Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

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)

The Switch, Part 1

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

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 in Eric Skura, who runs V&E Antenna.

More related to this story

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 Globe freelance columnist Hugh Thompson's 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.

As a service, it was fine. We had several hundred channels, many in HD, and for the most part we probably watched something on most of them at one time or another. But the bulk of our family TV viewing centred around the large Canadian and U.S. networks, the Family Channel and SportsNet (oh, and the Weather Network). My wife watched variety shows and prime-time dramas, the kids watched Hanna Montana and The Suite Life, and I watched baseball. But is that worth $85 a month? Especially when all of the network shows can be found for free over-the-air, and when a few choice Internet-delivered services can take the place of kids fare and baseball?

So I called Rogers and then I called V&E.

You don’t need a professional to come over and install a digital antenna. There are a growing number of stores, such as Canada Computers, that cater to OTA do-it-yourselfers. My brother went that route in April as well, buying equipment and spending a couple of weekends with a friend attaching an eight-bay antenna to catch signals from Buffalo’s U.S. TV networks and a four-bay antenna to catch signals from Canadian broadcasters. It took him two weekends and it cost a little less than $400 after everything was complete. His installation included a few trips to Canada Computers and to Home Depot for antenna parts and hardware.

I elected to have the pros do the work for a few reasons, least of which is that my roof is quite high off the ground and it is on a 45-degree slope. There is no way I’m ever going up there. While the cost of a professional installation can be much higher than buying your own equipment – V&E’s premium package is $700, with taxes and a converter box included – there are advantages. You don’t have to risk life and limb, legitimate businesses are insured for any injury or damage to your home, and you get a warranty.

You’ll eventually recover your investment because you won’t be paying that monthly cable bill.

Greg and Christopher installed a Wineguard 8800PR 8 bay and a Channel Master 4221 4 bay in about six hours. They used a 28-foot extension ladder to get on to the roof and they rigged a safety line around the skylight. We elected to have two TVs hooked up to the antenna – one in the living room and an old CRT TV in the bedroom, which required a converter box. Only TVs with installed ATSC tuners can connect directly to a digital antenna, meaning CRT TVs or early generation “HD-ready” TVs will require a converter. They are pretty cheap and they can be found at various electronics stores if you elect to do it yourself.

Depending on your location and how many TVs you intend to connect, there are several antenna options for indoors and outdoors. An apartment in Toronto won’t need the type of equipment I did, and anyone wishing to connect more than two TVs should consider an amplifier, which boosts the signal and ensures that your three or four sets are receiving a strong feed.

After the team connected the lines to the two sets, they communicated back and forth over a two-way radio to adjust the antennas and ensure they were catching the best signals possible from Buffalo, Toronto and Hamilton. Once that was done, we ran through the channels to see what we had picked up. The results were pretty good: 24 HD channels and nearly twice the number of standard-definition clones that will disappear in a few months.

The big U.S. stations – ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and PBS – all came in clearly on setup day, which was near perfect, weather-wise. Signal quality hovered around 75 per cent, which seemed to have no effect on the HD picture. Local stations, such as Global, CTV, Citytv and CBC, came in above 85 per cent. I noticed the superior picture quality on the majority of stations right away. Digital signals sent over the air are not compressed the way they are when delivered through cable or satellite. Signals are transmitted at a data rate of almost 19.4 megabits per second while cable and satellite transmit at a data rate of between 10 and 14.6 Mbps to each channel.

However, during a stretch of inclement weather around Toronto in late April and May, the U.S. stations – especially ABC, CBS and NBC – were unwatchable. The weather interfered with the signal, dropping its strength below 60 per cent and whenever we tuned to those channels the screen was dark. Fox kept coming in strong no matter the weather, and so did PBS. Local stations also had no trouble getting through, so there was almost no programming interruption because between CTV, Global and Citytv, nearly all of the prime-time U.S. shows are simulcast.

Aside from the main TV networks, the antenna picks up several other stations that don’t hold much appeal in my house, though they may one day. We get OMNI, Sun TV, Crossroads Television (a family oriented channel with some religious programming) and The CW. There’s also a country music station, a 24-hour sports station that seems to show mostly figure skating, rugby and handball, and Retro TV, which features the likes of Magnum PI, The A-Team and Gilligan’s Island.

While the channel list is considerably less than the 500-odd stations available through cable or satellite, we have few regrets. In April we re-activated Netflix, which for all the criticism of its programming, has a huge library of kid-centric shows and movies. Between that and my annual MLB.com subscription, we have not missed much at all (I’ll cover more on this in a companion piece that looks at the Internet side of the equation that will be posted Friday).

I’ve found the changes in our TV habits to be overwhelmingly positive.

For one thing, we watch less TV. We used to have a daily battle with the kids after school. There seemed to be no alternative in their minds to Hannah Montana and other shows on the Family Channel (which I often referred to as the Young Disney Brainwashing Channel). Now they fill their after-school leisure time with other things, such as playing on the computer or doing arts and crafts. They still watch kids shows, but they’re either on PBS – did you know the Electric Company is still on? – or Caillou on Netflix.

My wife gets to bed earlier instead of flipping through 500 channels and I read more often. I find that when we watch TV, we do it to be entertained rather than distracted, which is most evident with the kids. The process of selecting something from a Netflix menu seems to dovetail more closely with the prevailing mood – fun, serious, mentally stimulating – than just time-wasting picture and noise.

Read Part 2 of the switch on Friday. It focuses on the Internet, the headaches involved with cancelling Rogers, and the web services we’re using to supplement free TV.

Single page

Follow on Twitter: @sniderm

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories