OTA HDTV Reception Q&A

Updates on the DTV transition and how to receive over-the-air digital television for free.

Location: Richmond, IL, United States

Hello there! I created this blog to share the information about over-the-air HDTV reception you have been wearily searching the Web or calling technical lines for, whether you have decided for less expensive means to get your favorite TV shows, or still adjusting from the over the air broadcast DTV transition that occurred on June 12, 2009. After working for a leading antenna manufacturer for almost 5 years, during which time I've shared my expertise with those who asked on the phone and by email at work, I decided to do the same in the Blogosphere! Confused about getting your local HD channels? Just click through the archives, some of the most useful information is in the early posts from 2005-06. If you want to get in touch with me with antenna related questions, just leave a comment anywhere on this site.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


You certainly can, and I'm going to let you know how to set up such a network not by running Ethernet cable, but rather using your existing coax cable! I'll give you the details a bit later, but first I'd like to tell you how you can watch DTV using a home PC network as well as a review on an on-demand video service using the Internet instead of cable TV or satellite called Akimbo.

In my last blog I told you about my Media Center PC that I have been using to watch and record off-air HDTV. This PC uses Microsoft Media Center software. The Microsoft Media Center platform not only allows you to add PC capability to your den home theater system as well as showing and making home videos and pictures to share, but it also allows you to "extend" the media to other rooms in a house using a home Ethernet or wireless network and special compatible devices called Media Center Extenders. These extenders access the main Media Center PC and allows people in other rooms to access digital media files, like pictures, music, video, and online games, stored on the PC, but without needing an entirely new PC or hard drive. A user in a room can use a Media Center Extender, connect it to a TV monitor, stereo, or digital recorder (like maybe a Pocketdish), connect it to the home network, configure the software, and access what is available on the Media Center program on the main PC. Media Center Extenders are standard on Microsoft's just released Xbox 360 video game system, which Microsoft probably hopes will give their system a competitive edge over the Sony Playstation. This allows an Xbox 360 gamer to compete with other players online; look for the TV ad for the Xbox 360 featuring the world's largest water balloon fight.

Now with Media Center PCs and extenders, it would appear possible to at least convert recorded DTV be it off air or through a connection to a digital cable satellite box into accessible "My Videos" that can be watched in other rooms using extenders instead of separate digital cable boxes or satellite boxes. However, I am a little unclear on to what extent you can actually watch such DTV. For example, Media Center gives a user the capability to start recording a show and watch it from the beginning on a delayed basis while the program is still recording on the main PC. I am not so certain if this can be done through a Media Center extender. or for that matter, if you can view, access, or program to record a show via a Media Center Extender from another room instead of from the main PC. I am also uncertain about using extenders to run "Other Programs" that are accessible in Media Center on the PC. For example, my HP Media Center PC has a special ITunes program where you can play Apple ITunes and create playlists in Media Center instead of the actual Apple iTunes program. But I am not sure if this program would be accessible via an extender. By the way, HP is the currently only PC manufacturer that has an iTunes program for Media Center thanks to HP's partnership with Apple iTunes. I don't know, however, if HP has modified, or planning to modify, its Media Center iTunes application to view videos available on iTunes -- if it could, then a user could view Quicktime videos using HP's iTunes program for Media Center. Unfortunately Media Center is restricted to playing only Windows Media video and audio files, and not Quicktime video; the Windows Media standards and the MPEG-4 standard used by Apple are literally competing standards with each other, hence the restrictions. Since I don't plan to buy a Media Center Extender until I buy a house and setup a home network, I can't try this myself, so you will have to try it yourself or research Microsoft.com or other blogs to see what actually can be done.

Another "Other Program" that is available online through Microsoft Media Center is an Internet video-on-demand service I am currently trying called Akimbo. Akimbo last month released a special program allowing a subscriber to access the service through Microsoft Media Center. Before then, the only other way to access the Akimbo service was with a $200 set-top-box hardware unit that would be connected to a wired or wireless home PC network to access the service and download programming using a broadband Internet connection. You can get information on this service at http://www.akimbo.com/. Akimbo offers for $9.95 per month access to a wide variety of programs to download for different lifestyles, from amateur video blogs and podcasts to popular programs from cable channels. In the past week on a free 1-month trial I am currently using, I have downloaded and viewed a couple podcasts as well as movie trailers, a BBC comedy show, an hour-long interview with jazz singer Jane Monheit, and a commercial-free episode of the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters", one of several popular shows airing on Discovery's networks that is available on-demand from Akimbo. Some programs are available at no additional cost to the monthly subscription (what they call "Free For Alls"), others are available for a small extra fee or via a monthly subscription to an Akimbo channel that ranges from $1.99 to $9.99 per month.

