Over The Air Antenna

My family is planning to “cut the cord” meaning ditch cable television.
The cost of what is involved while still maintaining televised entertainment I believe would be recouped within six months. Target date is some time between January and March, inclusive.

There likely be some speiling errurs and be some grammar misteaks in this plan.

The acronym OTA means Over The Air (Broadcast Television).

The acronym WiFi references the home wireless network.

The acronym DVR is for Digital Recording Device.

Comments from outside family welcome if you have experience.

Current cable bill including 3 cable tuners, one of which has a DVR, is $200+ a month. 6 people in house spread across four bedrooms, plus a sewing room and living room.

Using a cheap indoor antenna ($25 at Home Depot) that I bought years ago to use in Redding, there I only received couple channels but here in Brentwood I get many more, and I actually like the guide that my TV has built-in for antenna television far more than the crappy cable guide.

I think the guide is a service provided by Sony using the Internet rather than provided over the air but I am not certain. Anyway it is much friendlier than the Cable TV guide.

Images of that guide:

Screen shot of OTA guide

Screen shot of BSG season

The guide is interactive meaning I can navigate it with my remote, and it does not waste space on commercials I do not wish to see.

Anyway, with respect to the channels I am able to receive with the cheap antenna, these five are likely to be the highest priority to us:

Station Network Channel distance Angle East of North
KCRA 3 (NBC) 03.1 ~24 mi  29°
KXTV 10 (ABC) 10.1 ~22 mi  30°
KOVR-DT (CBS) 13.1 ~22 mi  30°
KTXL 40 (Fox) 40.1 ~24 mi  27°
Comet 31.3 ~22 mi  30°

The last (my favorite, has sci-fi shows like Quantum Leap, BSG, etc.) is a bit problematic, sometimes it pixelates and sometimes does not tune. That would not happen with an outdoor antenna.

The antenna gets many other channels as well, mostly things like 80s reruns (e.g. Family Ties) but some other stuff too. With an outdoor antenna, additional channels would also be available.

All those channels broadcast UHF. Notable missing is a PBS network. There is one in the cluster of those transmitters, but it broadcasts VHF and my cheap antenna does not seem to get any VHF stations.

Football

Football is very important to Ricky.

With my cheap antenna, for NFL Week 1 I was able to get the Thursday Night Game, all of the Sunday games (Seahawks and Raiders games in the morning, 49ers in Afternoon, and Sunday Night Football).

I was not able to get the Monday Night games over broadcast as those are ESPN which does not broadcast, but there is a solution to that when we cut the cable.

Even with my cheap antenna the football games came in clear without pixelation or loss of tuning, and the picture quality was actually better than the same channels via Cable. I switched between Cable and Antenna several times to test.

There were a few cases of minor pixelation but when I switched to the cable channel, which lagged broadcast by few seconds, identical pixelation was there so that was pixelation at the source.

Transmitter Map

Initially I used the website https://www.antennasdirect.com/transmitter-locator.html to find transmitter locations and station information by zip code.

I then installed their application for Android to get a more precise view based upon my geolocation.

Using the Antenna Point App from Antennas Direct:

Antenna Point App
Antenna Point App Display
Antenna Point App rotated so north is at top
Antenna Point App Rotated Display

The arrow points to the cluster that I am able to receive with my cheap antenna, all within a 25 mile radius.

Their app for transmitters does not take geography into consideration. Even with a better antenna, I doubt San Francisco stations would be available because we are low elevation, near sea level, and Mount Diablo and its foothills are between us and San Francisco.

elevation map of Bay Area

I also have doubts about the transmitters near San Jose and on the other side of the San Pablo Bay. However the two transmitter locations near Sacramento beyond the cluster I have the arrow pointing to are certainly possible with a better antenna, especially if outdoor on the roof.

However those are the ~15° stations and do not really look that interesting. The ~76° stations also do not look interesting.

So my analysis is based upon the Bay Area geography and our low elevation within that geography, the stations around ~28.5° East of North and within 25 miles are the stations we should focus on. This simplifies things because there is no need for a motorized rotating antenna base, or an antenna that is optimized for two directions. We can get one that is optimized for one direction and set it to ~28.5° East of North and not have to ever rotate it.

Also, since all the transmitters of interest are within 25 miles, installation of the antenna inside the attic is a possibility although it apparently depends upon the roof material.

