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, July 15, 2006


I suppose you may be one of those people stumbling across the blog and wondering to yourself, "Why is this guy blogging and making a living working with of-air television antennas? I mean, who isn't get their TV from cable, satellite, or maybe even their phone company which is offering a lot of channels to choose from?" Well, from what I have observed and experimented with lately, I have quite a few arguments that support that there are others like me who still believe in the terrestrial broadcast TV model. I will list these arguments here in this entry.

1) Off-air broadcast television, analog or digital, has NO MONTHLY FEE. You don't need to shell out over $40 per month to a digital cable, satellite, or telco provider for HDTV from your local broadcaster. The right antenna an a DTV tuner is all you need. In addition to the HDTV, you will also get the multicasts from the broadcast stations for no monthly fee. In some major markets, you will get multicasts such as family-friendly channels, live weather and radar information (i.e. from your local news or NBC Weather Plus), and now even music videos. A new music video channel, The Tube Music Network, is available in some markets on a local station's multicast, over the air for free. Let me say that as a fan of quality music, The Tube is a blessing. For the moment, there are no advertisers, and this nationwide network provides nothing but music videos from GREAT TALENT from classic seminal artists like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, to '80's videos from when we actually wanted our MTV, to great new artists like Beck, Coldplay, Modest Mouse, David Gray, Norah Jones, etc. No reality shows, no gossip, no over-commercialized fluff. Now while The Tube IS available from some digital cable providers, again, this multicast is free over-the-air with an antenna and DTV tuner where available. To see if The Tube is available, visit http://www.thetubetv.com/ and click on the "Where To Watch" link.

2) Because off-air reception is, if anything, a great backup source of information when cable or satellite service goes out. Yes, cable service still goes out once in a while, and with satellite you sometimes have to contend with "rain fade" or even re-adjusting the dish. But if that happens, if your antenna is getting the signal, then you can switch to the antenna tuner and either see the game you are trying to enjoy, or maybe there is important emergency information from the local news that you may need to know. Recently I looked through a pamphlet published by our local radio station about how to be prepared for weather emergencies, and one recommend is to have an off-air antenna should the cable or satellite go out so you can stay informed of developments and the latest information.

3) Off-air HDTV looks better. Cable and satellite providers do need to receive the broadcast signal, but then they need to re-route the data on their bandwidth, and unfortunately, that does result in some bit errors. Like making a copy, it is not quite as good as the original. By getting the digital data over the air, if the antenna is positioned optimally, you are receiving the bitstream broadcast from the station -- think of it as eliminating the middleman and increasing efficiency as a result.

4) Are you actually watching the channels you are paying for? Interestingly enough, with broadband Internet becoming more available, people can now be informed and entertained on their own time with different methods other than getting it from cable and satellite, and just "surfing channels". Here is my personal take -- for now I don't have satellite TV, and the cable video service I'm getting is just a $15 per month basic broadcast package with the broadcast channels, and that is a backup to my free off-air DTV reception. And in reality, I'm paying $5 per month for the backup because I'm getting a $10 discount by combining it with my high-speed Intenet service through my cable system. With my broadband Internet, I have actually been getting news and information that fits me through video podcasts, most of them for no additional charge, through my Media Center PC. I have it hooked up to an analog TV through the S-video, and these podcast vids are of pretty decent video quality, and I am watching the HD shows through the built-in ATSC tuner on my PC, and recording the content to watch later. If I feel like watching something and I'm all caught up with what I got over the air, I can get additional on-demand content that actually interest me with few to no commercials for free to $5 with on-demand content services like iTunes, Akimbo, and Cinemanow. Okay maybe I'm missing out on some original dramas on cable, but I really don't have the time or interest in them personally. Where I live, I'm within a short drive or even bike ride to Fun City (http://www.onefuncity.com/) where I can watch live ESPN and satellite TV sports watchable all over the place because it has over 100 HD monitors. So I can enjoy live NFL action there, listen to the audio with a little receiver, and actually socialize with people. I am single and live alone, so these great methods suit me well and give the time and money for other things. And with the price of gas the way it is, at least I can swing the cost of getting to work or an occasional road trip. By saving on cale bills, I've got my Media Center PC all paid up now, and I'm happy to say I'm living the debt-free lifestyle, and I am able to put a bit of money away for an annual getaway, and for the future.

