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How to beat paying cable bills

05 Jul in Government, How To, Video, MythTV

I'm done paying cable bills. And if you are interested, you can do so also - legitimately and legally. Read more to find out how.

I was surprised I didn't know how good over the air (OTA) television is these days. I'd heard whisperings about it, but until you see it for yourself, it doesn't fully register. It is noticeably *better* than what I was getting with my cable provider - including their high definition (HD) feed. This is simply because the signal is not compressed as it is for cable providers.

CM4228 antenna

The antenna pictured in this album enabled me to receive 12 digital and 24 analog television stations (see the updates below, we now receive 26 local and 8 distant digital channels). Many of the digital stations are high definition (1080i). The bottom line is no more cable bills for my family which equates to considerable savings each year.

In August 2011, Canada will move to digital over-the-air television and thus I expect to see somewhere around 20 digital channels, maybe more. The US and other countries are already ahead in the transition to digital over the air. I happen to be in Ottawa, Canada.

Channels we get include local channels (CBC, TVO, CTV, A-Channel, CityTV, OMNI1, OMNI2, SunTV, etc.). We're also getting WNPI (3 PBS subchannels) from Norwood, New York which is 120 km away, and WCFE from Plattsburgh, New York (3 more PBS subchannels) from 160km away!! WNPI comes in strong and has not pixelated yet. WCFE has been fairly stable with a second or two of pixelation every 15-20 minutes or so not enough to be bothered by. Soon CBS and Fox will be broadcasting from the same antenna as WNPI though a weaker signal so it will be interesting to see if I can pick them up also.

The entire set up was under $500 and took about a full day's worth of work to install for 2 people. Thus the payback period for this is under 6 months. I had cable, digital cable, HD previously. My father was kind to help me do the install. We estimated that most of the time was spend figuring things out and that professional installers could likely do the job in half the time or less.

Of the work, the hardest parts were:

  1. Lifting the mast into the tripod on the roof which was a bit awkward to keep it steady and guide it past the bolts that hold it once in place. This took about 2 minutes but was a bit of a struggle at first.
  2. Learning how to terminate RG6 cable (aka. coax) properly. This isn't really hard. They key was to push the co-ax *REALLY* hard into the connector (aka. end you plug into the TV) before compressing it. I had to try a few times and ruin a few connectors before figuring this out. This was the most frustrating part of the whole job as I wasn't expecting any challenge here.

The rest was no more difficult than connecting RG6 cables, tightening nuts on bolts, and screwing in some screws to attach the trip-pod. In my opinion, well within reach of your average citizen. With a little advice and preparation in advance, it would be quite straight forward. Of course, always be very careful on ladders and on the roof!

Tips:

  1. Safety is everything. It's not worth it if you hurt yourself. So go slow, think before doing, and be very careful.
  2. Don't skimp on the antenna. For $100, you can buy an awesome antenna. It's well worth it as you'll get a good signal to start. Over the air TV is all about maximizing signal and minimizing noise.
  3. Ground your antenna to help protect against lightning strikes.
  4. Use silicone grease to waterproof your RG6 connectors. They're already quite weatherproof but this cheap, quick, and easy step just makes them that much more watertight and helps them last longer.

Things I thought might be hard like drilling a small hole through the wall for the cables to get through were in fact trivial. The right tools (hammer drill + 16" masonry bit) in this case made all the difference. Cutting the EMT tubing for the mast was quick work (<30 seconds) for my reciprocating saw with a meta blade.

It's worth noting that you don't need an installation as fancy as mine to get most of these channels. You will easily get the local channels with a set top antenna. Don't expect the ones broadcasting 100km away - despite what marketing for the set top antennas say. You want VHF and UHF support. After using a cheap set top omni-directional antenna without an amplifier for a month or so, I recommend getting one with an amplifier. I highly recommend trying a cheap antenna before investing as it'll give you a good idea of what to expect.

Interested in which channels you might be able to get in your area? Visit http://www.tvfool.com/ as it lets you generate a fairly accurate list. This was what I used and it's pretty much spot on.

After countless time cleaning sticky greasy finger prints off the kids DVDs, I'll feed them into MythTV and serve them over my Ethernet network with a light weight computer serving as the front end connected to the television. MythTV will also provide a very powerful and flexible PVR - thus letting us record two channels at the same time while simultaneously watching something previously recorded. Watching recordings lets us skip over commercials automatically which is nice. It's really cool to see yet more fantastic quality open source software.

It's still early days, and we're adapting to not having hundreds of channels. We don't seem to be grumbling about hundreds of channels and nothing on. And we've got considerable pocket money instead so if we want, we can buy or rent DVDs. Life is a bit better.

Comments

Update (Feb. 2011)

It has now been many months since I completed this project. As you might expect, the equipment has now paid for itself easily and is well into "profit" now. What we particularly appreciate (beyond $0 for HD television) is that we haven't seen a commercial in months thanks to MythTV. We were originally a bit concerned our children would be upset at us for doing this. We couldn't have been more wrong. The quality of kids programming from PBS, CBC, and TVOntario in particular are excellent and it is all commercial free.

I do plan to do some tuning and tweaking in the spring. My goals are:

  1. Ensure CBS and Fox are coming in consistently. We only receive them under ideal conditions today. The broadcast signal is roughly 1/10th the strength of WNPI (PBS) even though they broadcast using the same antenna.
  2. See if I can't deal more effectively with multi-homing signal issues. My current set up is so strong it picks up local stations reflecting off buildings. I have the antenna pointed south pretty much all of the time to catch the distant signals since the local signals are so strong they can be picked up via. the back of the antenna. The issue is the contention between the weak signal/high gain on the front of the antenna vs. the strong signal/low gain off the back.  My television tuners usually don't have an issue with this but my hd-homerun doesn't like it.