If the roof has a radiant barrier, often installed to improve HVAC efficiency (a good thing but expensive to add and requires excellent ventilation as it causes mold otherwise), attic antennas will not work as the radiant barrier blocks signal. When a radiant barrier is not installed in the attic, attic antenna installs usually works quite well.

With those transmitters so close, a signal preamplifier is likely not needed and would potentially degrade the quality by making the signal too strong.

The advantage of installation within the attic is we do not have to worry about grounding the antenna mast or the coax and it is a shorter run of coax from antenna to tuners. The advantage to a roof-top installation is the range is farther. At this time, that does not seem to be a benefit to us as all the main networks plus other stuff is within 25 miles, but a roof top may be needed if our roof interferes with reception in the attic.

Antenna Type

Some Antennas are UHF only and others are UHV+VHF. For us, the benefit of the latter is we would get the following additional stations:

Station Network Channel distance Angle East of North
KVIE-HD 9 (PBS) 06.1 ~24 mi  27°
KVIE-2 (PBS Encore) 06.2 ~24 mi  27°
KVIEWILD (World) 06.3 ~24 mi  27°

That’s the biggest benefit of an antenna that can do both.

Antenna I like that can do both: ClearStream 2MAX UHF/VHF Indoor/Outdoor HDTV Antenna ($100).

Antenna I like that is UHF Only: DB4e 4-Element Bowtie Attic/Outdoor HDTV Antenna ($60). About $40 less but does not come with a mast.

Both work either outdoor or in an attic.

Amplified Distributor

In either case, an amplified distributor will be needed. With digital television, non-amplified cable splitters are often problematic. The signal strength is reduced with each split. If a splitter is used, signal really degrades if it is not amplified. The amplification is best close to the source (the antenna) rather than further down as there is loss of strength for each foot of coax.

This 4 output amplified distributor is the one I think we need: 4 Output TV / CATV Distribution Amplifier ($50).

4 output amplified distributor
Image from Antennas Direct

There also is an 8 output model for only $10 more but my understanding is that it should not be used unless you actually are going to use at least 5 outputs.

With four outputs from the amplified distributor:

  1. OTA over WiFi DVR
  2. My office/bedroom
  3. Potentially Master Bedroom (if desired)
  4. Potentially Living Room (if desired)

With the OTA over WiFi DVR (discussed below) up to six televisions can watch broadcast channels at same time, so they do not all need coax. The OTA over WiFi only supports four channels at a time (it only has four tuners), so the reason for running coax to some TVs is those TVs only need to use one of the four OTA over WiFi tuners when the DVR features are needed.

A line will have to be run to my office/room anyway for the OTA over WiFi DVR, makes sense to run two so that TV in there doesn’t need to use the OTA over WiFi DVR when DVR features are not needed (most of the time). Two lines to that room also allows a second OTA over WiFi DVR in the highly unlikely but possible event that more than four tuners are needed for the family OTA over WiFi needs.

A third coax could potentially be run to the Master Bedroom, coming out where the TV wall mount is and a fourth could be run to the living room TV. At the same time we can potentially move that outlet higher so that there are no visible wires around the television, the power and cable both coming out of the wall by the wall mount and visibly obscured by the TV.

Due to coax distances involved Caleb and Jon’s room, the Sewing Room, and Ricky’s room are probably best served using the OTA DVR WiFi even when not using DVR capabilities, so the 4 output amplified distributor is a better choice than the 8 output amplified distributor. If those rooms are to be served by an antenna coax, due to the distances involved it likely would be best to install a second antenna in the attack physically closer to that wing of the home rather than an 8 output splitter and 3 very long coax runs. I do not however think that will be necessary.

Note that running coax to the Living Room does not have to be done immediately, that can be done when that entertainment center is remodeled.

Terminating caps for any unused outputs are needed. Those are pocket-change cheap.

Attic Experiment

As the attic entrance is near my office/room, we can easily determine if the attic is an appropriate install location. If we get the $100 ‘ClearStream 2MAX UHF/VHF Indoor/Outdoor HDTV Antenna’ we can (without the amplified distributor) set it up in the attic, run some coax out the attic door and into my bedroom to my TV and test the reception. If all the stations including PBS and Comet work between the hours of 8 P.M. and Midnight without heavy pixelation or loss of tuning (those are the hours Comet reception is the worst) then a roof install is not needed.

We can then disconnect it until such time as we are ready to hire contractor to run the installed coax but know that a roof installation is not needed.

With an Attic antenna install, the only thing a contractor would need to do is run the coax. Installing the antenna in the attic I can do as ladder work or electrical grounding is needed.

