Free TV – Or How Over The Air (OTA) Enables Cutting The Cord

Over The Air (OTA) Antenna Installed – Cutting The Chord

January 31 2013 – I have been reading articles for many years about people that have decided they no longer need premium cable service and have gone back to the old school world of antennas. I assessed my family’s situation and decided that I was no longer getting value for my lifestyle with Rogers Cable anymore. With that in mind I decided to investigate the world of free (or Over The Air (OTA)) TV.

Over The Air (OTA) TV simply means catching channels which you are close enough to and have a direct sight to  through an antenna. My first step was to read up on the situation but really there was not much too it as all you need to do is plug an antenna into your TV. OK, I am oversimplifying it but really that is the essence of what needs to occur to catch OTA TV. Read on to find out if dumping Rogers (or Bell) makes sense for you.

A bit of background – I live in a house with a fairly high roof at the northern end of Toronto and I have no interest in going up on my roof myself to install an antenna. After being with Rogers for probably 20 years, my last Rogers cable plan before switching over was “basic cable” (at one point I had the VIP movie package or whatever it was called at the time and paid over $120 a month). I also own 2 HD PVR boxes did not have to pay the suckers monthly rental fee. I did however pay for Extra Outlets in my house because as most people my house had more than one TV set. With all that in mind my last TV bill was $46.96 as can be seen below.

After doing some searching on the Internet I found an installer that would come over and for $40 do a reception test for me and recommend a custom OTA package. He came over with a very long pole and a big antenna on it, which he hooked up to a small TV. All this work was done in my driveway and about half an hour later I was given the results – I would catch 19 channels. The full printed report followed a couple of days later and the comment was “19 digital channels received at 20′ test height using 4228”. Here are the full results

My Over The Air Reception Test Results – North York Toronto

 After the test the installer looked around the outside of my house as well as the inside to assess wiring needs. Since I was already fully wired, he told me all I would need is one cable going into my basement and a splitter to use my existing home cable wiring. Although there are many ways to install an antenna on a roof (or a side of a house), my final recommendation came in as an 8 bay antenna mounted on a 5′ tripod on my roof with a preamp and a rotor. Total cost for parts, installation and set up was $667.34 (note I got $20 back of my $40 reception test). Full details below:

It didn’t take too much thinking to be honest. The next day we called up Rogers and cancelled our Cable TV Package and it felt good. The whole process took 30 minutes when it should have taken 5 (think of how easy it is to add packages on Rogers), we had to talk to 2 different people, was asked to explain why we were leaving them, were offered a discount on our cable services, and told how many channels we would be missing out on without Rogers. On top of it all Rogers feels entitled to tell me that I can’t cancel on the day I want to but need to give them 30 days notice (trying to squeeze out one last month of revenue out of me eh Rogers?). Luckily we didn’t have any contract with them because I cant imagine how much penalty they would tell me I owe them.  The whole process annoyed me so much I told them to cancel my Internet with them as well (something I should have also done earlier) – Teksavvy provides a better deal and I knew that for ever but just never got around to doing it. Just like that we were free of Rogers Internet and Cable and it felt good!

I contacted the installer and told him the job is on for the quoted $667.34 (plus the already paid $40 for the reception test brought my cost to $707.34). Quick math – that is a roughly 14 month break even point – in other words by saving the money I gave Rogers for Cable every month the cost of the parts and installation would be recovered in 14 months. We agreed to the terms and I said let’s make this happen. He gave me a date of January 30th – which happened to also be the mildest day of this winter so far. He came with an assistant at 10:30 a.m. and they did their stuff while I worked from home. They left at 4:30pm which is 6 hours on the job overall.

Over The Air Antenna Ready For Installation

When the TV came to life, there are a few channel scans that needed to be performed and some fine adjustments needed on the rotator (they put a part up on the antenna that helps rotate it for more accurate reception. The digital channels came in in glorious uncompressed HD (you did now that it HDTV looks better through antenna than it does through cable right?).

Not all the promised channels in the signal test came through though, 2.1 (NBC) 2.2 (UNSPO) and 4.1 (CBS) were simply not showing up and no adjustments could make them appear. I was told it might be the weather and to give it a day or two and see what happens. I was extremely disappointed that I was unable to get NBC and CBS (no idea what UNSPO is though) and am willing to wait and see if some freak weather pattern has cost me these channels. I was explained that weather fluctuations do play a role in channel receptions so if you are thinking about going OTA keep that in mind.

Over The Air Final Installation

Two other considerations come up when dealing with OTA TV – content and PVR. The first means you are going from a TV universe of something like 100 channels to one of 20 channels, so how do you deal with the loss of things to watch? The second deals with a PVR – something which is very useful with cable. Having the ability to record shows and easily fast forward commercials, as well as pausing live TV is really cool. How do you deal with the loss of your PVR?

Many people supplement their OTA experiences with an online provider of content. Netflix is the current market leader and although in Canada we don’t get the same level of programming as to our neighbours down south, you can certainly try it out for one month free and see if it will satisfy your TV and movie hunger.  If you are not familiar with Netflix you basically pay $8 a month and get tv shows and movies streamed to your TV (or any other supported device) and its all on demand meaning you decide what to watch when. There are other options some of which include torrents, or Roku streaming TV, however the golden ticket for those willing to tinker a bit is a PIVOS XIOS device running Linux XBMC.

