The cable company, or satellite dish company, offers a very compelling array of programming options for their subscribers.  Among those services are

  • Sports programming of just about any type you desire
  • Premium programming such as HBO and Cinemax
  • All sorts of specialty programming such as home improvement, automobile, entertainment industry, and a myriad of other niche market programming
  • Local network programming, and related channels
  • DVR (Digital Video Recorder) service
  • On Demand programming
  • And whatever else I missed.

All of which comes to you at a cost, a cost that many feel has gotten out of hand.  The cable company wants your business so they continue to expand their list of “must have” features to keep your cash flowing into their coffers.  Cable programming is like any addiction, it takes a lot of willpower and “work” on your part to find alternates to your “must have” list.  If your “must have” list includes HBO, than “cutting the cord” is a non-starter.  Actually, the older versions of those premium channels used to be easy to ignore, but original programming, typically of high quality, makes it a bit harder now to ignore.  For example, once past the cheesy gore of Starz’ Spartacus, it was a very a well produced series and the actors provided quite a bit of depth to their characters, especially during the first season.

But there is a solution even for shows such as Spartacus, if you are patient enough.

Before I go further, let me apologize for not following up sooner on my first “Cutting the Cord” article.  Business travel, a lighting strike which took out a good portion of my networking equipment, and a much anticipated vacation put a damper on my so-called plans.

April was a very busy month…

Regarding the lighting strike, a trip to Staples and Amazon plus a service call from our cable provider to replace a fried cable coming into the house has pretty much gotten me up and running again.

Then, while mowing my backyard recently week, I really DID cut cable cord.  While the loss of cable and Internet sucked, it did give me a chance to introduce the reality of non-cable programming  to the REAL decision maker on whether the Clark household would ever be allowed to truly symbolically “cut the cord” (the wife)!

Maybe the mower thingy was actually not much of an accident…

So, it is time to get back to cutting the cord.  Specifically, I am looking this time at what you can get from an OTA (Over The Air) source by using a simple antenna.  In some respects, many would look at this a retro experience from the 1970s or 1980s.  If you do look a bit closer, however, you will find a third of the U.S. still relies on OTA as their main source of television programming.

As a small caveat, I am looking at “Cutting the Cord” from a US cable TV perspective.  What applies to my situation may not apply to yours if you live outside the U.S.  If OTA programming does not apply to you, hopefully some other parts of this series will still be applicable to your situation.

When I watch TV, I have a number of local/network channels and cable-only channels I watch.  OTA applies mostly to local channels and local programming.  Depending upon where you live, you will get a larger number, or larger variety, of OTA local programming than other areas.  In the area I live in, I get up to 25 channels coming from 10 stations.  If you live in New York City, you have up to 47 channels coming from 25 stations.

How do I (or you) find this information?  One place to go is to http://www.antennaweb.org/Default.aspx, click on the Click Here to Start button and follow the prompts.

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Based upon your zip code and street address, you will see something similar to the following.  Please be aware that the information may not be exactly current, but it does give you a reasonable idea of what you should be able to pick up with a simple antenna.

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The Yellow designation under the Antenna heading is an indication that I should be able to receive that station with a Small Multidirectional Antenna.  Anything in the Red or Violet range I should not be able to receive with the particular arrangement I have chosen.

To better understand the 10 to 25 number, click on a station to bring up an overlay window which lists what channels you get from a particular broadcast station.

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Some of these channels are duplicates that overlap OTA coverage which means I can safely eliminate those from the list of viewing selections.

To receive OTA channels, you will need an antenna.  Terry recently posted an article about a highly rated outdoor antenna from Mohu.  I am not quite ready to go that far yet simply because I have to demonstrate to my better half that cutting the cord is actually feasible.  I settled for an indoor version of a Mohu antenna, the Leaf Ultimate Amplified Indoor HDTV Antenna.

