HDTV for free - your grandfather's TV antenna is still useful!

In an earlier article I promised to go into some detail on what we're doing for TV in our household since we cancelled our satellite subscription last spring. We're currently getting our TV from a combination of sources:

  • local Ottawa stations that we receive for free via an antenna
  • Netflix
  • Hulu Plus

In this article I'll go into some detail on the first item - receiving digital TV signals with an antenna, but first you'll have to endure a rant about the annual price increases that finally motivated us to do something about our satellite bill.

People across the country migrated from antennas to satellite or cable TV as far back as the 70s for two major reasons: a better TV picture and access to more channels. Now that TV stations broadcast digital HD for free over the air, satellite/cable typically has a worse picture, so that advantage is gone, and Internet viewing can help make up for the lack of channels.

We signed up for Bell Satellite TV (then known as ExpressVu) when we moved into our current house in the summer of 2000. Like many of you, we grew increasingly annoyed at the annual price hikes and programming package shuffles from Bell, but like most people, we shrugged and continued to pay the bills. Any time I researched the alternatives, their pricing wasn't any better once you got past the teaser rates they gave new customers for a few months. Bell's PVR was far and away the best in Canada and that kept us with them too - why change providers when you're not going to save much money and you'll have to sell all of your receivers and start over?

I've got all of the monthly statements going back to our July 2000 ExpressVu installation in a filing cabinet, so I thought I'd dig them out and have a look at the price each year. Back then we were one of the first customers to get HDTV from Bell - we were on a waiting list to get a receiver from their first batch of HD receivers in Ottawa. At the time Bell only had a couple of HD channels, but we had an HD-ready home theatre and wanted an HD signal to feed it.

Our programming package from 2000 through the spring of 2012 was essentially unchanged: it was a mid-tier package with sports and lifestyle channels, but without the premium movie channels other than for a little while in 2002. In the summer of 2000 it was called "The Works" and cost $51.95. Here's a list of the package we had and what it cost in each of those years (all prices are pre-tax):
  • 2000 - The Works - $51.95
  • 2001 - The Works - $52.95
  • 2002 - Ultimate 9 - $64.99 (included $1 for US networks)
  • 2003 - Super 9 - $52.99 (we switched from Ultimate to Super in Dec 2002)
  • 2004 - Super 9 - $54.98 (the $2.99 "System Charge" is introduced)
  • 2005 - Super 9 - $57.98
  • 2006 - Digital Standard + 5 themes + HD - $57.00
  • 2007 - Digital Standard + 5 themes + HD - $61.00
  • 2008 - Digital Standard + 5 themes + HD - $64.00 ($3 "Digital Service Fee" is introduced)
  • 2009 - Digital Standard + 5 themes + HD - $68.00
  • 2010 - Digital Standard + 5 themes + HD - $70.00
  • 2011 - Digital Standard + 5 themes + HD - $74.00
  • 2012 - Digital Standard + 3 themes + HD - $70.00 (we dropped some programming)
The price of Bell's mid-tier package went from $52 to $74 in 11 years. That's a 42% increase or a 3.8% increase per year if you average it out over the 11 years, which is almost double the rate of inflation. The Bank of Canada's consumer price index has been hovering around 2% over that same period. To put things in perspective, gasoline prices have gone from around $0.55/l to $1.20/l in that same time - a 118% jump, but there were an awful lot of factors influencing gasoline prices in the last decade and a half that TV distributors didn't have to deal with.

Canadian Gas Prices - Click for Data

In 2011 we got serious about dropping satellite so I started looking into what we'd miss out on. In May 2012 we pulled the trigger and called Bell to cancel. One of Canada's largest companies can hook you up in a day or two, but for some reason they require 30 days notice to process a cancellation, so our signal didn't go dark until early June.

Over The Air

Our primary source of viewing became the antenna in our attic. Being relatively close to a major city (Ottawa), we're able to receive all of the signals being transmitted from the two transmission towers that serve the area. There's a tower at the top of the Camp Fortune hill on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa river, and another one just outside of Manotick in Herbert's Corners at the south end of the metro area. If you want to be able to see what channels are available in your area and what sort of antenna (and at what height) you'd need to tune them in, TVFool is the best place to look. They have a "Check your address for free TV" link on their home page where you can enter your address and antenna height, and it will show you a list of the channels available to you and their strength at your address. Here's my TVFool report:

Eric's TVFool Report - Click for Details

This shows that the Camp Fortune tower is to the north-east of me, and the Herbert's Corners tower is to the south-east. From our house, the angle to the towers is almost exactly 90° apart, which would be really bad if I was farther away from the towers. Antennas designed for long-distance reception tend to be quite directional so they only amplify the signals along a narrow path in one direction. Any signals coming at you from the sides or rear of the antenna may not get much help. Antennas designed for moderate distances have a wider amplification path, so they do a better job at receiving off-axis signals. We're close enough to the towers (12.2 and 22.4 miles as you can see from the chart) that we can aim our antenna at Herbert's Corners and still get the signals from Camp Fortune off the side of the antenna.

