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My new over-the-air digital antenna was installed after easter allowing me to cut off cable and watch TV for free. (Michael Snider)
My new over-the-air digital antenna was installed after easter allowing me to cut off cable and watch TV for free. (Michael Snider)

From the archives

Goodbye cable bills, now I get my TV for free Add to ...

This article was originally published in August, 2011

I never knew the Weather Network had such a huge following in my house.

In April, I pulled the cable plug and ordered an over-the-air (OTA) antenna for my rooftop in Ajax, Ont. I had wanted to do it for more than a year, after investigating the possibilities late last summer, and I’d finally scraped together enough money to call V&E Antenna.

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As I was showing my wife the crystal-clear, high-definition picture and scrolling through the channels – reassuring her she would still be able to watch her favourite shows – she asked: “Where’s the weather channel?”

The antenna, I explained, doesn’t pick up “specialty” stations such as TSN, Diva and Showtime.

Where is the weather channel?” she repeated. “I need the weather channel. Who’s going to tell me when I need to get into the basement because a tornado is coming?”

I had to break it to her: No Weather Network. We spent the rest of the night surfing for suitable apps and we discovered several. The lesson, of course, is that cutting off your cable or satellite provider may give you the satisfaction of watching high-definition TV for free, after installation, but you do lose some things you might have gotten used to.

A little more than a month later, here’s my take on switching to OTA, why I did it, what it cost and how it has changed my household’s viewing habits.

For the uninitiated, an over-the-air antenna basically captures TV signals. Anyone born around 1970 or earlier will likely remember watching antenna-fed TV, either from one on the roof or rabbit ears on the Zenith. Before cable and satellite that’s how everyone received their signals. My grandparents had one on their farmhouse near Bobcaygeon, Ont. My grandfather had to twist an electronic dial to remotely swivel the antenna on the roof to get a clear signal of Knowlton Nash reporting for CBC News.

Those signals were analog, delivered over a frequency spectrum that will be shut down Aug. 31. In preparation for the change, Canadian broadcasters have been sending digital signals over the air as well. Anyone using an antenna currently to watch TV on a CRT TV without a digital converter box will wake up the first day of September with a fuzzy TV screen. The antenna V&E installed in April captures digital and analog signals, so when I flip through channels I see two versions of CTV, CBC and Fox – to name a few – one in 3:4 standard definition and one in widescreen HD. After August, it will be digital only. For a good FAQ, visit the government's Digitaltv.gc.ca site or digitalhome.ca's discussion forums.

The overwhelming benefit of over-the-air TV is the price. It doesn’t cost a cent. The biggest drawback is that it does not pick up specialty channels such as SportsNet, the History Channel or the Weather Network.

Before disconnecting cable, my household subscribed through Rogers. We had been customers since moving to Toronto in 1999, and we also subscribed to the company’s high-speed Internet access and Rogers Wireless. Each month the bill would tally about $210 for the three services, not including home phone, which we have through Vonage.

We paid for the Digital VIP package and the TV portion of the bill, after taxes, hovered around $80 a month. That included $67.72 for Digital VIP cable (basic cable plus specialty channels), $12.95 for the rental of an HD terminal, and $2.99 for a “digital service fee (which is ... um, I don’t know). Subtract the “VIP discount” and the “better choice bundles 10-per-cent discount,” add HST, and the grand total for April, 2011 was $84.33.

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