Antennas Direct Sales Spiraling Upwards As More TV Viewers Rediscover Over The Air Broadcasting

With DTV Antenna sales going through the roof to pick up OTA TV broadcasts Antennas Direct tunes in for $10m investment.

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The Ultimate Free Over The Air (OTA) Digital HDTV Antenna Installation Information For Us Canadians And Those In The Greater Toronto Area

Whew! What a title…. But I’m hoping that the title will assist people with finding this blog post on the Internet….

Over the past few months, since the arrival of my HDTV, I’ve been spending some time setting up an antenna and trying to capture as many free over-the-air HDTV stations as possible. One of the big problems I had was trying to find information on an antenna. It was not only a decision on deciding what type to get but also how to set it up. It was very hard to find suppliers in Canada and it was also difficult to find easily obtainable (and understandable) information on how to go about installing something that might actually work. This blog post is my story and it’s my hope that you might benefit from it.

Early Days – First Cuts at HDTV Reception

My first cuts at getting HDTV reception actually occurred several years ago. However I was hampered by location (Etobicoke, ON), a small number of HDTV transmitters that were on low power (pre DTV switchover in the US and still low power in Canada)  and most of all by not having a suitable antenna. For those of you new to HDTV you are probably aware that it is a significant upgrade from our old analogue system called NTSC. You might not be aware however that the new over-the-air transmission system, that delivers HDTV, is called ATSC. The corresponding connection on your TV to connect an ATSC antenna is often called a DTV connection referring to Digital TV transmission.

I’ve actually owned several of these ATSC tuners prior to getting my HDTV set earier this year. The first ATSC tuner I purchased was in the form of a computer card, that put the tuner in my computer. I used the computer monitor to display the HDTV picture. My first ATSC Tuner Card was ATI’s HDTV Wonder. However I never really got any HDTV reception from the card because there were few HDTV stations in my area and the antenna that was provided with the card was not capable of picking anything up in the outskirts of Toronto.

Indoor Antenna

ATI's HDTV Wonder Was My First HDTV Tuner

My second tuner was an  Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-1600 PC tuner. I purchased it for a MYTH-TV home DVR box I was building. Again I was hampered lack of a proper antenna system to pick up some of the HDTV stations that were starting to transmit in nearby Buffalo, NY.

WinTV-HVR-1600

A few years later I purchased Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 950. It was different because it fin inside a USB housing but it too came with a lame antenna –as you can see by the picture below– and once again, even though we had HDTV transmissions occurring in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) I had little success in receiving HDTV.

My Third ATSC Tuner And It's Antenna

My Latest Efforts – Learning About Antennas

So when I purchased a 42″ Vizio 1080p TV,  set, with a built in ATSC tuner, I had to get serious about an antenna. When I mentioned the need for an antenna there were objections from my wife. She kept thinking I was talking about erecting a tower like they did way back in the 1950’s. The reality is that towers for DTV antenna’s no longer need to be built. Today’s ATSC antennas can be wall mounted, chimney mounted, a tripod mast can be placed on your roof, and some new designs that don’t even look like antenna’s. Once more  you can hide your antennas by placing them in your garage or attic.

Antenna Confusion

The next issue I had was what kind of an antenna do I need. I had been told by engineers that the classic yaggi antenna was the best and a friend had told me about a really neat Gray-Hoverman Antenna that I could construct myself. However recalled that DTV had been designed to work just as well with a simple “bow tie” antenna. Despite all of the fanciness of the Yagi and Gray-Hooverman many people I talked to said they were getting great reception with these bow ties which many had constricted from “coat hangers”.

Classic Bow Tie Configuration In Hand Built DTV Antenna

The video below shows you how to construct a simple bow tie antenna. It shows clearly how one can cut coat hangers and arrange them to create the bow ties that act as the receptors in a classic bow tie antenna. As you’ll see in the video below the construction of these antenna’s are relatively simple and by watching the video you’ll get a good idea of how antenna’s work. You can also download the instructions in pdf form here.

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By the way, the work involved in building an antenna is easy and can be build by kids with adult supervision…..

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So understanding the principle of “bow tie” antenna’s is important to understanding the “lingua franca” of obtaining an antenna from a retailer. As you can see by the images below modern DTV bow tie antenna each of the bow ties are referred to bays and antennas are marketed in terms of the number of bow ties or bays that are on them….

