How to Get Started with a TV Antenna
A good cord cutting house wouldn’t be complete without the ultimate in cord cutting: an antenna. Before internet killed the video star and before cable was ubiquitous, the antenna was the original way to get television in your home, and today its popularity is rising again.
If you’re old enough to remember what antenna life was like before HDTV, if you received the channel, it would come in clear and you’d have no issues. However, if a channel didn’t come in clear enough, you’d still be able to see the channel, it just would have some static on the picture and would get a little fuzzy.
The good news is today with a clear signal, channels over-the-air are in high definition so they will look just as good as cable, and often times better since you are getting the signal directly from the source. Unfortunately, if the channel doesn’t come in clear enough, if you’re lucky you’ll get what looks like stuttering and audio cut outs, and at worse you’ll get nothing at all. Today’s broadcasting technology is called ATSC 1.0, and is a little finicky unless you are close enough to the broadcast transmitters. More than your home being in a good location, you have to think about what antenna you are purchasing and where it will be placed. Here are some tips and pointers to get started with an antenna.
1. Find Your Local Broadcast Towers
Starting out, it is important to have an idea of what channels you should be receiving. Websites like AntennasDirect, AntennaWeb, and FCC.gov can give you an idea of what channels should come in easily, and which ones you may have a difficult time with. Plus, it shows you where the broadcast towers are located, which will come in handy when placing your antenna.
There are also plenty of apps on iOS and Android that can point you in the direction of the broadcast towers in real time to help you position the antenna optimally.
2. Find the Right Antenna
Not all antennas will work for every scenario. In my area, I can get away with a cheap $10 set of rabbit ears from Target and I can receive over 30 channels pretty easily. But I’m also using a set a rabbit ears because I’ve found that the uglier the antenna, the easier you’ll be able to get a signal.
If you live far enough away from the broadcast transmitters, you will want to look into a more expensive antenna. But even if you do live close enough to the broadcast towers and you don’t mind spending a lot on an antenna, no one will fault you if you go overkill with an antenna. You may need to try different styles of antenna to find the right one, so try to buy one from a place with a good return policy.
Just as important as finding the right antenna is…
3. Find the Right Location for your Antenna and Auto Scan for Channels Until You Find the Right Place
It’s rare that when you first set up your antenna that you’ll right the exact spot it needs to be. You will need to move the antenna around and rescan for channels until you find the spot it needs to be. You’ll probably find that one spot has a few channels, then when you move the antenna, you’ll lose those channels but gain others. Patience is key here. Whenever anyone would talk to me about getting an antenna, I couldn’t stress enough how important it is to move the antenna in multiple places until you find the sweet spot. It’s also best to place the antenna at the highest point you can. Whether that’s a roof, an attic, a second-floor room, or at worst the highest spot on the first floor. Much like WiFi, TV airwaves don’t travel well at a low point.
4. Figure Out a Way to Watch
You may only have one TV and your antenna works fine where that TV is, and everything works just fine. Or, you may find that you need to raise your antenna higher or a different room altogether. The good news is there are a few options.
If you are savvy with wiring, you can hook your antenna up on your roof or in your attic and send that cable wire down to your cable splitter, where that signal goes to all the TVs in your house connected to that wall coaxial cable.
If that isn’t possible in your scenario, or you want a smarter way to watch, you can place your antenna wherever it works best and use a smart TV tuner. A smart TV tuner takes the signal from the antenna, and turns those channels into something a smart device can stream. Plus, it gives you a program guide, and many can be setup for DVR use. Click the link here to see a list of my favorites to help.
5. Enjoy and Stay Alert
Once you’ve done all that, you can now enjoy free TV! But understand that free TV may require some troubleshooting on your end.
You may have heard that some local stations are involved in a “Broadcast Spectrum Repack,” or simply you may have heard them ask you to rescan your channels. That’s because with digital TV, a station can look like it is broadcasting on a particular channel, but it’s actual number on a completely different channel. Take for example WCBS-TV in New York. On TV, the channel you see called the virtual number is 2, but the actual digital number it is broadcasting on is 36. Occasionally, the FCC requires TV stations move to a different digital number to provide more bandwidth for other wireless needs. So, although channel 2 doesn’t change, the digital number it transmits at does. Meaning the digital channel your TV is looking for no longer exists. Fortunately, with an auto scan on either your TV or smart TV tuner device, it will find it right away. On some TVs, you can enter the digital channel, and it will be able to find the channel and display the virtual number. Completely confused? Don’t worry, this doesn’t happen all that often, so just be aware if you can’t get a channel that normally came in with no fuss now suddenly won’t tune at all, try an auto scan.
Also, if you are using a smart TV tuner, you just have to make sure that is staying updated so it will continue to work on all your devices. However, that is something that is done automatically, so not too much work there to do.
A Long-Term Thing to Look Out For
While not important right now, one thing to note is called ATSC 3.0. If you remember above, I specifically pointed out the current technology for transmitting television is ATSC 1.0. It replaced analog NTSC in 2009 and introduced HDTV over-the-air. Unfortunately, ATSC 1.0 is very finicky when it comes to getting a signal, plus it can only hold so much information and has no capabilities for interactivity.
Luckily in the next few years we will see the introduction of ATSC 3.0 to many areas in the United States (don’t ask me why they skipped 2.0). ATSC 3.0 will be much more forgiving when getting a signal, meaning we may see the return of portable televisions again. Plus, it will have the ability to connect to the internet to deliver interactive content, similar to video-on-demand from cable TV. It also will allow for 4K content to be delivered over-the-air, and other great features. Unfortunately, it also means that any current ATSC 1.0 TV or smart TV tuner will be completely incompatible, so you will need to either get a new TV or new smart TV tuner that supports ATSC 3.0.
At this moment in time, ATSC 3.0 is only available in few cities, and those cities are still broadcasting an ASTC 1.0 signal, so don’t worry too much. ATSC 3.0 is still years and years away so don’t go too crazy upgrading any equipment just yet.
Other than that, once you pay for the antenna and equipment, you’re watching television for free! Enjoy the freedom that is over-the-air television.