Anyone who remembers life before Cable TV should be wondering how we got to the point where television entertainment costs over $1,000 per year. High speed Internet and video streaming technology adds to the cost the convenience of watching our favorite shows anywhere where good cellular data speeds or WiFi are available. Ancient TV concepts such as periodical commercial breaks haven’t changed, but who has an antenna anymore? Why do we pay so much for commercial cable and satellite channels, then on top of that pay more for premium non-commercial channels?
Anyone who remembers what it was like to watch the kitchen mixer interfere with with the poor quality video when mom was making dinner, would be surprised to see what broadcast television looks like today. The advent of digital television changed what we see much like the Compact Disc has changed what we hear compared to the old portable cassette player. The FCC forced full-powered local television stations to broadcast digital on re-designated VHF and UHF television frequencies (low-powered stations have until 2021 to comply). The digital quality starts at 480 lines and goes to 1080 lines. Broadcast video is interlaced, meaning half of the lines (say, the odd-numbered lines) are shown on one frame, then the other lines are shown on the next frame. The number of frames per second are enough that our eyes can see all of the lines at once. This is known as 1080i for 1920 x 1080 pixel screens. 1080p on the other hand, displays all of the lines every frame and the p stands for progressive scan. Digital-to-analog converter boxes were needed until everyone had digital televisions.
For cable and satellite subscribers, the change wasn’t noticeable. Our televisions went digital, got flatter and Digital Video Recorders spoiled us. That’s when the prices really crept up. Imagine though, that now sports fans could see every football game on Sunday. Music of every genre was now available for parties and get-togethers. Specialized networks came about for foodies, DIYers, the news-addicted and sappy chick flicks. Places that could receive maybe the three main local broadcast channels fifty years ago, perhaps a few UHF stations for syndicated repeats of favorite old shows and movies, now could get hundreds of channels available nationally. Do the spoils justify our cable bills?
Now everyone can get high speed Internet service. The old days of 33 kbps (thousand bits per second) modems to connect to Prodigy or America Online and the $700/month T1 line that provided 1.4 Mbps (million bits per second) are replaced with cable Internet with speeds approaching 500 Mbps for under $100/month. Netflix and Hulu are household words now and are chump change compared to cable and satellite. Live-streaming television is widely available too. Of course, these lower costing solutions have setbacks and can end up costing more if not careful, but with every passing year come improvements and competitive prices. Still there is local broadcast television. They’ve not only kept national broadcast affiliation through these changes, but have had to continue to offer their broadcast signals over-the-air for free. And the old noisy kitchen mixer can no longer interfere with the signal that now streams digital bits to your antenna.
Price Creep and My History of Alternatives
Maria and I decided to save $1,000 per year and “cut the cord.” This has been a topic we’ve discussed at least since moving to Florida in 2016. Fighting cable costs led me to DirecTV in 2001. Back then Hughes Corporation owned DirecTV and prices were better than Comcast. When AT&T bought DirecTV, I didn’t think much of it. When we moved to Florida, the quoted monthly bill was shocking. Every so often I’d call DirecTV to get a better rate, but never got a “better” rate. After the two year contract ended we switched to Dish Network. We went with a $90/month plan. For some unknown reason we were paying $110/month a few months later. That was it; I needed to do something about this. People were talking about cutting the cord, so I looked into some of the ways to do it.
The problem is that we’ve grown accustomed to several different cable channels and Maria deemed the Digital Video Recorder the greatest invention ever. Going rogue meant finding a DVR solution that worked similar to cable and satellite DVRs, and finding an Internet streaming service that could provide Maria’s favorite channels with recording options. It wasn’t important to me; most of my favorite shows are on broadcast channels. After Maria and I married, I got a Tivo DVR for the TV. Maria thought, “another toy” and I’ve mentioned the rest. Having recording capabilities for all of the channels was necessary.
We never got a land-line telephone when we moved. In Maryland we had moved around having Verizon’s landline, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) telephone like Vonage, or cellular phone like AT&T Home. There is a free solution to VOIP now that I may write about in the future. Our cell phones have sufficed and finding affordable unlimited data plans have not been easy. With Internet, cell phone and satellite TV costs, something had to give. This article will take you through my solution to get rid of satellite television. I’m sure there are services out there that can do the whole conversion for you. This was something I can do and so could most of you. The conversion wasn’t free, however the cost savings quickly justified one-time equipment costs. There were some cost mistakes, but that’s what this article is for. I’ll share some mistakes I made.
