How to Get Free HDTV (in Canada)
This is a guest post by Tomasz who is a manager of systems engineering at AMD Inc. in Markham, ON. He is a technology enthusiast with his latest project on getting free HDTV over the air (OTA). He has been doing research for months and is looking to install his own OTA system in May of 2009.
With subscription rates for cable and satellite on a continuous upwards trajectory, there’s a little-known but quickly-growing niche market in Canada devoted to free (and 100% legal) reception of HDTV. I mentioned this idea for a post to FT a short while ago, and he offered up the idea of writing a guest post, so here it is.
What’s old is new again
So what is this magic bullet? It’s known as OTA, or Over-The-Air transmission. You may remember the old days of rabbit ears and big outdoor aerial antennas to pick up those few grainy ‘free’ analog tv stations. With the advent of digital technology, those same airwaves are now being slowly but surely changed over to digital transmissions, while at the same time remaining 100% free! I should insert a caveat here – you can expect to pay as little as zero and as much as $600-$700 for an OTA setup, depending on your location, your needs (how many channels you want to be able to receive), etc., but after the initial outlay there are no monthly fees whatsoever.
In the USA, there is a mandate for all analog tv broadcasts to be shut down as of June 2009 (originally, this was February 2009 but a recent ruling changed the date). In Canada, the date for the changeover is in 2011. However, most tv stations are already transmitting in digital, and the results you can achieve on your tv can be quite impressive.
Digital broadcasts are carried in either 720p or 1080i, and include digital sound. The days of static on your tv are over. As long as you can pick up the signal, the image is 100% clean. In fact, if you were to compare an OTA image side-by-side to a satellite or cable HD broadcast, you’d be surprised to find the OTA signals looks far superior to both because they are not subject to the same levels of image compression that the cable/satellite companies use to maximize the number of channels they can stream to you.
What equipment do I need and what channels can I get?
The number of channels you can get depends solely on your location with respect to the channel’s transmitters as well as your antenna setup. If you live in a major Canadian city and all you want to receive are Global, CTV, and CBC, you might be able to get away with an indoor antenna. Keep in mind those ‘rabbit ears’ you’ve seen in the past may no longer be good enough – spring for a good antenna.
For those of us living in border areas (80% of Canadians live within 200km of the US border), with the right antenna setup you may be able to pick up the major American stations as well, including NBC, PBS, CBS, ABC, FOX, and CW. These cities include Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and many others.
The best place to check what you can reasonably expect to receive is by visiting Canada’s largest OTA forum on digital home and clicking on “OTA Reception Results”. Note that receiving these signals may require a better antenna mounted either in your attic, on your roof, or on a dedicated mast. Typically, the higher in height you go, the more you can pick up. Having an unobstructed line of sight to the tv transmitter, being at a high elevation above sea level, etc. all help with reception. Pre-amplifiers can also help you pick up weak signals that otherwise would not be receivable.
A great online tool for determining your channel availability is available at TV Fool. Click ‘start here’ and plug in your home’s latitude/longitude coordinates (which you can get from Google Earth) and the site will list all channels in your area, show you a plot with where they are located, and also estimate whether you’d need an indoor, attic, or outdoor antenna to pick them up. Make sure you don’t just provide your city name, since that only works in the USA and will give wrong data. You need to give actual coordinates.
To receive digital OTA, at a minimum you need a UHF antenna (since OTA channels are almost all on channels 14-69) and a TV with an ATSC digital tuner (most TVs sold since 2004 have one built-in) or a stand-alone converter box or PC-based tuner card from a company like Hauppage.
Depending on your proximity to the transmitters, you may also need a preamplifier and possibly an outdoor roof-mounted tripod or ground-based tower mast. If transmitters are located in different directions, you may also need a rotor, which remotely rotates your antenna to change which direction it’s pointing. Note that anything installed outdoors should be done by a professional installer to ensure it’s done right and that the installation is compliant with local building and electrical codes.
Why wouldn’t everyone do this? There has to be some hitch…
I won’t lie to you, there’s always a hitch. Here are some pros and cons of switching to OTA:
- 100% free (after initial setup) and legal.
- No simsubbing on American channels (this means you get all the American commercials; yes, including during Superbowl!).
- Better quality HD than on satellite or cable.
- Many (though not all) stations incorporate EPG (electronic programming guide) information into their streams. You can also use a PC-based application like Vista Media Centre, which is a Windows-based PVR tool that downloads guide listings off the web.
- If you watch a lot of cable, sports, or specialty channels, these aren’t broadcast OTA. Examples include TSN, CNN, Treehouse (for those with kids), YTV, CPAC, and many others. OTA stations are limited to the major Canadian and American networks. For many people though, this is enough!
- If you don’t live close to the border and/or a major American city, you won’t be able to receive NBC/CBS/PBS/FOX/CW. 150km from a transmitter is usually about as far as you can go, and that’s only if the transmitter is relatively powerful.
- If you’re in a ‘fringe’ reception area (meaning at the outskirts of where the transmitters can reach), have a lot of tall trees or buildings nearby, or live in a valley, you may not be able to receive as many channels as you would otherwise if those obstacles weren’t present.
- OTA is slightly affected by weather (especially fog), particularly on weaker channels in your area. However, the same can be said for satellite. In high rain or heavy snow, OTA will suffer much less than most satellite installation.
- Your monthly programming fees are no longer helping put your local cable/satellite company’s employees’ kids through college.
I hope this post has been enough to get you interested enough to learn more. The community of people ‘going OTA’ is constantly growing. Personally, I am going to be installing my first OTA setup for my home north of Toronto this spring, where I hope to receive approximately 25 HD channels for free.
I invite everyone over to the digitalhome.ca forums, where there are some great people and FAQ documents which will help explain things better than I ever could in one post. Make sure you read their “OTA Knowledge Base & FAQ” (a great primer) before posting as well as the forum’s general rules. If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to post comments here and I’ll do my best to answer them!