MultimediaCredit: by Sommai

My wife was shocked when I told her I thought we should cancel our satellite TV service. After all, when we got married and she suggested we not spend wedding gift dollars on a new TV and cable, I told her she was crazy and immediately went and bought a TV.

It was 2004 and life was good. We were expecting our second son; the value of our townhome was skyrocketing; I had a good job; and I was working toward an MBA. So what would prompt me to cut the cord and give up all of those channels? I realized that most of what we watched was on network television that you can still get for free and wanted to save as many of my pennies as I could.

Network TV Cord Cutting Options

At that time, free OTA (Over the Air) HD broadcasts were still relatively new, and cable/satellite companies were charging a premium for HD content. I wanted HD content, but not the cost. So, I evaluated my options.

  • Clear QAM: Limited and unclear how long it will last. This essentially your cable company transmitting broadcast channels in the clear to anyone with a tuner that can unscramble it. As I looked into this, I couldn’t find any information from my local cable company as to whether they actually broadcast channels this way. Add to that uncertainty the cost of getting a tuner, and I didn’t want any part of this option.
  • Set top antenna: Picks up free broadcasts like in the old days, but quality reception can be difficult. I tried this with an old antenna I had, but in the suburbs, the signals just weren’t strong enough to pick up a consistent signal. I would be wary of any company that claims their set top antenna is as good as a larger rooftop antenna. The physics just don’t work out that way, i.e. when it comes to reception, bigger is better.
  • Roof top antenna: Picks up free broadcasts like in the old days, but is best installed by a professional for safety and proper reception. I realized this was the option I needed, but didn’t want to spend the money on it.
  • Aereo: This option wasn’t available then, and is only available to a limited number of people now, but, should they win their court case, they look to have a low cost option for streaming OTA channels through the internet.

In addition to an antenna, I needed a digital tuner because I didn’t actually have an HDTV. At the time, those were still way too expensive, and I was looking at a home theater projector which doesn’t have a tuner anyway. Now, HDTV’s come with the requisite ATSC tuner for tuning in OTA HD channels.

Amazon Fire TV
Amazon Price: $99.00 Buy Now
(price as of May 15, 2014)

Limited Success with a Self-Installation

TV AntennaCredit: by Nuchy LeeWith a young family, I wanted to do everything on the cheap and as much as possible on my own. In addition, I didn’t have a ladder to get on my roof. So I ended up with a compact omni-directional antenna that claimed it could be installed in an attic with little loss in reception. I installed the antenna, and used the cable run from my previous satellite installation to get the signal to my TV. The installation was relatively easy and I was excited to save $75 a month. Unfortunately, of the major networks, two had poor reception. Unlike traditional broadcasts where reception trails off but the image is still viewable, digital broadcasts are all or nothing. That means that I could only watch those two channels if the wind was right, or it was or wasn’t raining. The solution was ultimately unacceptable.

Since I had already invested in the antenna, I couldn’t look at my wife and say, “Oh well, forget the money I spent on that antenna, let’s spend three times that to get a new one installed by a professional.” My next option was to move the same antenna out of the attic and onto the roof. I found a friend with a barely tall enough ladder, and risked more than I should have to but the same antenna on the highest point of the roof. In short, this option was better, and we lived with it, but still wouldn’t be my first choice if I had to do it again.

CHANNEL MASTER 4221HD / 4221HD UltratennaTM HDTV UHF Antenna
Amazon Price: $70.99 Buy Now
(price as of May 15, 2014)
This is the antenna I have installed, and I'm in the suburbs about 15-20 miles from the broadcast towers.

Success with Professional Installation

Remote ControlCredit: by Suat EmanLuckily, we bought a new house in 2007, and I did get to do it again. I hired a local installer, and had a directional antenna installed for about $250. The antenna is a little larger than a satellite dish, but not much at 20 x 36 inches. The results are phenomenal. We receive all of the major networks OTA broadcasts for free and with excellent quality.

All together, we get all of the major networks, PBS, CW, plus their sub-channels, and a slew of others that we didn't even realize existed. In short, our $250 investment has more than paid for itself.

In my next article, I'll discuss getting DVR service with OTA broadcasts.