Again, if a subscriber could use a Media Center Extender to access and enjoy the Akimbo service from another room, then all that user would need to do is login with the account, and view downloaded content, without the need for an additional digital cable or satellite box. Now Akimbo itself admits on its Web site that it is not intended to replace cable or satellite, who in addition to off-air broadcast can provide live events, sports, and breaking news and emergency information while Akimbo offers solely prerecorded content on-demand. Still, for me personally, I wouldn't mind using Akimbo to view some cable/satellite programming on my own time and budget while relying on broadcast for live news, sports, and the favorite network shows. If there's a game on ESPN, it gives me an incentive to go out of my place, living by myself.

So using Media Center PC and Extenders does seem like a lucrative solution to access digital media, including at least recorded DTV let alone live HDTV; now all that is needed is a PC home network. And here is where I begin to tel you about setting up such a network not by running Ethernet cable, but using existing coax cable in your home that is bringing either cable, satellite, or off-air programming to multiple rooms. My company, Winegard, this week attended the EHX Smart Home Expo in Anaheim, CA, where we announced a marketing partnership with a Swedish-based company, Multilet, who have developed technology to send Internet data from an Ethernet router to coaxial cable. We announced this idea as our "Home Run System".
Here is the idea -- suppose a household has digital cable with HDTV with two parents and two children, both of whom about high-school age, and the household wants to provide high-speed Internet to several rooms so the parents could do online banking while the children research online for a paper, or download some hit songs for their iPods. However, this could require either buying expensive laptops with wireless access or wired PCs with separate cable modems, each of which could be subject to viruses on EACH PC if not properly protected. Our Home Run idea would necessitate solely a special hand-held distribution box, a network router, and ONE modem.

Suppose there were a CATV splitter in an accessible closet or utility room with the main cable input and some open shelf space. The household would use a two-way splitter from the main line, and then the other splitter (say to four rooms) to coax inputs on a multiplexer used to combine cable TV and data lines. The data lines are made by connecting the other main line to one cable modem, which connects to a network router with four Ethernet hard wire outlets. Instead of spending all day making long Ethernet cables and running them along the cable line, only very short Ethernet cables would be made, connected from each router output to the multiplexer, and then the existing coax to each room would then be connected to the multiplexer outputs.

Now in the rooms, there would be a wall plate with a coax connection where a TV set or digital cable box would be connected. In each room, the wall plate would be replaced with a new one with both a cable jack and a data port, where the cable TV and Internet data would be separated. Now the head of household connects the PC to the data outlet and configures the router, and eventually a cable installer would configure the modem to provide the 2-way gateway. The PC would be XP based, and the head has an administrative account, while also setting up limited access accounts for the other family members. Now each PC in a room on a hard-wire is added to the network while a TV is set up, and the rooms are networked together with only one modem.

There are other advantages. In a house with the Home Run technology, a household could easily switch from a "triple-play" (TV, Internet, and phone) from cable to a telco with DSL, and back, depending on cost and broadband access speed, which certainly would heat up the competition between the two and introduce consumer-beneficent competition. Also a household who gets TV over-the-air exclusively could get a Media Center PC for the den and get off-air HDTV, and then use Media Center Extenders to access digital media anywhere, or could just get high-speed Internet from the cable company, or DSL from the telco, and provide high-speed Internet for all rooms easily and inexpensively. Most of all, this would provide an apartment manager the easy ability to offer high-speed Internet to tenants using the television cable run instead of having to invest in a lot of Ethernet cable, which would be extremely costly.
If there is one limitation with this concept, it is that the data rates would be restricted to 10 Mbps, which is the maximum datarate each PC would be set to. This would restrict the ability to send pure HDTV throughout the house using Media Center Extenders; however, if the HD wee recorded at a "good" or "fair" bitrate instead of the best quality, then the video could stream easier and more smoothly using an Extender. Another item to consider is that if the router in the network had a wireless standard, like Wi-Fi or Zigbee, then wireless laptops and devices could allow access of digital media and Internet access from anywhere in the house, assuming the router were placed where the wireless coverage is ample.

Thanks to Winegard's partnership with Mulilet, the devices supporting this technology will inevitably become easily available to households and apartment property managers. With this exciting and inexpensive technology, home networking will become an easy weekend DIY project that will allow the exciting ability to make video-on-demand, Internet, file sharing, and digital entertainment available throughout a house, which will certainly lead to a rapid takeoff of many exciting new digital media opportunities. Information on these products and the concept of putting Internet/home networking on existing coax cable can be found at http://www.mulitlet.us/, and once the Home Run devices become available for purchase, there will be information at http://www.winegard.com/.

