30 Nov 2014

AFN Europe

Submitted by drhans

AFN has been around for ages. As far as satellite reception goes, some of you might remember B-MAC broadcast in the 90's. Eventually, AFN upgraded from B-MAC to DVB-S as early as 1997. That's a really respectable technological advance but the sad fact remains that AFN did not significantly move forward since then. The very old PowerVu D-9234 receivers are still in service. Please log in to continue reading.

Newer models of PowerVu receivers, the D9834 and D9835, were introduced later but still offer the same basic functionality - no EPG, composite video output and inferior sound & picture quality. At least the power supplies were improved significantly. Still, AFN must be applauded for doing something exceptional that noone else on the planet does - bringing American TV to military and civilian government employees stationed outside the US. And they do it for free. Since the majority of AFN's audience is military personnel, the American TV networks, including HBO, let AFN have the shows and movies for free as a nice gesture for the men and women in uniform.

In return, AFN must ensure that only authorized personnel get access to AFN's broadcasts. Otherwise this would be a great business for AFN, selling subscriptions to public, wouldn't it? But since this is not the case, access to AFN's programming is completely free, only individual decoder purchases are necessary. Once activated, a decoder remains active as long as the user remains authorized. Maximum authorization period is 3 years but any decoder can then be re-authorized easily via AFN's website. Just don't expect to get a decoder activated if you're not authorized. I've tried :) But each authorization request seems to be processed and verified manually, not to let decoders sold on E-bay to public going active. Such strict rules are set because of the fact that AFN have obligations toward the US broadcasters not to distribute the programming to non-authorized viewers. There is no secret military programming on AFN! It's all just TV shows, sports, news from CNN/FOX/MSNBC and movies. DOD News channel (formerly known as Pentagon channel) is even broadcast free-to-air.

Once a decoder is de-activated, it either locks down to Guide channel (D-9234) or allows you at least to receive other FTA broadcasts (D-9834/9835). But no AFN services, apart from FTA DOD News, will keep working after deactivation, including the radio services.

European AFN coverage is secured by 2 major satellites - 9E (Ku Band) and 1W (C-Band). There are also 2 other C-Band DTS (direct to sailor) services available from 64E and 22W, with limited channel lineup due to low bandwidth. DTS services include only AFN Sports, AFN News and AFN Prime channels, while the full TV lineup consists of AFN Sports, AFN Sports HD, AFN Prime Atlantic, AFN Prime Pacific, Spectrum, AFN Xtra, AFN News, AFN Pulse/Family (time share), AFN Movies, Channel Guide and DOD News. I tried receiving the C-Band signals from 1W and 22W and was successful. 1W should be receivable with a quality 1.8m dish, while 22W could work even with a 1.5m dish. The most popular choice for AFN is 9E, where the most radio channels are broadcast (regionalized feeds of AFN The Eagle and Power Talk). However, the picture and sound quality is much better at 1W. There are also several additional distribution paths, covering the rest of the world.

Because of recent budget cuts, AFN were forced to close one of the Eutelsat transponders after moving from Hotbird to 9E. This meant cutting the regionalized TV feeds that had the same content, just different public announcements. Several radio stations were shut down as well. Another impact of budget cuts was the postponed MPEG-4/HD transition which is currently set for sometime in 2015-2017 and will render all D9234/9834/9835 decoders obsolete, making only the new Cisco D-9865 usable. D-9865 can already be used to receive the only AFN's HD channel - AFN Sports HD. It's still necessary to wait for complete technological HD transition over at AFN's broadcast center before the D-9865 starts making sense for those who are not after sports - which might be a minority when it comes to AFN audience, though.

Now let's talk about the content. Despite the lacking technical quality, the content itself is very tempting as all major US shows are shown shortly after premiering in the US. No pay-tv provider in Europe shows so much American TV in such high concentration as AFN's channels do. The only alternative would be subscribing to Hulu, Netflix and Amazon video, including a DNS or VPN service. Then you could get the same content, even in HD, but definitely not for free. Of course you can also download just about everything from usenet or torrent sites but that's not as flexible as just turning on the TV and watching, everywhere, without internet connection. Arab Pay-TV probably comes close (OSN) but it's difficult to receive in Central Europe and the subscription prices are outrageous. Once I was a proud Orbit Network subscriber but that era is gone, sadly.

The content on AFN is not censored. HBO shows are shown in full glory and anti-government news anchors and TV shows get a fair airtime on AFN as well. So you get both FOX News and MSNBC shows. Both "24" and Daily Show with Jon Stuart. On AFN, politics don't mix with entertainment. The only special thing about AFN channels are the public announcements shown instead of commercials. Sure, it makes sense that AFN can't show US commercials as AFN is non-commercial service but it can be very annoying that AFN use every commercial break spot in all shows for military announcements. Not that the announcements are that bad, some are quite fun to watch actually, but it's very annoying to watch 9 minutes of announcements in addition to 21-minute TV show. Why not just broadcast the show and THEN fill the time with announcements? Anyway, the TV shows are new, the latest seasons in most cases. Late-night shows are all shown the next day which is great. Conan, Letterman, Stewart, Kimmel... and all the new guys are shown on AFN. News is mostly live, taken from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, PBS and other news sources. Movies are rather old.

So that was the TV. But that's not all! AFN includes radion channels as well. If you've ever driven across Germany, you might have picked up AFN The Eagle on FM. It's the flagship radio station of AFN, playing pop music. There are also other music-only channels, 2 sports radio channels and a few talk radio stations, mostly put together from popular US radio shows. There's no Howard Stern, though. According to AFN, it's because the decoders don't have any parental lock for radio. Therefore no adult radio content.

That's about it. Now enjoy the following pictures, made available thanks to an unnamed hero :)