Keeping broadband Internet was important for reasons other than streaming TV. If it wasn’t necessary and cable channels weren’t either, we’d save more money. Streaming the cable channels is the only way to get them. If cable channels and Internet weren’t needed, we’d save over $200 per month. It looks like the best I could do currently would save $83/month. That’s $996 per year.
This advice can be skipped if someone is setting up your cord-cutting for you. I advise outside help for physical safety reasons, but reading this won’t hurt. Radio and TV Repair was my vocation in high school (1974-1977). Learning modern digital television brought back some good knowledge.
Antennas are the hardest part to cutting the cord. Antenna selection is hard! Despite all of the changes made to over-the-air television, some things haven’t changed. The biggest no-change comes down to antennas. Today we have these plastic-banana antennas that are labeled as “HD” or “Digital.” Every antenna designed for television reception is designed for HD and digital! If a company specifies either, they are being less than honest. They are marketed as if someone cut some metal off of an old box spring, added some colorful plastic to it and called it a “Digital Antenna.” A little secret only because they don’t mention it, but the VHF and UHF channel frequencies that were allotted by the FCC in the beginning are the same frequencies allotted today. Since radio frequency modulation and radio frequencies haven’t changed, the best antennas fifty years ago are still the best antennas today. A Yagi-style antenna (those directional antennas that you saw high up on a pole as a kid) are still the best. The installation principles haven’t changed either. An earth ground is needed, not just for lightning, but for static build-up as well. A balun is needed to convert the 300 ohm impedance from the antenna to the 75 ohm impedance coaxial cable (preferably quad-shielded RG-6, as opposed to RG-59 which was popular fifty years ago). Some modern yagi antennas have a coaxial F-connector already, so the balun isn’t needed.
The earth is a sphere and VHF and UHF signals need to be received in line of sight. This means that a high enough antenna may receive a straight line signal as far away as 80 – 100 miles, max! The curvature of the earth makes it impossible to get a straight line signal any further away. If you see an antenna designed to receive signals 250 miles away, keep your wallet in your pocket. A yagi antenna rated for 45 miles (Channel Master and Winegard antennas have honest ratings) can receive signals sixty miles away.
Indoor antennas are better today than fifty years ago, but forget them if any of your channels are not nearby. An antenna has to receive a signal. Modern indoor antennas have amplifiers between the antenna and the TV. If the antenna cannot receive a signal, the amplifier cannot amplify it. Amplifiers are only useful with long cables that may lose signals due to interference or poor impedance matching. Where I live in Sarasota, there are five or so channels transmitted three miles from me (none of them carry the major networks), a local major network station (ABC) and it’s adjoining channels transmitted twenty miles from me, the Tampa stations transmitted forty miles from me, and some stations south of me transmitted around sixty miles away. From one window I can get many of these stations with an indoor antenna (with the amplifier), but many times at night when the power is turned down on these transmitters (radio propagation increases at night, so lowering power is required by the FCC) the signals disappear. This is due to the way my house was built; every house deals with TV signals differently. My only option was to go with an outdoor antenna and have it high enough to avoid obstructions.
There are actually three frequency ranges in TV, not two. VHF channels are split between channels 2 and 6 (low VHF) and between 7 and 13 (high VHF). The other range is the UHF range, channels 14 – 83. These are the original channels, meaning a 6MHz wide frequency range is assigned for each physical channel. The digital channels have virtual numbers that don’t line up to the physical numbers. This sounds complicated, but they are not necessarily important. What is important is that non-yagi antennas (all indoor in particular) don’t pick up all three ranges equally. In fact, some yagi antennas have problems with the low VHF frequencies. At the end of this article will be a link to a place that tells you where all of your local channels originate, how far they are from you, their digital virtual channel, whether they are full-power or low-power stations, and the physical channel. Most markets don’t use low VHF anymore, but some still do. Of the stations I plan to receive, the lowest local physical channel is 7, so I don’t need to receive signals from the low VHF range.
Another modern accessory is the preamplifier. Anyone familiar with satellite dishes knows that the dish has a built-in amplifier that gets its power from the receiver. Now preamplifiers, available for outdoor antennas, can prevent TV signal loss through long cable lengths. They work best closer to the antenna, so the power will travel from the house, through the RG6 cable to the amp. Key to remember is that the same applies to these as the indoor antenna amplifiers: there must be a signal to amplify. This also helps if you plan to split the signal into multiple devices. If you choose to use one, get one that has a variable gain. This will set up the best signal to come into your TV or input device.