The good old PVR – something you can buy or blindly rent from Rogers. When you cut the cord the PVR goes away also. Even if you own your Rogers PVR you cant use it in an OTA configuration. I haven’t researched many options but I am fortunate in that I work in one of the world’s CPU and GPU companies and have alot of insight on good HTPC (Home Theater PC’s). Simply get a small little PC with a TV tuner in it or attached to it and use Windows 7 Media Center as your PVR (and alot more). There are many good options but here is one I would recommend  is what I am using – Zotac’s ZBOX Nano AD12.

Zotac Nano Zbox AD12 as an OTA HTPC

Verdict:$707.34 for 16 channels (some which will never be watched) seems like a lot but I have been a Rogers cable customer for 20 years averaging well over $50 a month… mental calculators out… that’s at least $12,000. For someone that is not a couch potato and wont really miss the cooking channel and the fireplace channel at all, it felt great to cut the cord. In 14 months, our family will have $600 a year back in our own possession. I also chose to get a pro to do the job for me but if you are handy and willing to get on your roof, you can get the same results for a lot cheaper.  For me it wasn’t about the money to be honest that made me switch, it was about paying for stuff I had no need for. Rogers really needs to think about an a la carte method and let their customers pay for only the channels they want.

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16 Responses to Free TV – Or How Over The Air (OTA) Enables Cutting The Cord

  1. Toronto Jim says:

    Way to go! I cut the cord years ago even before I had a HD tv. Too bad Cool TV seems to have dropped of the map. You would have liked some of the music shows they had.
    I have trouble getting 11 as well. I am on the 5th floor facing the CN tower right by the Bluffs on ST Clair and if I angle the two bay antenna I bought for 20 bucks at Factory Direct I get at least what you are getting. You made the right choice.
    The HD signal is better than cable because they have to squeeze the bandwith because of how many stations they have to fit in.

  2. Andrew says:

    I find that the weather does play a factor in it. when its clear, i can get buffalo channels (PBS 1, 2 and 3!), but when its cloudy, i can barely get CBC, and their HQ is barely 5 mins walk away

    • Toronto Jim says:

      Don't forget that they broadcast from the CN Tower. I know their HQ is almost across the street. Funny thing is I have the same problems. When it is windy some stations lock up all the time. Could never figure how wind could do anything to a digital signal. All in all it is free and the HD is way clearer than cable.

  3. don says:

    Great article! I’ve just gone down this path as well and researching PVR options.

  4. Marc says:

    I’m looking at cutting the cord myself. Looking to make the switch before the end of the summer. My wife is fairly used to having a PVR, so I did some research (and have some experience with Tivo from our Series 2 version – LOVE IT!)

    The PVR option can be solved by obtaining a Tivo Premiere. You’ll have to pay approx. $14 / month or get the lifetime service option which has a 3 yr ROI. You should get the Premiere model…nothing else as the others won’t work with OTA or in Canada.

  5. gustavo says:

    For the past 8 years I have been getting like 22 channels. I bought a 55 flat screen and have never looked back. Go to the source store or order on line or just buy on kijiji AND BUY A Terk HDTV antenna. Just buy the most expensive which is not more than 150 dollars. Don’t go cheap and don’t pay anyone 600 dollars. No need

  6. gustavo says:

    The terek antenna has a built in amplifier. some are for indoor use some condo and other you install outdoors. Just look for the best location. It takes a while to find it. The higher the better for sure.

  7. Paul says:

    Do you hook up your OTA feed to the house’s cable wiring? How does it co-exist with your cable internet?

  8. sandra says:

    At Matrix in Toronto at corner of Blue Jays Way and Front facing south on 32 floor, I get 20 channels, but I can’t get PBS. Could there be something wrong with the antenna or is buildings in the way. Any ideas? I am using a northvu nv20 pro amplified. Should I turn it in and get something else. Thanks. Sandra

    • T-Mak says:

      Hi Sandra, I am not an expert on OTA but based on my experience I would guess that something is blocking the path of PBS. From the 32nd floor facing south you should have no problem catching any Buffalo channels with even the smallest antenna. Another option you might want to look into for PBS is a website service called USTVNOW – google it and see if it helps you out. Cheers and thanks for reading T-Mak World.

  9. sandra says:

    I am completely befuddled. Now Global on Chanel 6-1 has appeared (from Paris ON I think) if I type 17 on my remote I get thrown to 6-1 (the virtual for the 17 that Global has). WNED is “really” on 43-1, 2, 3 I now read but is virtually on 17. It seems that Global 6 has wiped it out some how. I am just guessing. Evidently in the summer Global changed its transmissions somehow.

  10. Gabriel says:

    You did the right thing! I cut Rogers tv, cellphone & internet about 3 years ago. As I’m living in a highrise (30th floor) in Scarborough, I bought a 4 bays antenna from factory directly in $14, and I receive all channels listed for US and Canada (about 30 to 32 channels, depends the direction when I put near the window). I save about $700 – $800 a year…!

  11. Wendy says:

    I am just wondering if you can get over the air digital channels anywhere in the world. I just bought a 150 mile antenna, it’s an omnidirectional but after I bought it I realized I might not have the digital channels in my area, I tried using a chart to find out and coverage maps, but I still can’t tell. Can you please help me with this. I live in a border town in Grand Forks BC Canada. My lattitude and longitude address is: Lat:48.99841
    Long: -118.544124. If anyone could help I would really appreciate it

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