Two Bay DTV Antenna

Four Bay DTV Antenna

Playing With Antenna’s

Since I didn’t know how successful I’d be and I could not locate a store that I could walk in and purchase an antenna, the first antenna I purchased was a two bay  Antennas Direct Terrestrial Digital Small Multi-Directional UHF HDTV Antenna from tigerdirect.ca. I surveyed my house and decided to mount it in a window inside my garage. It was a prime location for cabling as it was quite easy to pull the coaxial cable from my garage to my basement office where I had placed my HDTV set. It also had the added bonus of not having to climb up to the roof to install it. I placed it in my garage window by hanging it from a teacup holder and had my first success in tuning in some of those free OTA HDTV stations.

I found I could tune CBC and CTV Toronto in HDTV consistently. I could tune CHCH (Hamilton) most of the time but stations from Buffalo were erratic as to when I could or could not receive them. Even worse it seemed weather made no difference. Some clear days and nights the stations would tune in with minimal distortion, while other days or nights with similar weather I could not tune any Buffalo stations. Even the reception from Hamilton (25 miles away) was spotty.

One weekend in September I finally found some time to work on improving my reception. I had noted that on a recent trip to the multitude of Computer stores that have collected along College Street (around Spadina) were selling a variety of four bay and eight bay DTV antenna’s. Their prices were very good ranging from $25 to $60 and collectively they seemed to have plenty of stock. One store also sold Yagi’s and antenna rotors! I had finally found at least somewhere in Toronto where antennas were plentiful and there was competition around their pricing.

Is A Four Bay DTV Antenna Really Be Better Than A Two Bay?

In the end I purchased an eight bay antenna (which is actually made up of two four bay units) for about $50.00. This investment meant I could compare the ability of two bay, four bay and eight bay antenna’s to see what worked best for me. Initially I replaced the two bay hanging in my garage window with a four bay and noticed an immediate improvement in the stability of channels. The upgrade also added a couple of more stations but some stations, both in Buffalo and Toronto came and went depending on when I had my TV set do a channel scan. My conclusion; the four bay antenna was an improvement over the two bay. The only problem being that I was not getting as many Toronto stations as I thought I should be getting.

How Critical Is Antenna Placement?

The following weekend I decided that I’d work on placing the antenna at a better angle to see if I could improve the number of stations that I could pick up. I removed my four bay from my garage window and used camera tripods to hold the antenna’s while I experimented at which angle I should point the antenna to get the maximum channels. Eventually I found an angle that strattled the line of sight between Toronto and Buffalo to where I could get the maximum number of stations to tune in. Here are some of the things I discovered during my tests;

  1. A four bay antenna performed much better at picking up stations than a two bay antenna.
  2. For my use, because I did not want to do a rooftop antenna, an eight bay did not increase the number of channels I could recieve.
  3. After settling on the appropriate angle it did not make any difference if the antenna was outside or inside my garage. So (because it was easy) I decided to mount the antenna on the wall in my garage.

The Final Location For My Four Bay DTV Antenna Was On My Garage Wall

Adding A Channel Master 7777 Antenna Pre-Amplifier

The exercise of properly locating my antenna was well worth it. I had increased my brood of fairly dependable HDTV channels from eight to around 12, however fairly dependable is not ideal because I’d still find some of them not there when I wanted to watch a show on them. The solution in this case was to purchase an antenna pre-amplifier. An antenna pre-amplifier is a device that amplifies the signal that the antenna picks up. It has to be located right at the antenna. One day while I was browsing a website called hdtvexpert.com I noticed in a blog posting wherechannel reception almost doubled when a Channel Master 7777 Antenna Amplifier was added to the mix. Could this be the “killer” piece of hardware I needed?

I found the 7777  easy to install because you don’t need to run power to the amplifier that needs to be attached at the antenna end. You actually power the amplifier from inside your house with a separate power supply. The Channel Master uses the coaxial cable to power the amplifier on the antenna. Because my antenna was easily accessible in the garage it only took me about 15 minutes to hook the amplifier up. When I returned my set with the amplifier active, scanned for channels once again my stations increased. After having the unit for a week the vast majority of my stations are dependable and free of the digital breakup that’s normally associated with distant DTV stations. For me the Channel Master 7777 Antenna Pre-Amplifier is the killer piece of hardware that makes the entire system work and I highly recommend it.

What can I pick up?