5) Do you have the time for all those channels? Again, I don't with my lifestyle. I find myself online quite a bit chatting and swapping emails, pictures, and videos with friends and family, even entertainers whom I've become fans of. So broadband Internet and these popular online social sites has actually helped personalize my entertainment, and the time I've spent of it has pretty much denied time to just sit and surf channels. Oh, and of course I'm taking a bit of time blogging about what I do because I do like helping out and being someone instead of being a lazy couch potato. In fact, I read somewhere that in the UK, more people are spending more time online than watching TV. Being online gives people unlimited choices in on-demand video if you know where to look.

6) Off-air DTV is mobile! And now laptop PCs are being made with built-in DTV tuners, so if you bring one out with a small off-air antenna, you can watch live TV anywhere, and for free. Of course as I mentioned in a previous entry you will soon be able to watch live TV on your mobile phone, but those services will likely cost you. Off-air DTV on the right laptop in the right place? No charge.

And one more thing, I mentioned that I am watching digital content on a Media Center PC hooked up to an analog TV set via S-video. That is how I am enjoying off-air DTV. You really don't need an HDTV set to enjoy free DTV, a Media Center PC or even an affordable terrestrial set-top-box with an ATSC tuner will suffice in watching free-to-air TV with incredible digital picture quality. However, you will need an HDTV monitor to experience the true HD resolution, but me personally, I can do without it for now, so I choose to hold out for the monitor prices to continue to drop.

So there you go, this is why I do what I do for a living. Those who have great fulfilling lives are the ones who make a living doing what they love and having a passion for it, and a reason for that passion. And now you have just read my reason for my passion. I do hope that people will become more aware of the DTV transition and the benefits of free off-air DTV. Maybe as 2009 nears this will become a more talked about issue. We shall see, but with broadband Internet connecting a lot of people and producing the ability to unleash do-it-yourself content, and on-demand libraries continuing to grow, a paradigm shift may be happening soon with broadcast media. Maybe soon people will just watch live TV events and breaking news and get the rest of their entertainment on-demand online, and if that is the case, some may just choose to do so for free with an off-air antenna. They just need to be aware that free off-air DTV is here, and the means to get it effectively.

For additional information, visit http://www.myfreehdtv.org/.


When I started this blog, I wrote on how to use http://www.antennaweb.org/ to select an antenna and aim it for off-air DTV and HDTV reception. This week I visited the site, and I discovered that the address information page has a new advanced feature, an "options" feature.at the bottom of the address page, which will be useful to truly determine your local DTV off-air reception capability. The options, which are expanded on the browser using a Flash plug-in, allows you to enter Latitude and Longitude coordinates as well as the height in feet of the antenna above the ground. The trick is that the coordinates need to entered in decimal degrees, and not degrees minutes and seconds. I will give you a trick to convert from DMS to decimal in a little bit.

Before this option was added by site creator Decisionmark (based in Iowa) in association with the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the most accurate results were presented if the user entered a complete address, although a zip code was the minimum requirement. Some users are still a bit hesitant, however, in providing address information over a Web site, and the site is not secure. But now with providing latitude and longitude information instead of the address, a user can get accurate information on local off-air coverage without sending address information over the Internet.

Playing around with coordinates for my office at Winegard Company in Burlington, Iowa, I noticed that when I entered latitude longitude coordinates I once recorded while helping the plant set up a production test for RV dishes using GPS technology to lock onto satellite TV "birds", and compared the results with entering the address of the office, I got an interest difference in the results. The latitude/longitude results added a DTV PBS station from Macomb, IL, about 30 miles southwest but broadcasting at a relatively low power, which I did not notice when entering the address. The PBS station services Western Illinois University based in Macomb. I mention the fact that the station transmits DTV at a relatively low power because its reception does become spotty here in Burlington as the field strength starts to get low. In such cases, the field strength starts to vary significantly between strong voltages and nulls, sort of a "checkerboard" effect, and the broadcast would come in simply by relocating the antenna by just a few feet.

