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Eryn Smit of Chatham, Ont. cancelled his cable subscription two years ago after he discovered he can receive all the channels he needs including many in HD over his 10 foot antenna. (GEOFF ROBINS for The Globe and Mail)
Eryn Smit of Chatham, Ont. cancelled his cable subscription two years ago after he discovered he can receive all the channels he needs including many in HD over his 10 foot antenna. (GEOFF ROBINS for The Globe and Mail)

Digital Home

Goodbye cable, hello free TV Add to ...

According to a recent Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission report, the average cable subscriber spent just under $49 per month for television programming in 2009. For satellite television subscribers, that number was just over $66 per month.*

In 2010, those bills could climb even higher thanks to recent rate increases from big cable providers such as Shaw, Rogers and Vidéotron.

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For the average adult Canadian who watches an estimated 1,500 hours of television annually, cable and satellite television provides excellent entertainment value, but what if you're a person who doesn't watch a lot of television and would like to reduce - or even eliminate - your sizable monthly cable bill?

You could do what thousands of visitors to the Digital Home website have done over the last few years and cancel cable, buy a TV antenna and watch free over-the-air television.

Over-the-Air (OTA) television signals, sometimes referred to as terrestrial or conventional television signals, are radio waves transmitted from towers to antennas mounted on homes or to small set top antennas. OTA broadcasting dates back to the very beginnings of television. In this country, the first analogue television broadcasts were sent out by the CBC on September 6th, 1952. Until the advent of cable television, over-the-air signals were the only way to watch television.

Beginning in the 1960's and continuing into the 70's and 80's, Canadian consumers began switching to cable television thanks to better picture quality and the availability of more channels. In recent years, more than 90 per cent of households in many Canadian cities subscribed to cable or satellite.

While virtually dead 10 years ago, OTA television has had a renaissance in North America over the last few years after governments in Canada and the United States legislated conventional television broadcasters switch their mode of signal transmission from 1950's era analogue to 21st century digital. In the United States, the switch from analogue to digital signals occurred in 2009. In Canada, the switch from analogue to digital television is slated for August 31st, 2011.

Superior picture quality

In addition the obvious cost savings, over-the-air digital television has become very popular among Canadians with large-screen TVs because stations broadcast in high definition. The over-the-air HD signals are as good - and in many cases superior - to the same signals delivered via cable or satellite. The reason high definition OTA signals often look better than those deliver over cable is because OTA signals are subject to less compression than TV signals delivered via cable. Compression is a wonderful tool that allows cable companies to send more signals over the same amount of bandwidth. However, it is the bane of home theatre lovers who are looking for the highest video quality.

Generally speaking, the more you compress an MPEG-2 video signal the worse the picture quality becomes. In Canada Digital OTA high definition television signals are transmitted at a data rate of almost 19.4 megabits per second (Mbps). By contrast, cable and satellite providers transmit each channel at a data rate of between 10 and 14.6 Mbps to each channel. Less compression means a better quality picture.

The improved picture quality that comes with OTA signals is not always noticeable when you own a 32-inch television, but if you are a video enthusiast with a 47-inch or larger high-definition flat panel, then you'll appreciate the superior picture quality.

Another growing audience for OTA is laptop owners. By adding a small ATSC tuner onto the USB port of their computer, computer owners have a television capable of receiving signals wherever they go.

Pros and Cons of OTA

Pros

  • Low Cost - programming is free; only cost is the antenna.
  • Superior Picture Quality - less signal compression results in a better picture

Cons

  • Limited programming - only channels are major networks, no specialty channels
  • Limited availability - viewers must be in limited range of transmission towers




Downsides of OTA

While OTA is cheaper and offers the superior video quality, it does have major drawbacks that will make most Canadians pause before making the switch.

The biggest downside is the lack of channels available. In the larger urban centres of Toronto and Vancouver, OTA viewers can often pull in ten or fifteen channels consisting of local television affiliates. Stations that are readily available include Canadian network signals from CBC, CTV and Global along with American signals from ABC, CBC, FOX, NBC and PBS. While the major Canadian and U.S. networks offer a wealth of big name shows, news and sports, the truth is that it is probably not enough for the average Canadian who is used to living in a 500-channel universe. If you love watching TSN and Sportsnet, A&E or the Family Channel and other digital specialty channels and can't survive without them, then OTA television is not for you.

The other significant downside of OTA is the availability of signals. While many Canadians may be quite content with just the major networks, there is a good chance that if they are outside of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal then you will likely be limited to just a few Canadian stations and will be unable to receive network signals from the United States.

While the thought of saving a $100 a month on your cable television bill is an appealing one, the reality is that most Canadians simply won't give the many stations and wealth of programming available from today's cable giants.

OTA Resources and Other links

  • Digital Home OTA Digital Television Discussion Forums The Digital Home OTA forums are the place for Canadian tech enthusiasts to discuss how to get started with OTA and learn more about OTA stations and antennas. Moderated by one of Canada's most knowledgeable OTA experts.
  • Build your own "Super OTA TV Antenna" A group of hobbyist antenna engineers working together in the Digital Home forums developed a super TV antenna that can be built by just about anyone. In a remarkable display of generosity, the group released the design, diagrams, and schematics of the antenna under the GNU General Public License so do-it-yourselfers could build their own Super Antenna.

Hugh Thompson is the owner and publisher of Digital Home, a consumer electronics news and information website. As a voice for the Canadian consumer, Hugh is a frequent guest on radio and television programs across the country discussing the latest in consumer electronics and the business of convergence in the Digital Home.

Hugh's column will appear on the first Wednesday of the month.

* In our article "Goodbye cable, hello free TV," the author stated in the first paragraph that "the average cable television subscriber in Canada spent $1,139.77 in 2009, or just about $95 a month for television programming."

The $1,139.77 figure includes the cost of cable Internet and telephony service. The monthly expenditure by cable subscribers for just their television programming in 2009 was actually just under $49 per month. For satellite television subscribers that number was just over $66 per month.

Source: CRTC Broadcast Distribution - Class 1, 2 and 3 Statistical and Financial Summaries

Follow on Twitter: @digitalhomca

 

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