A long time ago, cable TV started as a way to improve reception in hard-to-serve areas. Then, it blossomed into one of the most consumer unfriendly, blood thirsty for cash businesses on the planet. My two year contract with Verizon ends at the end of the month and I’m (gleefully) cutting the cord. VZ wanted more money to renew — and has been deliberately slowing Netflix. So, for us, the future is streaming video and over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts.
This weekend, I installed an antenna in my garage (pictured nearby), ran an RG6 cable to my basement where it connects to the coax already in the walls. Result? 31 OTA channels, with the major networks’ signals so gorgeous on my 60″ 2013 F-Series Samsung LED that I am sorry I didn’t do this earlier. (No matter how good the picture on cable is, it’s compressed. With a good TV, you can actually see the difference between networks that broadcast in 1080i [CBS, NBC among others] and 720p [Fox, ABC]). Even the audio sounds better. It may seem old-school, but broadcast over-the-air TV, with a little work and some experimentation, is still better than cable. (I tried Aereo via a Roku to my Samsung; the pictures were terrible. I’m a football fan and Aereo’s pictures were so pixelated a pass to a receiver would look like a blob was being thrown instead of an oblong ball.)
Cutting the cord isn’t hard — but you have to be a bit adventuresome. This post offers a list of tips that I discovered as I cut the cord in my suburban Boston home. We are about 15 miles due west of most of the transmitters in this market. City dwellers and people further away might need simpler or more elaborate solutions. YMMV.
- The gospel about whether or not you will be able to get good OTA signals are the custom reports you can generate for your address at www.tvfool.com. You can see how to aim the antenna and there are detailed instructions on how to calculate signal loss due to cable runs. Stores that want to sell you an antenna suggest using the color-coded suggestions from antennaweb.com. Feh. Use tvfool.com’s reports.
- Buy the biggest, baddest antenna you can afford or fit. Weather, time of day, even sun spots can interfere with reception, so make sure you overcompensate for these issues. I started with a stupid little Wal-Mart “attic” antenna. That was a mistake because…
- …Aiming the antenna using the tvfool.com magentic north coordinates is crucial. If you use an under-sized antenna like I did to start, no amount of aiming will bring in all the channels you might be able to receive. You need an antenna with the ability to deliver more off-axis signals because you can’t point the antenna directly at every transmitter. That means bigger is always better.
- One more antenna tip: mount it where you can get to it easily, at least for the first few days. You are going to be turning it this way and that as you find the sweet spot for your location. As you can see from the picture, I decided to use my garage instead of the attic. At first that was driven by a shorter cable run but I quickly realized that it was much easier (at least in my home) to get at the antenna in the garage rather than in the attic.
- If you have long cable runs, get a distribution amp. I used a Channel Master CM3414 which works well for me.
- Check your TV’s vintage. I have a 2004-vintage Sharp 32″ LCD TV for which I paid dearly as an early adopter. It’s tuner apparently has a lower sensitivity, meaning that it has trouble with one channel. OTOH, my new Samsung has no issues with the same signal. Remember: your TV’s OTA tuner is a digital processor so the latest and greatest is more likely to handle weaker signals. The ATSC tuner in my early Sharp is the issue on that TV, not the signal.
- Get a DVR targeted at cord-cutters. I’ve ordered a Channel Master DVR+. The one thing the cable company had I will miss is the ability to timeshift and skip commercials. There are alternatives to the DVR+ like TiVO, but the idea of cutting the cord is to be free of permanent indentured servitude to service and/or box rental fees. If it does the job, the DVR+ will free me from buying the set-box from Verizon over and over and over and over again.
This may seem daunting, but the exhilaration of being free of the cable companies is worth it, trust me.
Update, February 28, 2014: Today, I moved our Internet connection from FiOS to Charter. There’s an important lesson I learned: it doesn’t matter how fast the speeds your ISP says its delivering to you are. If the ISP is slowing things (as Verizon is doing with Netflix, much to my annoyance) in its backhaul, you could have gigabit connections to the ISP’s network and still crawl along like it was 2002. That’s why now Netflix streams in 1080 “super” HD on Charter’s puny 30Mbits download speeds when my 35Mbit download speed on FiOS only delivered 384 SD streams. FiOS is deliberately slowing Netflix to extract payment from Netflix and to favor its own programming.
Plus, I’d forgotten how technically clumsy FiOS is. Sure, it’s fiber. But to get you Internet, voice and video on that fiber, FiOS has made a deal with the complexity devil. FiOS has this mega stupid ONT on the outside of your building, a big bulky, battery-backed terminal on the inside…and a Rube Goldberg network to split the three services out. Internet comes in on either RJ-45 or (unless you squeal) coax, which is split at an Actiontec router on which Verizon opens ports on to spy on you (how NSA). In order to provide the video guide (via Internet) and VOD (IP streams), the Actiontec bridges coax and Ethernet networks with an internal MOCA bridge. When you stream HD VOD, QOS is used in the Actiontec to temporarily increase your fiber capacity so as to not steal from your provisioned data bandwidth. (Got that?)
Charter comes in with a single coax to an integrated MTA for voice and data; splitter is used if have video (I don’t).
In short, FiOS is a heavily-marketed kludge that was fast before it became popular. There are better, more elegant options.