There are lots of web sites that will help you figure out what you need to receive as many channels as possible, but most will advise you to start with TVFool to see what's available and at what signal strength. Stations that show up at the top of the TVFool list in green and yellow are ones that you're likely to receive without taking extraordinary measures. As you move down the chart your chances of tuning those channels gets worse. In my case, there's virtually no hope of me tuning US channels from the Colton/Watertown NY area since they're over 100 miles away and there are hills in the way to further complicate things.

For Canadians seeking advice, the Over-The-Air forums on Digital Home Canada are where I'd suggest you start once you've got a TVFool report. You'll probably find posts from people in your region that have already got everything working.

Now What?

So now that you have a TVFool report that tells you what channels are available, what do you do next? Part of that depends on how much you want to spend and how much of a tinkerer you are. If the TVFool report shows a couple of very strong signals available at your location (coloured green in the report), you can experiment without spending much at all. A simple set of rabbit ears is often good enough to pull in the signal from strong local stations. Look for something that will receive UHF signals - that's done by the circle or oval part of the antenna. The rabbit ears part is for VHF and FM signals. If you're farther from the transmitter and don't have (m)any stations coloured green, then you'll probably need something better than rabbit ears, and these days there are lots of options that will do the job in the $40-100 range.

For those not old enough to remember TV before the days of satellite and digital cable, VHF (Very High Frequency) means over-the-air channels 2 through 13. Channel 1 used to exist, but the frequency it used was commandeered during WWII for military purposes. The VHF band is actually split into VHF-Lo for channels 2 through 6 and VHF-Hi for 7 through 13. In the frequency gap between channel 6 and 7 you'll find FM radio stations, navigation frequencies, and several other special-purpose frequency bands.

UHF (Ultra High Frequency) has been in use by television stations in Canada since the 70s, and became even more important with the shift to digital television in the last half decade. You can read all about the transition from analog to digital television from a variety of online sources such as Wikipedia. In a nutshell, TV stations across North America have switched in the past 5 years from transmitting a standard definition analog signal to transmitting a high definition digital signal. Canada is way behind the US in the conversion from analog to digital, but even still, most of the TV stations in major markets made the switch in the fall of 2011.

The switch to digital is motivated by a desire for better quality TV signals - the digital TV standards are designed to work better than analog TV in areas like the downtown core of cities where tall buildings reflect signals and make reception difficult. Another reason for the switch to digital was to free up the VHF-Lo band for other uses like was done for channel 1. VHF-Lo is good for a lot of things that need two-way communication, which TV doesn't, so to make better use of the airwaves, TV stations that were broadcasting on channels 2 through 6 were typically relocated to an unused UHF frequency when they made the switch from analog to digital broadcasting. This also gave them a time window when they could be broadcasting both signals - analog on VHF-Lo and digital on UHF - to give their customers time to migrate rather than face a hard cutover. The VHF-Hi frequencies are still used for TV, but UHF is the most common since it was not as widely utilized prior to the switch to digital.

For those reasons, you need a UHF antenna, and depending on the channels in your area, you might need a VHF-Hi antenna. As of the time of this writing, Global TV in Ottawa is still transmitting on VHF-Lo (channel 6), but it's slated to move to UHF as soon as they can complete the work on the transmitter at Camp Fortune.

Update: as of mid August 2013, Global Ottawa (channel 6.1) is now transmitting on UHF14, and with a much stronger signal than before. It should now be possible to receive Global Ottawa throughout most of the surrounding region.