Television reception is not perfect. a digital television signal, while cleaner, does not travel as well as a signal for analog devices. Mountains and hills hinder line-of-site reception, so not everyone can cut the cord. Some analog stations still exist (probably limited to low VHF channels) and have proven that digital isn’t better for long distances. But it’s just like high speed Internet: rural areas are hindered when it comes to technology. Sprawling suburbs will eventually gain services. Living in the wilderness will not. There are no compromises for everything.
Streaming Devices and Services
You may have seen Apple TV, Roku or Amazon Fire TV. These are three examples of streaming devices. Smart TVs also have the ability to run streaming applications as well. That’s what a streaming device is; it runs applications that stream shows and movies from a streaming service over the Internet. The streaming services range from free movies and shows, mostly with advertisements, through paid services that offers exclusive movies and TV series, to live streaming cable channels at a fraction of the cost.
Maria and I got Netflix when we bought an Apple TV box around five years ago. I’ve had Ethernet available for it (until we moved to Florida) and so the video quality has been top-notch high resolution. When we moved and wanted to add apps to a device, we bought an Amazon Fire TV Stick (our older Apple TV is an older generation that can’t add apps – it does allow apps on an iPhone to mirror on it, but phone calls break the connection). Our Internet Service (Xfinity) provides us with over 200 Mbps downloading speed over WiFi. That’s way more than what is needed, but we had some issues over 5 GHz WiFi with poor resolution and some buffering on occasion. More about this with cutover issues written below. We stuck with Netflix and Hulu on the Apple TV after I got Ethernet into the living room. These services are great and the cost is low.
Cutting the cord involves finding an alternative source for the cable channels you love. There are several live TV streaming channels available with various selections for various prices. Perhaps the most popular are Sling TV, YouTube Live, Hulu + Live TV, Philo and AT&T TV Now. Each of them get up to 50-60 channels and their agreements with various cable networks affect selection and cost. This is not a review, so it’s best to do your own research. Each service has their own selection of channels; find one that has the channels you prefer. For us, Philo was the best. Maria likes Food Network, The Cooking Channel, DIY, HGTV, Hallmark, and Lifetime. Philo has those channels for $20 per month and they allow for up to three simultaneous streams. Philo will also save an unlimited amount of the episodes you choose up to thirty days. Philo solved our cable demands.
For this cutover I bought a Roku Express device. In my opinion the Roku has the friendliest interface. I upgraded to the Roku Ultra as written below, but Roku devices are awesome. Any of what I mentioned work fine for most cases.
This is the future of over-the-air television and the direction I took to cut the cord. Tablo is the device my antenna’s signal goes to. It works with the network inside the home and streams live television to an app that can be installed on streaming devices. There is the Dual Lite, a two-tuner model and Quad, a four-tuner model. The earlier Dual came with 64 Gb of built-in storage memory for recording television shows. The newer models have a USB port for external storage devices. I chose the Dual Lite model and a Western Digital 1TB external SSD drive. Tablo provides a channel guide service so that just like your cable or satellite DVR, you can set up series recordings. Their service is $5 per month (as of April 2020) with other options for a few dollars more. What I like the most is that everything works on my Roku device so I never have to switch my TV’s inputs. Tablo works on any device that can run the app (including my iPhone) as long as I’m on my home WiFi. Tablo can provide cloud reception of your shows as an option. There are other options for over-the-air DVRs, but they won’t be covered here.
My Final Choices(?)
For the streaming device, I chose the Roku Express – it was on sale at Target for $24.99. I’m not a fan of WiFi streaming and would have rather bought a higher end Roku device with the Ethernet port (I kept this sentence here). The download speed in my living room is over 200 Mbps, so this isn’t a problem. Slower streaming speeds can be a problem if video is streaming to several devices at the same time. Initial tests showed good results, but I’m hesitant to lower my Xfinity broadband plan.
At $150 for the Tablo and $60 for the drive, I couldn’t complain. Streaming the Tablo into the Roku let me avoid having to switch TV inputs and remotes to watch broadcast television.
My antenna choice was the Winegard HD7694P Yagi-style, an antenna rated for 45 miles. It arrived before the preamplifier, so I decided not to wait and hoisted the antenna.
A neighbor friend of mine gave the pole I used. I don’t know why aluminum poles are so expensive. I saw a twenty-foot one for $180! This steel pole was free, so if I could figure how to mount it, I would use it. It is as of writing this secured to the eave and a rod banged into the ground, clamped to hold the pole to it. I will add wall mounts in the future.
System Setup, Cutover and Problem!
Replacing the Dish Network, I shut their devices down to use the cables. The antenna works great! There’s some issues with the Tablo tuner and weak stations. I split the antenna signal and sent one part to a TV in the bedroom. One channel, 44 (also on UHF channel 44) had lots of pixelation on Tablo, but none on the TV. The cable to the TV is shorter, so length may be the issue. The preamp hasn’t arrived at this point, so this won’t be an issue soon. Another bigger issue came about, though.
My history with Xfinity WiFi has been good except for an Amazon Fire TV Stick that I assumed to have issues. When I got the Roku Express and realized that it was WiFi only, it upset me a little. A network switch sits in my entertainment center, all ready for gigabit Ethernet. The bandwidth in my house is great (240 Mbps download WiFi speed in the living room). The upload speed is low, but I assume that such an issue is outside of the house. When the Tablo was initially set up, it all looked great. I cut over on a Thursday afternoon. Waking up early on Friday morning, I turn on the local news and there is a lot of buffering! I checked the WiFi speed and all looked good. I set the Tablo to the lowest bandwidth. Same problem. I unhooked the SSD drive. Same problem. Tried Tablo on my phone. Same problem. Tried Tablo on my desktop computer (Ethernet). No problem! The Tablo is connected to the Ethernet. Its only issue is on WiFi. Netflix, Hulu, and Philo all stream great from the Roku box.
Ah, yes: technology. Video streaming can be a fickle thing, like modern gaming. Looking for an answer to the problem, I wanted to blame something. The Tablo forum questions couldn’t specifically answer mine. I knew the only solution was to run it through a streaming device that connects to Ethernet. The temporary option I chose was to take my Apple TV box and utilize its Ethernet port by mirroring the video from the Tablo app on my iPhone. This is actually neat, since my phone couldn’t provide buffer-free video, but mirroring the video to the wired Apple TV could. I instantly perused Google to find a cheap solution to the problem. Roku’s only Ethernet device is the Ultra at $100. It was not worth it to me to switch to that. In the process of looking I discovered an Ethernet cable that hooks to the USB port on my Amazon Fire TV Stick!. Since the generation 2 sticks, the USB port is capable of having Ethernet connections, something Roku devices cannot do. I ordered the Ethernet cable.
Network latency is something Internet gamers are familiar with. While bandwidth is the measure of how much data can travel on the network per second, latency is the measured time it takes for one packet of data to get from point A to point B. Since gamers like to have high resolution graphics and their interface devices introduce natural response lag times, they can only work with networks that have ultimately zero latency. Ideals being what they are, a latency of 2 to 3 mS (thousandths of a second) is preferred for optimal responsiveness. The same can go for video streaming. Video algorithms try to deal with latency by creating a buffer that tries to stay ahead of the real-time flow of the signal. For most modern streaming this is possible. Streaming algorithms also try to adjust speeds according to the viewer’s current bandwidth. This means, lowering the resolution of the video in order to lower the bandwidth. A 480i requires roughly 2 Mbps while a 1080p@60fps (1,920 x 1,080 pixel image at 60 frames per second) resolution (the best HDTV signal) requires 10 Mbps. Netflix may attempt to stream the fastest stream of data, but if buffering is occurring will lower the resolution to avoid it.
I wasn’t able to learn much about Tablo’s streaming, but there are manual selections that can be set that lower the resolution, the recommendation of Tablo to avoid buffering. None of it worked. I was only able to get interruption-free video streaming at all settings, including 480i on Ethernet devices. I needed to know why, so I grabbed my laptop computer and while on WiFi, I pinged the Tablo box, making sure that as little data as possible was travelling through the network. The latency of the pings varied between 44 and 120 mS, very bad! Then I pinged the Tablo box from my PC hooked to Ethernet and got 2 to 6 mS. It was obvious that the time it took for the signal to travel through the WiFi router between wired and wireless was horrendous. I tested pinging from laptop to iPhone and it was 12 to 16 mS, so the worse lag was between the Ethernet and the WiFi. Anything can cause this from any of my devices, so the verdict is not out as to what is at fault.
