Cutting the (space) cord.

Posted on Sun 20 November 2011 in General

I subscribed to Netflix streaming service basically the day it launched in Canada. Sure, the selection isn't great, but the $8/month price-tag makes places it firmly in the "good value for money" category in my mind.

One thing that Netflix brought into sharp contrast was the amount we spend on satellite TV. We're a pretty busy family, so we don't watch a lot of TV. What we do watch is almost exclusively recorded by our PVR when it airs and watched later when we have time in our schedule. Channel-surfing and the watching of random crap almost never happens, and when it does, it usually ends up being searching what's available on Netflix rather than channel-flipping. As a result, paying over $100/month to Bell for satellite TV at some point tipped into the "insufficient value for money" category.

After a shenanigan with Bell where cancelling my Internet service with them in July resulted in further bills and hassle lasting through October (long story), I became determined to stop giving them money as quickly as possible. I could have signed up for cable TV instead, which would have stopped the money hose I was pointing at Bell, but wouldn't have improved the value-for-money situation.

Enter OTA

Ever since there has been TV, it has been broadcast over-the-air. But over the past few years it has all shifted to digital, (mostly) high-def broadcasts and the old VHF analog taps have been turned off, making millions of sets of rabbit-ears obsolete and ending the snowy, static-plagued VHF broadcasts most people associate with them.

The promise of modern OTA TV is pretty compelling:
  • Free (as in beer) network tv.
  • Digital HD signals, not further compressed by cable or satellite providers.
  • No sim-subbing on US networks (if you live close enough to the border to get them).

When I started researching it, I was a bit daunted. People were talking about different types of antennas, as well as rotors, pre-amplifiers, and distribution amplifiers. It all seemed a bit much, but after reading a bit more, it became clear that for a lot of people who are motivated to talk about this sort of thing on the Internet at length, this is a game. The game is "pull in as many channels as possible" and they are willing to go to extreme lengths to do so. I don't care quite as much about getting every theoretically possible channel, so I figured a less-extreme approach would serve my needs.

Based on an analysis by the amazing website, it seemed pretty clear that just putting up a decent antenna would get me a lot of the way there. There are some other channels out there I could try to get later with a bit more effort, but I'll make that future-Jason's problem.

One thing that was clear from all my reading is that not all antennas are created equal, especially cheap antennas that look just like more expensive antennas.

So, last weekend I put up a ChannelMaster 4221HD UHF antenna on the antenna mast that conveniently already existed next to my house (it came with it!), aimed it roughly at 121 degrees with the help of the compass app on my iPhone and plugged it in to see what the TV could pull in.

The results were even better than I expected. I'm getting all of the Canadian networks that broadcast out of Toronto and Hamilton, and most of what comes out of Buffalo (no NBC at all, and ABC is dodgy at best). Even without NBC and ABC, it covers all of the shows we normally watch, plus should get us special-events like the Oscars (via the Canadian networks if necessary).

The next phase of being able to really cut the cord (which actually comes from space) is the ability to record the stuff when it's on and play it back later. For me that means a home-theatre PC project, which is in progress. Update: More on that here.