To do this, here's my plan:

  1. Research if there's a better tuner than what the hd-homerun offers. This would trade some of the really nice features of the hd-homerun (self contained unit which shares the video feed over my network) to solve the multi-homing and likely expand the range of conditions the distant CBS/Fox signals come in.
  2. If I can't solve multi-homing with a better tuner, then I'll see if I can somehow block the strong local stations on the south facing antenna(s). And gang in a north facing one for local stations.
  3. Increase signal and decrease noise. I am looking at three ways to do this:
  • use/combine the signals of 2 antennas rather than just a single antenna. This should in theory double the signal strength
  • get an even better pre-amp that specializes in ultra-low noise amplification. There's a couple of products on the market that look very impressive.
  • research the various CM4228-HD antenna hacks online. These are reported to boost signal quite dramatically.
  • Worst case, I'll consider other antennas to do what I'm trying to do.

The other thing worth noting is that in 6 months we'll get a flood of new digitial channels as anticipated. This includes: CJOH (CTV), CHRO (A-Channel), CICO (TV Ontario), and more. Today we watch them in analog which is acceptable but there really is no comparison in picture quality. We're already very very backed up in programs to watch so this will only give us more material to last through the summer doldrums.

We also have been spending $10/month for Zip.ca for movies. We're fairly happy with the service and learning/refining techniques to avoid delay for them to notice we returned a video and send us our next one.

Another surprise we didn't expect is the quality of online video just through a web browser. While we don't use this as often, it's been better than we expected in most cases. If/when Netflix supports Linux, we'll likely use it instead of Zip.ca.

Also effective was purchasing full seasons of television shows we were interested in - especially 2nd hand. Watching them and then selling them if they weren't worth keeping  provides a very good experience (good quality, no commercials, little overhead compared to renting) and value.

It is very clear to me that this area is an area of considerable change. If you do a modest amount of work, you can free yourself from living under the cable/satelite/telephone companies' thumbs. You may not be too bothered by this - but add up how much you're paying per year and consider if you're getting good value for money.

November 2011 update

In late November 2011 (so much for spring, but I've been very busy), I made some adjustments. The key one was switching out my RG6 100% foil sheilded cable for better cable that was 95% copper braid and 100% foil sheilding. According to various resources, this should have made for a 1000x reduction in noise in the line. The results indicate the prediction was correct.

The results of the cable upgrade accomplished goal #1 - to get CBS and Fox from Norwood to come in consistently. Winter makes it harder to pick up distant signals. Last winter, we didn't see these channels very often. Since upgrading the cables, they have been solid.

The issue with multi-homing is still there unfortunately. I believe the cause is that the antenna is so strong it picks up signals bouncing off buildings with the high-gain front of the antenna and this interfers with the signal picked up off the back of the antenna.  We've been turning the antenna (with our rotator) north and of course the problem goes away completely. It only affects two of the strongest local signals, most notably CBC. My hypotheis is I can solve this by chaining in a 2nd antenna pointed north to the CBC broadcast antenna. I suspect I likely need something to cancel the CBC signal on the south facing antenna to do it right, but it wouldn't take much effort to try without first and see what happens. For now we'lll rotate the antenna. I moved the antenna rotator control box to be in a more convenient location right beside our main television to make this trivial. It has a remote control so you don't even have to get up. It takes about 10-15 seconds to rotate. We do this while watching the signal strength meter on the television so we can tune it to the optimal position.

We still have a few options to boost the signal for the distant channels:

  • Swapping out a better (higher gain, lower noise) pre-amp
  • Hacking the existing antenna to boost signal for the frequencies of the weaker channels
  • Adding antenna(s)

At the moment, none of these are urgent so we'll give it time to fully understand the current system.

Regarding the HDHomerun and whether I could find a better tuner. I bought a Hauppage 2250 dual tuner card. It works very well. The tuner chips do not seem to be any more sensitive or effective vs. the HDHomerun. For my taste, I like the internal card better as it makes for less network traffic compared with the HDHomerun. Don't misunderstand though... the HDHomerun is a great product!

Where I bought the gear:

For those asking, bought my antenna at saveandreplay http://bit.ly/aQ6chd

The antenna was $100, the pre-amp $100, the rotator $100.

I also bought a tripod mount, some RG6 cable, RG6 connectors, a cable prep-tool, a compression tool, and grounding block.

I bought 3-wire outdoor wire to connect the rotator, grounding wire, and a few bits of hardware like deck screws, the brace, etc. at Rona here in town.

Rotator: Channel Master

Rotator: Channel Master 9521A
Pre-amp: Channel Master 777
Antenna: Channel Master 4228-HD
Line-amp: Channel Master 3414

Best to get cable with 95% copper braid sheilding and 100% foil shielding. This will keep noise down and help with distant signals. I didn't do this with my set up originally so will retrofit soon.

I also got OTA

Picture is better then my rogers box, and i also purchased my stuff from saveandreplay.com people there knew what they were talking about and very informative as well

Save and Replay??

Went to this place to get some OTA advice and was told I was asking silly questions. Is there any silly questions when you are trying to learn about this stuff which is hardly an exact science. There are so many variables involved in locking in digital signals especially in fringe areas. Will never buy anything at Save and Replay, and will recommend that friends and relatives go elsewhere for OTA components.

Hmm

Sorry you didn't get the answers you were looking for from them. Do you want to ask the questions here? Perhaps I may be able to help or at the very least translate to help you rephrase them and pose them in appropriate forums.