Cost

The better Antenna that does both UHF+VHF and the amplified distributor comes to $150. The cost of coax will likely be under $50 but we can call it $50. That brings the parts to roughly $200.

I do not yet have much of a clue about how much it will cost an installer but I have heard for an attic install that essentially only involves running coax it typically is under $300. If the Attic Experiment fails indicating our type of roof is a barrier to attic antennas, then the cost of install will be higher because it will not only involving a proper mast (the mast that comes with the ClearStream 2MAX is not appropriate for our roof) but grounding for the mast and the coax (they both need to be grounded for roof install) and the complexity of the install is increased but it is highly doubtful it would exceed $500.

So Attic Install, including the parts, will likely be under $500 and a roof install, if necessary, likely under $800.

When the A/C is installed I’ll take a look in the attic to make sure an Attic install is practical but if memory serves me, there is plenty of room for an Attic install that will not interfere with maintenance of the A/C blower etc. up there and I believe there are outlets that would make powering the distribution amplifier easy.

OTA over WiFi DVR

An OTA over WiFi DVR does three things:

  1. Allows televisions not directly connected to the antenna to view the stations the antenna receives.
  2. Allows recording of shows on channels the antenna receives.
  3. Allows pausing of tv shows the antenna receives.

The device has a coax jack (antenna input), Ethernet jack (to connect to home network), and a power jack. They typically do not have WiFi themselves so they need to be located near the home router so an Ethernet cable can be run to the home router for WiFi devices to connect to them.

Typically have either two or four OTA TV tuners in them. The two tuner models are cheaper but are only intended for people who are single and at most want to record one channel while watching another.

The best model for us would be a four tuner model. That allows up to four different channels to be watched or recorded at the same time.

There are three brands that are commonly used:

  1. TiVO
  2. HDHomeRun
  3. Tablo

TiVO sits between a coax and a TV and uses a remote to set what is recorded. It does not look like it is designed for what we want, which is ability to easily use WiFi to watch live on a TV without coax from an antenna.

HDHomeRun looks like it only broadcasts in MPEG-2 which is very wasteful of bandwidth and could have streaming issues to the far rooms from the wireless router. The only advantage I saw to HDHomeRun is that changing channels is a tad faster because it does not have to compress the stream on the fly.

Tablo compresses the video requiring much less bandwidth. Users who have tried both tend to prefer it, having less problems with devices located farther away from the wireless router.

A Tablo either comes in a less expensive model without a hard drive or a more expensive model with a hard drive. The less expensive model in intended for people who want to add their own hard drive, but if you don’t already have a suitable hard drive, the more expensive model is cheaper than buying the less expensive plus a hard drive. Another reason for buying the model without a hard drive is if you want to install a very large hard drive in it for a LOT of DVR recording.

The model I recommend: Tablo Quad 1TB OTA DVR ($240). The 1TB drive allows up to 700 hours of recorded broadcast television. That 700 hour estimate I believe assumes 720i resolution, using the better 1080i resolution would reduce the number of hours but is still quite a bit. An external hard drive can be added (or files deleted) if 1TB is not enough.

In addition to the DVR device, client devices that connect to it are needed. They have a free app for Android and iOS and some smart televisions. The TV in Caleb and Jon’s room will “just work” and the TV in the master bedroom will as well. The TV in the living room and my office/room will need a Roku to use it, as will the one in the sewing room. At this time I do not see myself using it as I do not need the DVR features and would have a direct connection to the antenna via coax anyway.

Roku devices that I know support the Tablo client start at $30.00 each, the Roku Express. The more expensive models support 4k video which is not needed, it takes a very very large television before 4k makes sense and OTA here only broadcasts in 720p or 1080i. 4k video OTA is an entirely different can of worms and will not be a factor for many years. However they do have a more expensive model that in addition to 4k also has better WiFi and that may actually be of benefit.

Assuming Ricky gets a TV that does NOT support Tablo natively, and excluding my TV, the total cost for every TV without native Tablo support to have a Roku added would be $90.00. However initially two would be fine, one for the living room and one for the sewing room, for an initial cost of $60.00. A third could be purchased if Ricky gets a television and that television does not support Tablo natively.

The images of the beautiful guide at the top? That feature gets lost with a OTA over WiFi DVR. You can change channels but you can not see what is on each channel without a paid service from Tablo.