Well with my total one time investment of approx $200.00 and with a fixed garage mounted four bay antenna I’m receiving 21 DTV channels which two are standard definition sub-channels that I did not list below;

  • 2-1 WGRZ-HD (NBC)
  • 2-2 WGRZ-US (NBC)
  • 2-3 WGRZ-RT (NBC)
  • 4-1 WIVB-HD (CBS)
  • 5-1 CBLT-DT (CBC)
  • 7-1 WKBK-HD (ABC)
  • 9-1 CFTO-HD (CTV)
  • 11-1 CHCH-DT (Independent)
  • 17-1 WNED-HD (PBS)
  • 17-3 WNED-TH (PBS)
  • 23-1 WNLO-HD (CBS)
  • 25-1 CBLFT-HD (CBC)
  • 29-1WUTV-HD (Fox)
  • 36-1 CTS-HD (Independent)
  • 41-1 CIII-DT (Global)
  • 44-1  OMNI 2 (Rogers)
  • 57-1 CITY-HD (RogersO
  • 64-1 OMNI- 1 (Rogers)
  • 66-1 CKXT-DT (SUN -TV)

Canadian DTV Antenna Resources. Where Are They?

Soapbox On Corporate Control Of TV Signals In Canada

With so much cross over in Canada with Cable and Satellite operators actually owning many DTV stations no one appears to be promoting over-the-air HDTV reception. In the United States they have a larger block of over-the-air stations because cross ownership is not allowed and PBS has been a champion of the conversion since its earliest days. In Canada its being treated as “a dirty little secret” with Cable and Satellite companies fearful of widespread adoption. They are afraid it will have a significant effect on their subscriptions.

Likewise Canadian over-the-air broadcast stations appear reluctant to invest in digital transmitters and repeaters even thought they’ve had over a decade to do so. Both Global and CTV have actively pursued an agenda to drop over the air transmission in favour of directly providing Cable and Satellite companies with their signals for distribution. If these broadcasters are successful it would enslave Canadian consumers to Canadian BDU’s that have little competition and a history of annual increases that go well above inflation. So it’s important that Canadians understand that they have a good free alternative. It’s also important to insist that these over the air broadcasters, who have had a monopoly on our publicly owned airwaves for fifty years, live up to their responsibility of providing free TV to those Canadians who desire it. Canadian shouldn’t be enslaved to large corporations that deliver television as exorbitant rates.

So with no corporate entity championing free over the air TV where does one get services, information and technology to get free HDTV?

Where do I get the technology?

Finding DTV equipment and information in Toronto can be challenging. However as I mentioned there are several computer shops in Toronto that are within a short walk of one another on College Street at the intersection of Spadina Avenue. About 1/3rd of them stock antenna’s and they are fairly competitive with one another. If you find a sale a four bay will bottom out at about $25 and a eight bay (usually $60) might be found for $50.

You can purchase DTV equipment online and in Canada. My favorite place to purchase is at Sensuz Media Inc. Their website tells you their inventory and they ship very, very quickly by courier. They’ll even allow you to go to their location and pick it up if you don’t want it shipped. This was the place I purchased the Channel Master 7777 Antenna Amplifier (onsale at under $100) and it was at my door in a day and a half….  You can also purchase DTV equipment online at tigerdirect.ca and factorydirect.ca.

What if I wanted someone to come and install an antenna for me?

I found antenna installers are difficult to find. However I was pointed to one company V and E Antenna in the GTA area who advertises that they do it.

Where Do I Get Specific Canadian Information on HDTV Stations?

For the longest time I was trying to use  http://www.digitalhome.ca to get information but because its a long running forum I couldn’t find the consistency that I’d like to get information quickly. The Sensuz Media Inc. link provides one of the best concise pages on DTV for Canadians that I have found. In addition it provides the instructions on how Canadians can access the website called tvfool.com that will give you a list of transmitters in your area and which ones you should be able to pick up with an indoor and outdoor antenna. I found it to be spot on.  The details they provide are as follows:

http://www.tvfool.com – This is a great website tool that can help answer questions like:

Which broadcaster are transmitting locally?

  • How far are the transmitters from me?
  • Which direction should I point my antenna?
  • How strong are the signals in my area?
  • What analog and digital channels are available?

For Canadian users, just enter your address in the “Address” field, enter your City, Province in the “City” field, and enter your Postal Code in the “Zip” Field. Just ignore the “State” drop-down menu.

For me, living in Etobicoke I got the following map;

This is the information I got fron TV Fool. If you click on it and check it against the channels I'm receiving it is right on. Basically my stations cut off withing the yellow zone. For me to get more stations I'd have to put my antenna on the roof and employ a deep fringe antenna to have a chance at getting some of the stations in the grey area.

