Friday, September 30, 2011

Cordcutting with an Over-The-Air (OTA) Antenna

Cordcutting is the act of "cutting the cord" between you and a crappy cable company.  Most cordcutters are not looking get rid of TV, we just want to find ways to watch content on their TVs for less money and with more control.  If you are new to cordcutting take a look at my Introduction to Cordcutting, it covers the basics. A critical part of the cordcutting strategy is the ability to watch regular network TV (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, PBS) for free using an over-the-air antenna.  Many people that grew up with cable may not remember the days of using rabbit ears on your TV to pick up a signal.  The principle today is the same but the signal is now all digital and is capable of broadcasting crystal clear HD to your TV for free.

The Antenna
The image to the right is a picture of my antenna that is installed an the attic.  Antennas are best placed in a high location like in an attic or on your roof of your house.  You can buy antennas that just sit by your TV, but you may not get the best reception.  If you don't have an antenna and are looking to buy one new the first place you should go is a site called provides a service to consumers that are looking for what type of antenna to buy.  You enter your physical address where you want to install the antenna and the site will find all the broadcast towers in your area.  Based on distance and direction, will provide you with details on what antenna you should buy based on that data.  Here is an example of the output you will receive.

This map shows the direction of the channels you should receive in your area. I live in Decatur/Atlanta so I have a number of strong stations near my location.  Here is another view of the data from that shows about what antenna you should buy.

The antenna types are color coded and when you go to look for one at the store or online they should be labeled in a way that corresponds to these color codes.  Here are some good online resources for finding and buying an antenna: TV Antennas
Solid Signal provider for consumer electronics

Signal Amplifier 
For my implementation, I wanted to send the antenna signal to a number of different rooms in the house.  To do this, I needed a way to split the single cable coming from the antenna to the multiple rooms. I purchased an 8-way 3dB, Active Return , In-Line Amplifier to accomplish this.  See the pictures below:

I found this amplifier on eBay for around $35 dollars and it works great.  I found this one that seems to be exactly what I have:   8-way 3dB, Active Return , In-Line Amplifier.  The device helps keep the signal strong as you run it through your house.  You may or may not need one of these because it depends on your particular setup.  

ATSC Capable TV or Set-Top Box
Once you have an antenna installed you need to have a way to convert that over-the-air signal into wonderful free HD TV channels.  To do this you will need either a TV or set-top-box that has an ATSC tuner.  Most TVs have this capability built-in.  I personally use a TiVo HD digital video recorder (DVR) to decode and display the TV channels I receive from my antenna.  The good thing about using a DVR like TiVo HD is that I still have great features like pause, fast forward, rewind, season pass recording, etc... and the list goes on.  Here is quick video to show how I use my TiVo HD to test my antenna signal strength.  This will give you an idea on how this works behind the scenes.  

Final Thoughts
I hope this post helps demystify using an OTA antenna in your cordcutting strategy.  The amount of channels you receive will depend on your area and what is being broadcasted.  It always surprises me that people generally don't know that you can receive high-quality HDTV channels without paying for cable or satellite.  It may take a little elbow grease to set things up if you don't already have an antenna but it is worth it.  Please leave a comment below if you have any specific question and will try to answer them the best I can.  Thanks