One other important point to mention is using the latitude/longitude entry instead of the complete address is you still may need to select the state where you live. This will allow you to see the street level map if you select that option on the results page. When I checked the street level map, the selected location where the field strengths of the off-air channels were predicted was noticeably different than the location of the address, but only by what appears to be a couple hundred feet on the roof of a fairly large manufacturing facility taking up a city block. This would prove to me that changing the coordinates by just a little bit may determine if an available station signal would be in a "checkerboard effect" at the given location, and trying different locations for an antenna may lead to good reception of a hard-to-get digital channel with a small-to-moderately sized antenna.

The other key "options" field is the height of the antenna, entered in feet above ground, which can be measured with a ruler tape. This entry is above ground, and not sea level, the prediction is already factoring in the terrain of the neighborhood. Because terrestrial VHF/UHF television signals are transmitted with a direct path, and do not follow the natural curvature of the terrain like AM radio signals do, antennas that are mounted at rooftop heights outdoors in most cases will collect more signal. So, by measuring the height of where you may want to put up an antenna, either on the roof or on the wall, and by determining the latitude/longitude location of the antenna, you may be able to use antennaweb.org to locate the "sweet spot" of best reception for your location even before buying the antenna, cable, or mounting equipment.
So how do you determine the latitude/longitude? With GPS devices that are becoming more easily available. GPS devices use latitude/longitude information to determine where you are and to set up navigation directions. Some newer mobile phones have GPS location technology as a feature built right in, so take a look at your cell phone manual and see if you get can latitude/longitude information from it. You can also get GPS navigation devices from many different places, or borrow one from a friend or neighbor. Garmin is a leading manufacturer of GPS-based navigation handheld devices.

If the device gives latitude and longitude information in degrees, minutes, and seconds (DMS) only, and not in decimal degrees, here is how to convert DMS to DD using a calculator. First, take the MINUTES integral value and multiply by 60 to convert to seconds. Then, add the result to the SECONDS value read on the GPS device. Divide the result by 3600, and add the intergral DEGREES value read on the GPS device. Write the result down and be prepared to enter it into the options field at antennaweb.org. Play around with the GPS values while leaving the height field blank and indicating you are in a single-story home. Once you find the best results, use the GPS device to find the sweet spot and plan to mount your antenna there. You will want to minimize the violet results if you want to use a relatively small antenna from off-air reception outdoors, and play around with the height value as well.

Now understand that antennaweb.org assumes the antenna is outdoors with no visible sources of blockage (i.e. tall buildings, trees, or other radio sources) in the compass directions listed in the results. If you mount the antenna in an attic, the signal strengths are cut in half by standard composite shingles on plywood. However, here is a trick to see if indoor or attic reception is possible. First of all, try using the GPS device indoors by your TV set or in the attic and see if you can get a reading. If you can't, your building may be pretty much shielded from receiving off-air signals and putting an antenna outdoors may be the way to go. If you can get a reading, or are able to use a cell phone indoors, then indoor reception might happen.

If that is the case, use antennaweb.org and enter "0.1" in the height field; the program requires a positive non-zero value to get results, and 0.1 is practically right on the ground. Because of the direct nature of broadcast TV signals over-the-air, the signal strengths are expected to be fairly weak, and the results will be reflected on your available station list. So, if you use this trick and see the DTV stations you want listed and not listed as violet, then you just might be able to use a small, unobtrusive antenna indoors or in the attic space to get the off-air DTV channels you want. If you see these results and you are able to aim an antenna through a window in the listed compass direction, then an indoor antenna just might be all you need if you just want to use one off-air DTV tuner in your place. If you do not see the stations your want, or you do but most of them are in violet, then you will either need to use the largest possible antenna that can fit in your attic space, or put an antenna outside.