A decision to wait for a cable in the mail was quickly changed when Maria and I decided that the Roku Ultra became affordable. I decided to leave the Fire TV Stick for the bedroom (I made four rooms Ethernet ready a couple of years ago). A quick trip to Walmart (thank you Florida) resulted in grabbing the last Ultra on the shelf.
There is a lot more to the Ultra than the Express. Besides the Ethernet port, the Ultra can do 4K UHD resolution (the right television is necessary), its better remote can control your TV’s power and volume, and earbuds (JBL earbuds are included) can plug into the remote. Pretty neat! Placement of the Roku Express was based on getting the strongest WiFi connection. Now the Ultra is sitting with the Tablo and the external drive and that’s a lot better.
Getting the Roku Ultra has improved the cord-cutting experience within minutes.
Streaming in the Bedroom
The Ethernet cable for the Fire TV Stick arrived, so it was decided that our bedroom TV would have the same streaming luxuries as the living room. The bedroom was already capable via the Apple TV, but using my iPhone to project mirrored video was undesirable. I connected the cable to the Fire TV and connected the Ethernet to the cable. The Fire TV Stick recognized it immediately and Tablo tested fine, although the experience was thwarted by slow remote response on the Fire TV Stick versus Roku’s high speed remote responses.
ATSC 3.0 and the Future of Free Television
Right now, the digital broadcast standard is ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) 1.0. An effort to go to 2.0 failed, so the next upgrade will be ATSC 3.0. Metaphor warning: this will be like replacing your flip phone (current broadcast digital television) with a smart phone (and an unlimited data plan). In other words, broadcast television will remain but enhanced video and audio will require a broadband connection as well. This sounds great unless you can’t afford or receive broadband Internet. Otherwise, there are some good improvements.
The multiplexing and modulation changes with ATSC 3.0 will prevent crosstalk and because of that, baud rates can be four times more efficient. This means ten digital channels on a 6MHz band today can be forty channels in the future. ATSC 3.0 has improved signal reception for low VHF over the current system and has allowed for experimentation with mobile devices. Nothing is perfect, so doppler shift may cause problems when watching over-the-air TV while moving, but it is impossible with the ATSC of today. The combination of broadcast and broadband will allow for UHD (Ultra High Definition) at 4K with HDR (High Dynamic range). For more technical information, look up 8VSB for ATSC 1.0 and OFDM and HEVC for ATSC 3.0.
The rollout for ATSC 3.0 is voluntary, but full-power stations (DT) will be required to carry ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 simultaneously for five years. Low power stations (LD, CD, or D) can convert fully from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0 at any time without providing the current standard. This is important because due to the modulation changes, a new tuner will be necessary for 3.0 reception. Set-top boxes or USB dongles will be very popular for a while.
What about free? ATSC 3.0 allows for encrypted signals. Reception of some stations may require a paid subscription. This is a ticking time bomb if someday all stations require a paid subscription. Facebook and Twitter are free, so I’m likely wrong. Keep in mind that Facebook is designed to get as much information from you as possible; that is their money model. With broadband, ATSC 3.0 stations will also be able to collect information from you. Nothing is really free.
One More Step
I have the preamplifier and replacement RG-6 quad-shielded cable set aside. The RG-6 will be installed, but I’m waiting to get an overall assessment of the antenna signals before I choose to install the preamp. If the preamp is installed I’ll write a post on that. When I decide, then I’ll take down the antenna and make changes. For now it’s time to relax and watch some TV!
This challenge was worth the effort so far. We’ve had to get used to using different apps (called channels on Roku) to watch our favorite cable and broadcast shows, and Maria has some problems knowing which networks are which. It’s likely most people will have these problems since broadcast and cable stations have been integrated for decades. I suspect we’ll all get used to it and since ATSC 3.0 has brought some excitement back to broadcast television, cable networks may end up on these transmission towers. I hope that this won’t kill free television and creep up prices in the future. In the meantime, we’re saving some money. I hope this helps many of you.
Antenna Web – Get all of your local channel information here. They are sponsored by antenna makers, including Channel Master and Winegard.
Antenna Man – YouTube channel for an antenna installer in Eastern Pennsylvania. Tyler, the Antenna Man gives reviews and more details about antennas and television stations.