Well that’s if for now… Given that my Rogers Cable bill is approaching $800 per year I can tell you that expense is under serious review given the number and quality of channels that I can pick up on my antenna. I’m enjoying watching those crisp and clear non compressed images that my next challenge is to figure out how to make a DVR for it….

….brad….

Rogers Cable, Shaw Cable, Bell TV (formerly Bell ExpressVu) and Star Choice – Beware of the Killer Internet

Is Future More Local? More Free?

Is Future More Local? More Free?

Whenever I start to think about the future of media technology, production and distribution I tend to look for analogies that can be mapped onto emerging and future scenarios. Amongst the mess created from the two satellites that collided over Siberia and the internet talk relating to space junk, a post titled “Satellite Diss” by By Farhad Manjoo on slate.com almost got lost in the debris. However after reviewing it this morning it provides an analogous base that supports my own personal viewpoint on the future of media and its distribution.

“Satellite Diss” is an article on Sirius XM Satellite radio and its current business problems. After reading it I can’t help but think it provides some fodder that can be mapped to other distribution media. It’s also something that we as consumers and the Canadian Cable and Satellite TV providers need to consider as it appears that consumers are speaking about what they are willing to pay for in a changing world related to new and networked based media devices.

According to the “Satellite Diss” Sirius XM has some business challenges. The company is unable to meet a $175 million debt payment due at the end of the month, the company has more than $3 billion of debt and it has hired bankruptcy advisers at the same time its been talking to satellite TV companies about a possible takeover.

The report goes on to note that “Like print newspapers, travel agencies, and record shops, Sirius XM offers what seems like a pretty great service—the world’s best radio programming for just a small monthly fee—that has, in practice, been eclipsed by something far cheaper and more convenient: the Internet.”

Napster, Internet and iPods Have Changed Everything

Napster, Internet and iPods Have Changed Everything

Farhad Manjoo’s article goes on to point out that with the advent of Napster people got used to getting every song on demand. While Sirius and XM offer a multitude of specialty music stations, much of their business model was also tied to  exclusive acts such as Howard Stern. Personalities were used to convince customers to pay $10 or more a month for their radio service. However when Apple released their iPod MP3 player, and MP3 playes became mainstream, they proved to be the killer app that worked against Sirius XM. Even though the iPod itself couldn’t receive any radio signals, it could connect to a home computer and access a wealth of free radio content from the Internet. With the combination of Napster and Apple’s iStore, Consumers got used to downloading their content and the Dye was cast against subscription radio services.

I have to say that I have to agree with Mr. Manjoo’s assessment. In my case I just purchased a Hyundai Sonata. It came a three month free subscription to Sirius XM and an auxiliary input port to the cars radio system. The auxiliary input is built with an iPod interface as well as a stereo mini connector that will accept any other MP3 player’s output. When my wife and I saw that the subscription rate was $14.99 per month for the XM service we immediately saw much more value with the MP3 player interconnect. We can purchase an awful lot of MP3 players vs the $180.00 a year XM subscription cost.

The Power Of Radio Is Local

The Power Of Radio Is Local

But its not really the money. Like a lot of people I feel the real value in radio is with local news and information. In Canada free over the air Radio has made a real financial comeback based primarily on a local, local, local –almost narrowcast– mantra. And for me, while driving and listening to radio I tend to stick with information based Radio stations longer than music based stations.

“Satellite Diss” goes on to point out that the Internet doesn’t have to be the death of Sirius XM. It assumes that the company can get its debt in order and that if it does, the company might actually discover that the Internet can be its savior. Given that Howard Stern’s radio show is one of the most pirated programs on the internet, Manjoo’s advice is for Sirius XM to figure out a way to get it to the largest possible audience at very low prices. He asks the company to forget about their specialized hardware and move to making the service available  to every Internet-connected device on the market. Given the companies current situation this seems like sound advice.

In my Rogers Cable – Beware of the Killer Rabbit (Ears) For Free Over-the-air Digital HDTV post to this blog I pointed out one aspect about the free over-the-air experience. Jeffrey Breen’s positive experience reinstalling an over-the-air TV antenna system in his mothers home surprised him. Once it was completed and he saw the results, he started to question the value of a basic cable subscription. This is similar to XM’s subscription based model, its competition with free over-the-air local radio and free downloadable Internet content. In the case of the “Satellite Diss” post, not only does it question the viability of a subscription based business model but it questions the long term viability of “exclusive content” through closed channels being the savior of big media.