So I am excited that Decisionmark has added this new feature to what is already a very useful Web site. Now a customer can use GPS and measurement techniques that are easy to carry and affordable, and this useful free online tool to find the "sweet spot" where an antenna of manageable size may be all that is needed to get local broadcast HDTV for free over the air, or at least help a customer make an informed decision on whether or not an off-air antenna is worth the cost or the trouble. I feel that this is good to know as the attitude at work right now with the satellite companies beginning to provide local HDTV via the satellites and USDTV in bankruptcy is that indoor antennas may become the hot sellers. It is just a matter of marketing them right, and antennaweb.org just gave me some big help.


Right now digital cable, satellite, and over-the-air free DTV is using the MPEG-2 codec, the same as for DVDs. However, the more efficient MPEG-4 codec is opening up new opportunities for content delivery, most notably alternatives to cable and satellite. The MPEG-4 codec has facilitated Apple iTunes to deliver videos and episodes of popular shows for consumers to purchase and download, and now the major broadcast networks and a few of their cable partners have been providing iTunes video content, and the library continues to grow.

The excitement over MPEG-4 is that because its compression is more efficient than the MPEG-2 standard, more digital standard definition and high definition channels can be packed into a content provider's available bandwidth. Unfortunately, with HDTV programming becoming more available, and consumer interest growing, more HD channels are coming available. In the past year TNT, NBC Universal (USA/Sci-Fi), MTV, National Geographic channel, and HGTV have launched cable/satellite HD channels, and ESPN has been heavily promoting their HD channels, and has been providing the most live HD content. Needless to say their premiere HD shows will be SportsCenter and NFL Monday Night Football. On a quick side note, I loved watching the FIFA World Cup on ABC HD, whose broadcast (on the soccer field anyway in addition to studio and analyst face time pieces) was converted from a live global 1080i HD feed from the host German broadcaster, and ABC and ESPN took advantage of the global feed by providing complete World Cup HD coverage from the opening match to the championship final.

Unfortunately the increasing demand for bandwidth is leaving the cable and satellite companies somewhat painted in a corner. Between the two, the cable companies are the more trapped. The cable companies are providing analog channels which require a lot of bandwidth to begin with, and then comes the bandwidth for the MPEG-2 digital cable channels. To provide MPEG-4 digital cable channels would require their thousands of customers to change their digital cable converter boxes, and that would require the cable company to buy a lot of new hardware, and that may contribute to even more increases in rates. In addition, the cable companies have needed to compress the native broadcast HD streams to load the channels into their digital tier, and people have noticed the diminished quality in the HD pictures compared to watching broadcast HD over the air, which is not compressed beyond the transmitter. This restricted bandwidth from cable providers also is slowing down the ability to add new HD channels to the lineup, and a strong argument for the cable industry against "must-carry" of local broadcasters' complete broadcast DTV content, which may include local broadcasters' primary channels, some of which are HD, and multicasts. Cable companies fear that must-carry would force them to actually remove a few channels that are of strong interest to some of their customers.

The satellite companies are taking the more aggressive approach to deliver more HD channels and converting to MPEG-4. Their plan is to launch new satellites providing MPEG-4 content and pack more HD channels, most notably local channels via satellite with HD programming. Because the satellite providers are going to lauch new satellites, those interested in receiving the new HD channels and local channels would require a new dish and a new receiver. However, existing customers who opt to stay off the HDTV bandwagon for a while can continue enjoying their all-digital standard definition channels without the need to change their dish or receiver. Simply put, satellite companies are more capable than their cable competitors of increasing their available capacity for HD and MPEG-4 channels by just simply lauching new satellites and giving the consumer the option to upgrade. How they will charge consumers so the satellite providers can pay for the new hardware remains to be seen.