Sunday, November 06, 2005


This week I wish to share a couple tips on how to position an outdoor antenna. For DTV reception, positioning the antenna is very critical, as I mentioned in my first post, available for viewing in the archives. Not only could lack of signal break up a DTV picture, but also anything that would cause visible interference on an analog TV picture, which cannot be seen on a digital picture. Unfortunately, when a DTV picture breaks up, it is too easy for the average consumer to assume that there is a lack of off-air signal causing this, so that consumer gets an amplifier only to find that the so-called "digital signal strength" has either not improved at all, or got even worse.

So if there is a problem with the signal, before you spend money on an amp from a place with a strict return policy (or lack thereof), check for these little pitfalls. If the antenna is inside an attic, some of these issues could apply as well.

1) Is there anything metallic in the presence of the antenna? If there is metal, even meshed metal, in front of the antenna, then the metal is blocking the signal, leaving not much for the antenna to collect. Also, if there is sheet metal within five feet or less below the antenna, then the metal is either loading some received signal, or reflecting some signal, which would result in "multipath", a condition where undesired reflected signals are being collected in addition to the line-of-sight signal, resulting in ghosts in analog pictures, or reduction of the DTV signal.

2) Are there any obstructions to the line-of-sight, such as trees, tall buildings, or hills? These items may block signal collected by the antenna. Heavily wooded areas may require a stronger antenna to pull i off-air signals. In other cases, you may want to get a little open-minded and try pointing the antenna off the line-of-sight and aim it at a tall metal structure that is visible, like a water tower, cell tower, or skyscraper with a metallic frame. Here multipath may actually become BENEFICIAL since there is more multipath signal and little line-of-sight. A directional antenna would be very helpful in such cases; "directional" being an antenna with at least 10 dB front-to-back ratio on the channel you are trying to receive. In addition, the curvature of the earth between your area and the transmit towers may also result in having you turn the antenna off the line-of-sight angle only to find more signal! You can determine the line-of-sight angle for your area by visiting http://www.antennaweb.org/ or http://www.checkhd.com/ (locate the "Antenna Guide" link after entering in your location information).

3) You might also find that raising or lowering the antenna by at little as a foot could shoot up the digital strength meter on difficult channels. It is possible that by doing this an undesired signal interfering with the digital signal will miss the antenna, improving the integrity of the digital signal being sent to the tuner. In "fringe" areas, at least 50 miles from the transmit towers, the signals start having strong points and nulls as the field strength becomes weak. So, raising or lowering the antenna a foot could allow reception of a stronger signal where a null otherwise would be.

4) If after doing all that, the amplifier should be put into place, and if there is no change, then maybe you might want to find someone with an RF field meter to actually see the digital signals received by the antenna. Seeing the signals will allow you to see if there is an interfering analog signal either causing a "spike" or a "valley" in the response, which would complicate the ability for the tuner to decode the signal. If you are a professional installer, I would strongly recommend you get such a meter. Good manufacturers are Sadelco (http://www.sadelco.com/) and Sencore (http://www.sencore.com/); Sadelco offers more affordable solutions.

Other little tricks is to check the cable; there may be a break in it inside that you can't notice. If you have an amplifier with a plug-in transformer that sends voltage up the cable line, hook one end of the cable to the transformer, plug in the transformer, and then check the other end of the cable with a voltmeter. The red lead would touch the center conductor/wire of the cable, and the black lead on the nut. If ample voltage is read by the meter, the cable is okay; if there is low reading, there may be a break or short in the cable, and should be replaced. Also, if the cable run is going to be close to electrical wiring or conduit, quad-shielded RG-6 cable should be used to contain the signal in the cable without the electrical wires introducing interfering noise in the signal.

Last but not least, CHECK THE INSTRUCTIONS OF THE ANTENNA, INCLUDING THE SAFETY WARNINGS. The antenna should be grounded and free from power and phone lines. Not only do such items introduce unwanted noise into the signal, it could introudce a hazardous condition. If you do not understand the warnings or need information, you could check with an electrician or your municipal government office dealing with electrical or building codes.

If you are planning to get an HD tuner, do some research to see if it has a 4th or 5th generation ATSC/8VSB chipset. These tuners are more capable of decoding off-air digital signals affected by multipath than earlier DTV tuners, which would allow a little more leeway in positioning an antenna. These tuners have also made it easier to use an indoor antenna to receive off-air DTV -- there could be several sources of blockage or multipath in your living room area.

Hopefully these little recommendations will help improve your off-air DTV reception a lot faster than spending time or money and getting you nowhere. Also if you are ordering an antenna and an external preamp or inline signal booster, position the antenna first, and add the booster later. That way you can use the tuner's so-called digital strength meter to optimize the antenna position for the best signals, and then you give the best possible signals collected by the antenna the boost needed to get you the most consistent DTV/HDTV experience. Again, go back to my first and earliest post for more details, with pictures, on how DTV signals work.