I should point out that antenna companies have taken to calling their antennas "HDTV" or "Digital" antennas. Take that with a huge grain of marketing salt - there's really no such thing as an HDTV antenna. The frequencies that the antenna needs to tune have been the same since the dawn of television, and antenna design has barely changed in the last 50 years. All of the research & design that was done for antennas in the 50s, 60s, and 70s is still relevant - the laws of physics haven't changed; the thing that's changed is the signal carried on those frequencies, and it's not the antenna's job to interpret that signal. Usually, an antenna that puts "HDTV" in its name is a UHF-only model, which is why they tend to look different than the big arrow-shaped antenna your grandparents had at their house. Look at the "Real" channel column of your TVFool report and see if there are any channels in the 2-6 or 7-13 range. That will tell you if you need something capable of tuning VHF-Lo and/or VHF-Hi in addition to UHF. As with Global TV in Ottawa, if there are any channels still in the VHF-Lo band in your area, it's likely that they won't be there for much more than a year or two. Those channels have probably already been allocated a UHF frequency and simply haven't completed the work yet to upgrade their transmitter.

Tuning OTA channels

Now that you've got an antenna, what do you hook it up to in order to see the TV stations broadcasting in your area? If you have a TV set that was purchased in the last 4 or 5 years, it almost certainly has a digital tuner, so you can hook your antenna directly into the TV's "ANT" input. The thing to look for to see if your TV can tune over-the-air digital signals is an "ATSC" tuner in the TV's specifications. ATSC is the acronym for Advanced Television Standards Committee - the industry group that wrote the specifications for digital TV. If your TV has an ATSC tuner, hook up your antenna, find your TV remote, and go into the TV's settings. There is usually a group of settings related to the TV tuner; you'll have to tell it if you want the tuner to use "air" or "cable" frequences. You want "air" for over-the-air; the "cable" setting is what you'd use if you had a feed from the cable company and wanted to tune in any cable channels that didn't require a digital cable box.

Once you've set the TV to "air", look for an option that gets the TV to "scan" for channels or "auto program". Here's an example from Samsung: How To Auto Program Your LED TV. That should take a few minutes as it attempts to tune every possible over-the-air channel. The TV will exclude any channels it can't tune and include the ones it can in your list. That way, pressing channel up/down on your TV remote will skip over any channel that doesn't exist. Once you're done, have a look at the channels you're able to receive with your setup - if they're in HD (most are), they'll look spectacular - better than cable/satellite in fact! They look better because you're getting the signal directly from the originating station. The cable/satellite companies get the same feed you're looking at now, but they have to process it to convert it to their digital format, and often they do an extra level of compression on it so that they can fit more channels into the available frequency space of their transmission system. Bell Satellite TV actually re-encodes all of their HD signals and converts many of them to lower resolution so that they use up less of the satellite's available frequency space.

PVRs etc.

If you managed to get through the last step, you've got the equivalent of a subscription to a handful of HD channels from a cable/satellite company, but without the need to buy/rent a set-top box and without any monthly charges. You have a smaller number of channels available of course, but it's hard to argue with "free". If you're near a major metropolitan area you should be able to get all of the Canadian networks in HD: CBC, City, CTV, Global, Omni, TV Ontario, and possibly some French channels and CHCH. If you're near the US border you can probably pull in several of the US networks too!

You'll never be able to get channels like TSN or CNN this way - they simply don't broadcast over the air; their signal is only made available directly to cable/satellite companies who then resell it to their subscribers. For some people that's enough of a reason to keep paying their satellite bill, but if you're serious about cutting back, don't get hung up on the stations you watch now - look at the actual shows (or sports) you like and see if there are alternative ways of watching those. In many cases there are Internet-based options available to you. I'll write about watching NHL/MLB games and shows like Hell's Kitchen over the Internet in future articles.

For me, the thing I knew I couldn't live without was a PVR - a Personal Video Recorder. Over the past few years I'd gotten so attached to our Bell PVR that I couldn't bear to watch most programming "live" - I'd wait and watch it an hour or day later so that I could skip over the commercials. Sporting events were the exception - it's too easy to have the surprise spoiled if you try to watch them after they've finished since scores and game reports are everywhere.

With satellite or cable, your PVR options in Canada are limited to what the satellite/cable company makes available. For over-the-air your choices are somewhat limited as well because the market in Canada is minuscule. Luckily we share a border with the US which has a very strong over-the-air industry, so there are some devices designed for the American market that can be used in Canada. I won't attempt to list everything that's out there since that's a moving target. If you want to find out for yourself, search the Internet and use the terms "ATSC" along with "tuner", "recorder", "PVR", "DVR", and so on.