Internet Connected Home Media Centres

Internet Connected Home Media Centre

I contend that given the pervasiveness of home based IT networking, it wont be long before we see the Media Center equivalent of the iPod delivering Internet sourced visual media on a mass scale. In fact it’s my belief that this kind of content will soon hit mainstream, if it hasn’t done so already. After all how long will it be before we see cable and satellite TV subscription packages like newspapers, travel agencies, and record shops are now viewed in the Internet age.

All of this activity plays to my belief that free over-the-air media, coupled with Internet delivery, is the future of media delivery. Hence it’s despicable to me personally that free over-the-air TV gets such a rough treatment in Canada. It comes from everywhere including the companies that own the stations broadcast stations themselves. There is almost no public discussion from them on picking up free Digital HDTV television over the air and they even dance around the issue of updating their analogue transmitters which is the basis of their business model.  In light of an August 2011 shut off date of  analogue TV in Canada, I can only attribute the lack of public debate to the fact that a growing number of Canada’s free TV stations are owned by the same companies that own our countries Satellite and Cable TV distribution companies. Given that those BDU’s business model is based on charging for TV delivery one has to wonder how committed they are to the concept of free over-the-air TV. I’ve yet to see any champion among them.

To conclude I invite you read an article by Michael McEwen. It’s in February’s Broadcast Dialogue and its titled In Search of the Holy Grail. In it McEwen talks of the sad state of of Canada’s conversion to free over-the-air HDTV and the lack of its focus on Canadian consumers. While the article speaks of a lack of Government leadership and on some aspects of Canadian Content, I can’t help but think it’s also missing the points I outlined in this post. That being the strength of free over-the-air HDTV coupled with the strength of Internet delivery, over that of subscription services touted by Canadian “big media”, is the cornerstone  for future media delivery.

Whatever you believe I feel McEwan is correct about one thing. The consumer is missing in whatever little debate is going on in Canada on this crucial subject. Given that the future of our television system appears to be driven by the Marketplace –a big point in McEwan’s article– I guess in the end we’ll have to vote with our wallets… And we’ll probably have to vote against this through the various BDU’s by simply saying no to their subscription plans. Isn’t that a great way to define Canadian social policy…..

….brad….

Rogers Cable – Beware of the Killer Rabbit (Ears) For Free Over-the-air Digital HDTV

Jeffrey Breen Yankee Group

Jeffrey Breen Yankee Group

Jeffrey Breen who oversees the development and operation of the Yankee Group’s client–facing systems and its internal infrastructure and support systems makes a couple of interesting observations about over-the-air ATSC television in a blog post titled Cable and Satellite Providers: Beware the Killer Rabbit (Ears) .

He talks of how he was pleasantly surprised when he hooked up a Zenith DTT901 digital converter box to his mothers older NTSC LCD TV set. It was not only the quality of the reception from the Boston area TV stations that caught his attention but the additional sub channels that the broadcasters  are able to broadcast using their single ATSC channel frequency.

Free Over The Air TV Is Worth Considering

He noted that the $50 to $70 set-top box provided digital-perfect reception of Boston’s network affiliates and more with several additional sub-channels to boot. The box provided automatic scaling, zooming, and cropping of HD and SD programming and it even included an on-screen program guide.

One thing Breen noted was “With DTV so easily available, of such high quality, and with such advanced features — for free — why would anyone in the city or suburbs ever pay a $9 or $10 monthly fee for a barebones “local TV” package again?”

Time To Reconsider Free TV

Time To Dust Off Those Old Misconceptions Around Free TV

Great question Jeff. I wish we had basic cable packages in Toronto at that price. I just checked Rogers Cable TV pricing in Toronto –note Rogers has the cable monopoly for the City–and it’s advertising its cable TV rates as low as: $32.97 /mo. That’s quite the difference. Jeff would also be interested to know that I just got a letter from Rogers noting that there will be (yet) another rate increase in the next few months. My initial calculation is that my cable will rise at least $3 per month from $61 to $64.  Yikes….

The solution that Jeffery Breen writes about is certainly worth considering. Especialy here in the Toronto area where we have the benefit of both the Canadian and American free over-the-air broadcasters. For Canadians interested in making the switch (or switching back) a good place to start is the Canadian Over-the-Air (OTA) Television Forums.

….brad….