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Cutting the Cord: Get Your Local Channels and More OTA

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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!

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Hello. I’m from the heartland of the U.S. Lots of corn and beans, although Iowa is a lot more than just farmland. It also has a few computer enthusiasts (no, not me!). I’ve been around PCs since I got my 1st PC XT aloooong time ago. WGS is one of the first sites I found centered around WHS. And the best. Every once in awhile, I do get away from the KB and enjoy time with and my wife and our 4 kids. And I do have a day job.
  • John Battles

    I cut the cord a couple of years ago and will never go back. I miss the sports a little but I have an excuse to watch at the bar! I don’t understand Aero which is just selling you what you get for free. People see it as a cable cutting option but its just another bill.

  • Generic Name

    Take a look at XBMC + 3rd part add-ons. XBMC is a free media center application that has versions that run on just about anything Windows, Mac, Android, IOS, Linux.

    XBMC has PVR support (with a tuner card) for recording OTA channels.
    The add-ons for XBMC aggregate content from hundreds of website/services into 1 interface.

    A few youtube searches can probably explain better than I can.

    I dropped cable 15 months ago and I wouldn’t go back if they offered it to me for free.

  • dpetr

    That’s all well and good except in some parts of the country, local governments have made franchise agreements with cable companies with the result that there are no other real choices. In remote areas, what this essentially means is that all services are either satellite or cable. In my area, OTA would get me a half dozen channels. Internet service over telco wires is not available–thanks to that franchise agreement. As always in this country, money controls it all.

  • itrulz

    I on and off go from cable to antenna back to cable. Usually due to the cable company giving a hard to pass up deal for $30/mo and the fact that it is all HD and supports ClearQAM. Currently I’m in the cycle of antenna TV supplemented by Netflix. Although if this catches on, you maybe able to watch the game that maybe broadcast on a local channel in another city – https://aereo.com/home

  • M C

    We cut the cable TV a few months ago. I too purchased the Leaf antenna, but, I got the non-amplified version. We get around 35 channels. I purchased and installed Playon.TV on my WHS2011 box that allows me to stream some content via my Roku and other computers/devices. We also have Netflix streaming. For $80/month, my internet provider set us up with 50Mbps/35Mbps speeds.
    My wife an kids have not missed the $125/month TV content we previously had.
    So far we are happy, though we miss CNN and TWC live coverage events.

  • Ken

    In regards to the Hawks and Cubs, a VPN such as StrongVPN combined with BTN2Go International and MLB.TV would allow you to see all of those events without the blackouts. BTN2Go International works, the only caveat to this setup is when the Hawks play an away game on a channel other than BTN, like the annual Cy-Hawk series, that isn’t viewable, except on Radio/ Hawkeye (Big Ten) All-Access. The StrongVPN also works if the game is on ESPN3 at 2:30, just set it to the west coast.

  • Claude

    Hi Jim, nice article to start with cutting the cord. However, as I live in Canada there is not that much available compared to the US. And it doesn’t surprise me at all! One thing I am looking to cut the cord is Internet TV. There might be interesting options which could integrate with Media Center. But a lot more work needs to be done to achieve that! I have found a small program called ADSL TV which allows you to Watch web TV from around the world. There is also a website http://www.adslltv.com which does about the same from within a player in a web page for each channel or station available all around the world. I am looking into that as I am very interested to get that to work and only pay the cable company for internet service which represent almost half of my monthly bill. Kind of interesting, isn’t it?

    • Generic Name

      “But a lot more work needs to be done to achieve that!”

      The work has been done.

      Check out http://www.xbmchub.com.
      3rd party add-ons for XBMC (a media center) that aggregate content from 100’s of sites across the internet.

  • gotthumbs

    I ditched cable over two years ago. I kept the Cable Internet, but dropped the speed so the bill was just under $50.00 a month. That’s what I’m willing to pay and nothing more. The speed is 7gbs down and 1gbs up. I actually get 8Gbs down using the new DCIS 3.0 modem I purchased once the cable company started charging a modem rental fee.

    It’s only a matter of time that you realize there are lots of other options out there. NetFlix, Hulu, OTA, etc.

    We need food, water, and air to survive. Cable tv is NOT a life or death decision.

    I’ve saved over 2,000 so far by ditching cable. Just think of what you could do with the about of money you would save. How about a nice vacation trip/cruse with your wife? All you need to do is counter what you CAN do with the money currently going to the cable company.

    Also, I ditched my cell phone company and monthly bill of $54.00. I switched to Page-Plus for $29.97 a month and get 1,200 talk, 3,000 texts, and 500mb of data each month. More than I have ever needed. It is a pre-pay company, but If you go through Kitty Wireless, you can opt for the auto payment option and never have to deal with prepaid cards. My CCD is billed each month, just as it was when I had Verizon. I’ve saved just under $900.00 in 3 years using the same network and gained more talk time and data.

    Also, Page-Plus uses the Verizon Network, which used to be my cell provider. I was able to use my current phone, so zero costs associated with the switch.

    ~Best wishes keeping what you earned.

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