But now a new player has arrived in the television content delivery arena - the telecommunication companies, or telcos. Verizon has just started its fiber-optic based FiOS TV service in some East Coast markets, including select areas of the New York City market, while AT&T, recently merged with SBC, has started rolling out their U-Verse "triple play" service of phone, DSL high-speed Internet, and television services. AT&T just launched their television service in San Antonio, with more markets to be added between now and the end of 2008, close to the analog broadcast television shutoff date of February 17, 2009. Here in Iowa, my telco is Qwest, and I have not seen any information of plans to provide television services on fiber optic/phone line at this time, although it certainly is inevitable. Qwest is providing 5 Mbps DSL premium service in my area.

While cable and satellite systems rely on radio frequency (RF) channels delivering digital TV bits to receivers with "radios" in their respective receivers, similar to off-air VHF/UHF ATSC MPEG-2 receivers but using different modulation schemes, the telcos will deliver data streams on their lines using Internet Protocol, or IP, instead of RF cable. Digital television involves datastreams of bits, ones and zeroes, and they can be delivered either via RF packets on cable, or along phone lines or fiber optics using varying electrical pulses. The lines would then be connected to Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) set-top boxes which would decode the pulses and store information on a hard drive, and stream content to TV sets using the appropriate video output. Because of the new technology, the telco services can start from the ground up and go right into delivering video content, including HD channels, using the more effective MPEG-4 video compression standard. As a result, the new telco services are already capable of providing 180 digital channels, including about 20 local and national HD channels, for $40 per month plus $10 for renting an HD IPTV box, and an additional $12 per month for DVR services, very competitive to digital cable or satellite services. The telcos have not needed to invest a lot of capital to develop the infrastructure needed to launch their services. However, some households may still be hesitant to go IPTV on the basis that they would need to wire their homes with CAT-5 telephone or fiber optic lines and replace the cable. Thankfully, companies like Swedish-based Multilet have developed special diplexers to faciliate the transisition by delivering IPTV content and DSL service over existing RF coax cable. So, the door has flown open for customers to go IPTV when the service becomes available in their area. If a telco service goes right into MPEG-4 video delivery, they will have a great competitive advantage over the cable and satellite companies needing to upgrade their infrastructure and hardware to deliver more HD programming with the best picture quality possible.

USDTV, the Salt Lake City based over-the-air pay TV service available in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Alberqurque, is also going from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 to provide select popular channels using broadcasters' available bandwidth on their over-the-air DTV channels. Initially the channels available for $20 per month were MPEG-2; howvever, going to MPEG-4 would allow them the ability to add more channels. Because USDTV at last count has 16,000 subscribers in their four markets, the transition is not hard; they have developed special "dongle" add-ons to customers' existing boxes to decode MPEG-4 datastreams embedded with the broadcasters' free DTV MPEG-2 streams available to anyone with a DTV set with an antenna input. Yes it is possible to embed MPEG-4 multicasts with MPEG-2 streams on the same DTV channel, it is just that a tuner capable of using either/or is needed to view it all. After that, USDTV can provide new set-top-boxes that can do both MPEG-2 for the free channels and MPEG-4 for their pay channels, and they had hoped to get these out by years' end and expand into new markets.

Unfortunately, USDTV's expansion plans hit the brakes this month as they haved filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. It would seem to me that USDTV had spent their backing granted last fall by several broadcast partner groups on investing in these new MPEG-4 encoders for the broadcast engineers and the new receiver technology. Now USDTV is stuck providing their service to only four markets and is not planning to add new subs at this time until they get through the bankruptcy plan, and maybe provide the MPEG-4 upgrades to their existing subs. That is, if they can afford to I fear that USDTV will need yet another strong financial backing like last fall in order to them to expand into new markets next year. By then, maybe the telcos will already have made their presence known and turned over existing cable and satellite subs, even if USDTV can provide a pricing and lineup plan that still would be an affordable alternative to even the telco TV service. The phone companies simply have more money and reputation, and it's easy for them to send an announcement to customers in their phone and/or DSL bill.