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Blast From the Past: Using an Antenna to Grab Free TV

Bombarded by ads for cable and satellite TV packages, or seductive programmingbundles offered by Internet service providers and phone companies, it may be easy toforget that it’s possible to pick up much of that programming via a sub-hundred dollarindoor antenna reminiscent of the rabbit-ear days.

If you live in a town, conurbation, or a rural area in the U.S. that’s relatively flat, you may be ableto receive full-resolution, high definition (HD) antenna-based live programming withan indoor antenna and not bother about subscription-based sources. The uncompressedquality can be better than capacity-restricted, pipe-based offerings.

Classic broadcast networks like ABC, CBS and NBC can still be plucked out of the air,as can local independents. You can also access newer networks like the CBS and Warner owned CW, and Fox; Spanish language broadcast networks like Telemundo; educational programming onPBS; and religious broadcasting.

Considerations as to whether you can receive signals include those related to topographyand distance from the transmitting mast. Distance, which affects signal strength;reflecting structures and obstructions define the type of antenna that you need.

Gathering Data

Visit the AntennaWeb website. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) run an outdoor antenna selection website.

Although the website is designed for outdoor antenna selection, you can use the data todetermine whether you can likely use an indoor antenna or not.

The website results include mileage to broadcast mast and let you determine the channels that you can conceivably receive.

Step 1

Enter your U.S. ZIP code, street address and whether the antenna height will be more than 30 feet above ground level in the website wizard. Reckon each floor on an average house is8 feet high when answering this question.

Press the “Submit” button and the results page will display broadcast stations that youcan get, as well as outdoor antenna types using a color-code system.

Addresses where terrain and distances to the broadcast masts mean signals areunavailable will be indicated as such. In that case, you’ll need to retain cable, satellite orInternet-based solutions.

Step 2

Look for the yellow color-coded outdoor antenna types in the chart and cross-referencewith listed stations. The yellow color code indicates you can use small outdoor multidirectional antennas, and it’s a good bet that you will likely be able to use an indoorantenna too.

Green, light green, red and blue color codes are progressively trickier, and are less likelyto work with an indoor antenna.

Step 3

Check the distance-to-mast mileage displayed on the results. Here’s a rule of thumb, courtesy of Russ, from his useful HDTVTunerInfo website: If your television iswithin 20 miles from the broadcast masts, you should be able to use an indoor antenna.

In my case, I’m 17 miles from the masts on Mount Wilson near Los Angeles, and I use anindoor antenna successfully to receive programming. My previous home was 32 miles, ina canyon, and I couldn’t pick up any broadcast television signals.

Expect similar results.

Step 4

The Antenna

Try rabbit ears first if you have them lying around. If you’re close by the masts — withina few miles — you can try rabbit ears, or anything else that fits the coaxial cable. Resultswill be different for AntennaWeb-listed VHF and UHF stations.

Purchase an antenna if your results from the previous paragraph are unacceptable.

Remember that the idea is to drop cable or satellite and realize considerable cost savings,so it doesn’t really matter what you spend on the antenna. You will make the money backin the first month if your experiment is successful.

Look for adjectives on the packaging like “long range,” where more miles listed arebetter; and “dBi gain,” where higher numbers are better. This is important the further youare from the masts.

Step 5

Test Your Install

Plug the antenna into the antenna port on the television and test by setting any “Channel,”or similarly labeled television option to “Air” rather than “Cable,” and scanning forchannels by choosing “Auto Scan” on the television, or similar.

Retain the packaging and receipt, and keep upgrading if results are poor.

Tip: Rescan every time you make a change, like antenna position. Both directional, and omnidirectional antennas are affected by position, so do make multiple changes and test.

A Few Caveats

Eyeball any possible line-of-sight obstructions. A hill between your television installlocation and the masts will reduce range, as will a large building plonked in the path.

Interference can be prevalent with certain construction materials — concrete structures are full ofrebar, an internal metal grid-like structure that can affect radio waves.

Glass is less of an obstruction than walls like brick or framed timber. So, locatethe antenna on the broadcast side of the house next to a window. The maps fromAntennaWeb will graphically show you where the broadcast towers are in relation toyour home.

Signal loss can occur with cable lengths and splitters. Move the television close to thewindow and antenna instead.

Try both amplified and non-amplified antenna settings if the antenna has amplificationoptions.

Reflections can sometimes work in your favor. Signals can bounce off hillsides andbuildings, so it’s worth moving the antenna around while testing. You may pick up areflected signal.

Want to Ask a Tech Question?

Is there a piece of tech you’d like to know how to operate properly? Is there a gadget that’s got you confounded? Please send your tech questions to me, and I’ll try to answer as many as possible in this column.

And use the Talkback feature below to add your comments!

Patrick Nelson has been a professional writer since 1992. He was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson studied design at Hornsey Art School and wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism. His introduction to technology was as a nomadic talent scout in the eighties, where regular scrabbling around under hotel room beds was necessary to connect modems with alligator clips to hotel telephone wiring to get a fax out. He tasted down and dirty technology, and never looked back.

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