With Tablo, that service is $5.00 a month or $50 a year or $150 for lifetime of the device. I recommend the $50 a year. The lifetime payment only saves if we decide not to upgrade the device to something else for 3 years and that is a rather big commitment.

I recommend we get the $50 a year service plan but will call it a $5.00 a month service cost for analysis.

Non Broadcast Television

Stuff like CNN, ESPN, etc. are not available over broadcast and are watched in this house quite a bit.

Hulu has a $13 a month plan that includes the standard Hulu, Disney Plus, and ESPN but it does not include CNN and it only allows two device to connect at a time.

Hulu Live that does include CNN is $55.00 a month but also seems to only allow two devices to connect at a time. Also, a lot of of what Live offers will duplicated by the antenna already.

Another streaming service is Sling.

Sling has three base service plans which they call: Blue, Orange, and Blue + Orange.

Blue allows 3 devices to connect at a time and has the most channels but it does not include the ESPN channels Ricky would want for Monday Night Football.

Orange allows 1 device to connect at a time, it has fewer channels and most of the channels it does have are also part of Blue but a couple are not, including ESPN and Disney.

Blue + Orange is both packages. For channels in both packages, four devices can watch at same time. For channels only in Blue, three devices can watch at same time. For channels only in Orange, only one device can watch.

So for example, if Ricky was watching ESPN then John could not watch Disney at same time because both are Sling Orange but John could watch Nick Jr. because that is Sling Blue.

It’s rather confusing, I wish they had an easier bundle for families.

Blue + Orange is $45.00 a month. That is a better price than Hulu Live, four devices can connect as long as one and only one is using Orange, and it is a better match for those with decent broadcast channels to provide stuff like ABC, CBS, and NBC already.

Another option is to just get Blue at $30.00 a month except during football season, adding Orange during football season just for the ESPN.

To see the channels we would get with Orange + Blue: Sling Services.

Sling also has a cloud DVR service that costs an extra $5.00 a month, but again it is confusing. The cloud DVR is either for Blue or Orange or you pay $10.00 to get both. It is probably worth getting it for Blue because Orange only has few channels not in Blue, and the OTA over WiFi DVR can only be used for OTA television. So Blue + Orange + Blue Cloud DVR would result in a sling monthly bill of $50.00 a month.

For televisions that do not have a Sling app, the Roku units we will already need for the OTA over WiFi does support Sling so that is not an issue.

Usage Projections

I would most likely just use the antenna coax and the Netflix I already have, I probably would not need a Roku and would not use any of the four tuners in the OTA over WiFi DVR or connect to Sling.

I would miss the 24 hour news stations but I may be able to find a cheap streaming service just for 24 hour news. If one does not exist now, one will in the future.

Caleb and Job would mostly likely primarily use the Netflix they have and sometimes connect to Sling although they might like some of the free comedy related channels that they could get with the OTA over WiFi.

Living room would likely often use the Netflix it already has, coax antenna if installed, OTA over WiFi if it does not get coax, and sometimes one of the sling connections.

Sewing room when used and master bedroom probably would largely be OTA over WiFi and one of the Sling connections.

Final Cost Analysis

Monthly services for Sling and the Tablo guide service comes to $55.00 a month. So by canceling cable, that saves $145 a month which is $1,740 a year.

Assuming an Attic install of the antenna and high estimate of $300 for running the coax, the cost of antenna hardware plus install is $500. That leaves a $1,240 savings first year.

For the Tablo OTA over WiFi DVR plus 2 Roku devices, that comes to $300 leaving $940 savings in first year.

Even in the event that a more expensive roof antenna install is needed, it will not raise the cost by even close to that much.

In second year, well, the hardware is already paid for so its $1,740 a year savings after the first year, less the occasional replacement of a Roku or the DVR if they fail, or Roku remotes if they get lost or damaged (under $10, might want a spare or two).

How To Proceed (timeline)

I recommend buying the Antenna in October so that on a cooler day, we can do the test to see if an attic install will work. All we need for that test is the Antenna and some coax, and that will tell us whether or not the less expensive attic install will work.

The antenna is not the type of part that will go bad if it sits unused until we can get the other things needed to cut cable.

The coax install, assuming that the attic test passes (and I suspect it will), can then be done in November or December.

In January or February we can get the OTA over WiFi DVR and the two Roku devices. That is the expensive part as the OTA over WiFi DVR is $240, and then the following month we can be free of the cable bill.

I would recommend waiting with the Sling TV subscription until the cable equipment is returned. There is no point in paying for the Sling subscription while also paying for the Cable.