channels can also include other information such as the name and channel of the TV station, the show you're watching, the time of day (that could set the TV or VCR clocks automatically), and even TV Guide-like programming tables about  what's on later.  Other information might be included as well, such as the current song & artist on MTV, movie background info, sports statistics, etc.

All the TV stations in the country have been given a new digital channel by the government to use for a while in addition to their old regular channel.  They will have to give their old channels back to the government in the future once enough digital TV’s are sold.  All the local TV channels in San Francisco have been broadcasting on both their channels for the past couple of years.  They usually broadcast the same show on the analog and digital channels at the same time.  HDTV programs are broadcast as regular pictures on the analog channels.  Channel 9 normally broadcasts their regular programming on their digital sub-channel 9.2 plus various digital widescreen and HDTV shows (or an HDTV demo loop) on channel 9.1 which you can't see without a digital TV or tuner.  

These regular analog channels are the ones carried by local cable TV.  AT&T cable DOES NOT carry any HDTV at all.  The only way to receive these new digital broadcasts currently at Goldmine Hill is “over the air” from a TV antenna (rooftop or rabbit ears). 

Cable channels “Showtime” and “HBO” each offer an HDTV channel that can only be received with a special satellite dish from DirectTV or Dish Network.  Recently a new channel, "HD Net" has been added.  I believe these are the only HDTV programs available from the satellite services. 

So when the major networks broadcasts “Everybody Loves Raymond”, "Touched by an Angel", "The Young and Restless", or anything else in HDTV, the only way to see it in HDTV currently is with a high definition digital TV using a regular antenna.  Even the satellite dishes don't carry the network programs in high-definition.

Newer “digital” televisions with built in tuners that can tune the new channels have been available for a while.  They have mostly been expensive high definition models.  Less expensive “HDTV ready” sets with regular TV tuners are also available, and combined with a digital tuner, can display true high-definition TV.  These digital tuners are also available for about five hundred dollars and up, and as mentioned, can be used with a regular TV for improved picture and sound.  Most digital tuners are combined with satellite dish receivers, but there are a few on the market, such as the Samsung Sir-T150, that are for off-the-air antenna reception of local digital broadcast channels only.

Broadcast (off-the-air antenna)

$$ The only "Free" option $$

In our location, reception of local channels can be very poor with indoor rabbit ear type antennas.  The reason is because we are only 1.1 miles from the Sutro hill broadcaster's antenna.  Though the signals are VERY strong here, so are the reflections of them that bounce off the other side of Glen Canyon and even your kitchen sink.

The Goldmine complex was wired for shared rooftop antenna systems, but most buildings currently have no antenna, and so there is probably no signal on the antenna outlets in your unit.  I believe we should fix this.  The cost should be fairly minimal, although a new antenna and distribution amp per building might be needed if the old ones are completely missing.  These same antenna systems should work perfectly for receiving the new digital TV signals.

For those with digital TV’s or tuners, there are a rapidly growing  number of television programs being broadcast daily for free.  All the San Francisco channels are broadcasting digitally at this time:  2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11*, 20, 36*, 44.  Other channels are coming on line also.  All new prime-time shows from ABC and most of CBS's are also being broadcast in High Definition.

*Actually, 11 and 36 are in San Jose, but can be received crystal-clear here at Gold Mine Hill, depending on your exact location on the hillside.

ATT cable 

Currently offers NO high definition channels.  The digital channels they heavily advertise are just regular TV channels that have been compressed digitally so they can fit more regular-to-low quality channels on the same  cable to sell.  This also allows them a legal way to charge you extra for each TV set in your house connected to cable since a special decoder box is required (your cable-ready TV/VCR are not "ready" anymore).  Generally, they offer a large selection of programming, but with some of the highest prices in the country!

Approximate prices after adding taxes --prices increase every 9 to 12 months, and have already gone up at least %15 again by the time you are reading this!

$16 Basic cable service, just the local TV channels you could get off an antenna.  (No decoder box, incl. tax))

$33.50 Expanded basic cable.  (No decoder box)

$18.60 to add a premium channel like Showtime to the above includes the  required a decoder box.  Example:  Basic Cable + Showtime = $35 month, Expanded Cable + Showtime = $51 month.

Digital Silver package, includes Expanded Cable + new digital channels and allows adding one premium service such as Showtime, = $52 month through the end of the year, and will rise to $58 month next year.

DBS Small Satellite

The number of small satellite services has dwindled down to two, DirecTV and Dish.  And at this time they are in the process of possibly merging, depending on whether the government will all this, since it would create another monopoly on satellite services.  Some argue that merging would not make them a monopoly because their competition is actually the cable TV providers.

Their program packages vary greatly in price, depending on which channels you want.

Unfortunately, after checking into this matter, it appears that there is no practical way for us to put a single dish on the roof of each building for all the owners in that building to share.  The way the technology is designed, each person must have their own separate dish on the roof with separate wiring going from it to their apartment if they want to receive satellite dish services. 

I tried to find out if these vendors offer any sort of solution for apartment dwellers like us.  Only DISH Network responded with information.  (With DirecTV it was impossible to get through to someone who could supply the information.)   

The gist of what they offer is basically geared toward apartment renters, where the apartment owners decide what service and channels will be offered:  every unit must get the exact same package of channels.  Further, you have to pay for service to every unit in the building, even empty ones and those with no TV's.  They do offer discounted prices this way at least.  However, there's no way we could get all the homeowners to agree to pay for this type of service, especially those that don't watch TV, even at discounted prices.  And some would want Telemundo, others the Playboy channel, pay-per-view, etc.  It just doesn't look practical in a complex with 204 owner-occupied units. 

For small dish satellite pricing and packages, see these vendors web sites:

DirectTV   (generally more sports)
Dish Network 
  (generally more HDTV and non-English language channels)


Links to more information...