TiVo is practically synonymous with PVR - they are considered to have one of the best user interfaces available and they have legions of fans. Despite being so popular in the US, TiVo wasn't available in Canada until fairly recently, and that was mainly a result of Canadian TV stations finally making the transition from analog to high-def digital transmissions. A few enthusiasts had managed to get a US-purchased TiVo to work in Canada, but it involved a lot of tinkering since TiVo didn't have guide data for Canadian channels, and without accurate guide data, a PVR isn't very useful. TiVo models with an ATSC tuner now support Canadian channels, so if you're looking for a best-in-class PVR that works with an antenna, visit TiVo in Canada. There's one significant caveat with TiVo: it requires a monthly subscription per receiver. TiVo has lots of great features and part of what you're paying for is their guide data and value-added services, but if you're looking to get away from monthly bills you should take their fees into account.

Windows Media Center

Since I'm a computer programmer and know my way around PCs, I went with Windows Media Center (WMC) as our PVR. Click on the previous link for a brief overview video from Microsoft, or this link to watch a video review of a tuner for WMC in order to get a look at what it has to offer. I don't know why Microsoft hasn't done more marketing for WMC; it's one of the best PVRs out there. It's certainly not for everyone since you have to keep a Windows PC running 24/7, but if you can do that, it's got a lot of nice features. We have a small Zotac ZBOX Nano PC running Windows 7 with WMC in the basement home theatre. Since most PC hardware doesn't include an ATSC tuner, you need to add an internal tuner (for full-size PCs with internal expansion slots), a USB tuner, or a network tuner. For maximum flexibility I'm using three HDHomeRun network tuners from Silicon Dust.

What's especially nice about WMC as a PVR is that you can use one or more XBox 360 consoles as Media Center Extenders. We have an XBox 360 in the living room and another one in the master bedroom acting as extenders. They power up and go directly into Media Center mode, and from there you get the exact same interface you get on the WMC PC. We can watch live or recorded TV, schedule and manage recordings, and do just about anything we can do in the home theatre where the WMC PC is connected. It's really nice having one pool of recordings - with Bell we had multiple PVRs and they were all independent. If Survivor was only recorded on the living room PVR then that's where you had to be to play it back. A few of the major Canadian TV distributors have just recently introduced "whole home PVR" receivers that offer similar functionality. Reports from early adopters indicate that the functions work, but there are still some rough edges on the technology they're using.

WMC certainly isn't perfect, but there are no recurring costs, and once everything is configured and working the experience is top notch. Here are some of the negatives with WMC:
  • Startup cost is a little high: $300+ for the basic PC with Windows 7, around $50 per tuner typically to add ATSC tuners, then about $200 per additional room for an XBox 360 Slim to act as a media center extender. It's not out of line with what you'd pay to purchase a multi-tuner PVR from any of the cable/satellite providers, but there's a non-zero amount of setup work that goes with WMC.
  • Over-the-air stations in Canada aren't directly supported by Microsoft's guide data. They support channel numbers and data for cable/satellite subscribers, but haven't updated their system to handle over-the-air channel numbers for some reason. Folks have come up with workarounds though; in many cases you can tell it you're in the closest US border town and it will have all of the listings for your local stations. In my case I tell it I'm in Ogdensburg NY and I see all of the Ottawa over-the-air stations with their proper channel numbers. If I tell WMC I'm in Ottawa it insists that my only options are Rogers cable, Bell satellite, or Shaw satellite.
  • It's unclear if Microsoft will support WMC beyond Windows 8. Hopefully they will, but there are no guarantees. If they dropped support for it tomorrow I'd be able to re-purpose the WMC PC for other tasks and sell the XBoxes on Kijiji, but the time I've invested would be down the drain.
On the plus side:
  • No recurring costs.
  • Excellent user interface.
  • Support for 4 tuners which can be increased to 8 via an inexpensive add-on. None of the Canadian cable/satellite PVRs I'm aware of will let you record 4 or more shows at the same time. With multi-room support, the WMC PC "owns" all of the tuners and it sends the picture to the remote XBox over a WiFi or wired network connection. We have 6 tuners so we can be watching live TV in 3 different places and recording 3 programs all at the same time.
  • Easy whole-home PVR - as long as you can get a good wired or wireless network connection between an XBox 360 and the WMC PC, adding other rooms is easy.
  • Many add-ons that enhance WMC or add whole new capabilities to it. We use My Movies to organize all of our archived videos and we can access everything it has to offer from any TV.

Other options

If you're also a "cord cutter" and have cancelled your satellite/cable subscription, use the comment section to let me know what you're using for TV now and how you like it.

Given that we're going to have an NHL season now, my next post will cover the topic of getting live sports over the Internet - there are a few options available depending on your situation and how much you're willing to spend.
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