Over the Air HDTV – The Free Alternative
Frustrated with high cost, low quality HDTV? Here's how a simple antenna can lead you to the land of free HD.
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May 09, 2008 by Ben Hardy

Do Your Research
Before purchasing an antenna (or even deciding to switch to OTA service) the consumer should do some research on what content can be received. This is going to vary widely, depending on one’s location. The distance to any given tower, as well as the terrain between the tower and the receiver, will impact one’s ability to receive OTA HD. Fortunately, the National Association of Broadcasters and the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)have teamed up to bring us AntennaWeb.org, an extremely helpful resource that informs consumers of local broadcasters. Simply type in one’s address to generate a map which details one’s orientation in relation to nearby broadcasters, as well as the distance to their towers. This helps determine which, if any, stations are likely to come in, as well as the direction the antenna should be facing when installed. Inputting an address will also generate a list of nearby stations, their call-sign, channel, and network affiliate, as well as compass heading and whether they transmit in UHF or VHF. The list of channels accessible is also color-coded: they yellow channels at the top will have the strongest signal relative to your location, and the blue and violet channels at the bottom of the list have the weakest. 

Once a list of available stations has been generated, the consumer can decide which channels he/she wants to receive. The AntennaWeb list designates stations that currently broadcast in digital, and it also indicates which frequency a station will broadcast on after the February, 2009 switch from analog to digital. This is a vital piece of information. Some stations currently broadcast their digital content (including HD) on a UHF channel, but will be switching to VHF after the transition. This will be a determining factor when it comes to choosing an antenna (see below).

Selecting an Antenna
Rule #1 for selecting an antenna: There is no such thing as an “HDTV Antenna.” This is a marketing ploy used by some distributors and manufacturers to fool consumers. So-called “HDTV Antennas” are often designed for indoor use and look very sleek, futuristic, and compact. To receive OTA HDTV, the consumer needs, 1) an HDTV with a built-in tuner (or a set-top box tuner), 2) cable to connect the antenna to the HDTV (most distributers recommend solid copper R6 quad shield coax, and 3) an antenna properly color-coded to receive in-range stations broadcasting in digital. Regarding this last, the general rule is to purchase a combination VHF/UHF antenna. It does not have to be an “HDTV Antenna” or a “Digital Antenna.” Remember: these are marketing terms used to confuse the consumer. In most cases, a combination antenna will bring the best chance of receiving all available digital channels (and their accompanying HD content), particularly once the February, 2009 transition is complete. 

When shopping for an antenna, look for the CEA-certified color-coding mark on the packaging. Match the color-coded label for an antenna with the colored list of accessible channels generated by the AntenaWeb.org list. Again, this will vary for everyone. “There is no one solution,” says Ingram. “As a general rule, the larger the antenna, the better the performance,” says Denny Duplessis, co-founder of Denny’s Antenna Service in Ithaca, Michigan. Unfortunately, those larger antennas are also commonly considered “ugly,” and consumers might shy away from then for aesthetic reasons. Still, Duplessis insists that more compact and attractive antennas can still be found that will adequately perform. “Winegard makes a combination antenna that is narrower and specifically made for high band VHF channels and UHF channels,” says Duplessis. Most markets across the country will have at least one high band VHF channel (7-12), while very few will use the low band VHF channels (2-6). 

When using AntennaWeb.org to determine which antenna to buy, Duplessis advises going with an antenna that’s slightly bigger than you might think you need: “Even if you think a mid-size antenna might do it, it’s worth spending the extra $15 on a bigger antenna, especially if you want to consistently receive channels.” Consumers should note that AntennaWeb.org tends to be conservative when generating a list of available or accessible channels. “They don’t want to tell you that you are going to get channels that you aren’t going to get,” says Duplessis. The result is usually a pleasant surprise: consumers might end up getting additional channels that they didn’t expect to receive, rather than the converse. 

Currently AntennaWeb.org only uses its color-coding system for outdoor antenna recommendation and certification. Additional equipment (like a preamplifier for signal boosting or a rotor for adjusting antenna direction) may be necessary, depending on one’s distance to broadcasting towers and the orientation of those towers. Consumers who are not comfortable installing an outdoor antenna should seek the help of a professional installer. “Contrary to public belief, falling is not the #1 cause of injury in rooftop accidents,” says Duplessis. “It’s the overhead powerlines.” If an individual is inclined to install an antenna, location and awareness of powerlines is the most important safety precaution.

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Ben Hardy - Contributing Writer
Between watching re-runs of the The Jetsons and convincing his Insteon and Z-Wave controls to get along, Ben Hardy is immersed in the world of home automation, home control, and home networking.

Antenna Color Chart

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