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If I like what I see with this antenna *and* I can convince my wife that cutting the cable is feasible, I would most definitely upgrade to the the outdoor version, disconnect the cable from my cable company, and wire that antenna into the cable splitter coming into our home.

I do have a ways to go before I can accomplish that feat!

For my initial demonstration, I hooked the Leaf antenna into my new HDHomeRun tuner

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and setup Windows Media Center to make use of the OTA Moku antenna.  Using a handy little program called Guide Tool, I eliminated the duplicate stations with the result of:

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Next, I reopened WMC to check signal strength of this antenna.  The disadvantage that I have to contend with in the particular arrangement is that all this equipment is in my office in the lower level of my home.  Antennas work much better the higher off the ground they are, so this would be a real initial test of the quality of signal I might get; from a worst case perspective that is.  As you can see, signal strength varies greatly from quite good to dismal.

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Once in the TV guide section, I started to check each channel.  Some came through great,

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some not at all,

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and some would break up occasionally, or frequently.

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Depending upon the amount of cloud cover, or lack thereof, reception would be better or worse.  Moving the antenna to a different location helped somewhat, but I was certain I needed a higher location.  I moved it upstairs and routed it through a universal wifi adapter.  There was a substantial improvement in viewing quality and a final movement and a nice clear day brought me near perfection.  The result:

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As with any real estate, location is everything.  What came as a nice surprise was that with the final move of the antenna, I replaced the wifi adapter with a pair of powerline adapters, which worked quite well for this application.  I was able to finally find a good use for a pair of those adapters I had gathering dust!  So what local programming do I get?

  • CBS
  • NBC
  • ABC
  • Fox
  • The CW
  • ION
  • Iowa Public TV

I also hooked up the antenna direct to a small extra TV I had sitting around.  The reception was actually much better through the TV tuner than through the HDHomeRun tuner.  SiliconDust, the makers of HDHomeRun, seem to rely upon the stronger cable signal…

What was the verdict?  Over a few weeks time, I was able to get a fairly consistent signal from most of the channels.  The problems that I did have were two-fold: distance from the tower and strength of the broadcast signal, both of which were affected by the weather.  While I cannot be 100% certain, I do feel strongly that I would be able to get a consistently strong signal using an outdoor antenna.  The ideal location would be in the attic so as to protect the device from the elements; ice on an antenna is typically not a good thing.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned I lost the cable for feed, for a few days.  I hooked the OTA antenna to our main TV to keep myself out of the doghouse.  Except for an occasional bit of ghosting on a single local channel (that has notorious reputation for having a crappy OTA signal), I was quite impressed with the overall quality of the signal, whether that be the digital or HD video signal, as well as the audio signal.

Also, an outdoor antenna can be connected direct into my existing cable wiring, with one caveat.  To feed multiple TVs, a distribution amplifier is required.  Depending upon how yours (or my) cable runs are made, this may be somewhat of a problem.  If your feed is brought into the home and split from there, that should not be a problem.  If the split occurs outside, this may require the use of multiple amplifiers hooked to each TV.  For every problem, however, there is a solution.  It just depends upon how much you really feel the need to remove cable TV from your list of monthly bills.

So, where does that leave me at this time?  From my perspective, OTA local programming is a go.  If the incoming signal is HD, the result that I see is HD.  If OTA programing is all I (actually we) needed, I would be ordering an antenna upgrade and dumping cable right now.  But there are specific channels that can be obtained only from a cable feed, from the website of a specific channel, or from various 3rd-party sources.

In consulting with the final arbiter of cable vs. “the alternative”, I have some “mandated” requirements such as the Chicago Cubs and Iowa Hawkeyes sporting events to consider.  If I can find an alternate source for perhaps the toughest of all programming (sports) to get from a non-cable source, I may stand a chance to get my better half on my side.

Remember my list at the beginning?  There is a lot of work needed (translation: more parts to this series) to replace those features that the cable company makes so easy for you to have.  If you have a bullet to add to that list, let me know!