May 13, 2011

Cutting the Cord : How's That Working Out?

About two months ago I fulfilled a New Year's promise to eliminate cable TV from our house. A 20% price increase in March was the final straw. With only a few hours a week spent watching the tube, it seemed an easy decision to make.

Not so fast.

Because there were still a few shows my wife and I enjoy, plus the occasional big news story (like Osama bin Laden's death) I didn't want to go without the ability to watch some live television programming. Because free broadcasts of all local stations are available with an antenna that was the route I chose. After doing some Internet research an amplified digital TV antenna was selected. I mounted the antenna in the living room, aimed it toward the antenna farm just south of downtown Phoenix and sat down to enjoy free programming.

Immediately, I realized I had forgotten an important step: programming the television to find my local stations. After locating the instruction book and poking around for a few minutes I found the steps to take. A few minutes later the TV told me it had found 42 signals. Wow!  42 signals and all free!

Yes, there are 42 signals but almost half of them are in Spanish, a language I do not speak or understand. OK, so now there are 24 signals. Of those, 4 show weather 24 hours a day.  So, now I am down to 20 watchable signals. Well, not quite. Two of the digital channels assigned to the local PBS station aren't being used. And three of the channels that are used show up twice in the lineup of choices. Subtract all that and I have 15 watchable channels. The networks and a few independent stations are streaming into my set.

The first thing I notice is how incredible the pictures look. For the first time I am seeing  High Definition quality pictures. Cable companies have to compress and squeeze what they send down the wires so much that what they call HD is not. The network pictures I am now seeing are stunning. I turn off the set and go about my day.

A few hours later, after dinner, I turn on the set ready to impress Betty with what we are getting. Suddenly, half of the channels that came in so clearly earlier in the day have disappeared. I move the antenna a few inches and they come back...while the ones  we were just watching disappear. I jiggled some more, same thing. I finally find the exact spot to get the channel carrying the show we want to watch.

Halfway through the hour, the signal freezes, flutters, and sputters. I haven't touched the antenna, the house hasn't shifted, and as far as i know the antennas on South Mountain haven't fallen down. It is a bit windy. Could that be the reason?

Not one to give up that easily, I purchase 50 feet of coax cable, run it up the living room wall and over the second floor railing. Betty is thrilled with the new look. I put the antenna up on the second floor landing, re-program the TV set and find 38 signals. Half are Spanish, the weather channels are all there, and everything looks good. Twenty minutes later the signal disappears from the channel we are watching. I run upstairs and move the antenna an inch this way or that, re-locate the signal, and settle in to watch the rest of the show. The next night, the same routine is repeated, though this time I can only receive 3 usable signals.

My eldest daughter lives in the southeast part of the Phoenix metro area. From her home to the antennas is a straight shot with nothing in the way. She uses a small, inexpensive, digital antenna had rarely has any problems. She can receive everything I can, plus 6 more stations I have never picked up, as well as several from Tucson, 100 miles south of her. My home has a mountain and downtown Phoenix between me and the TV towers. I am beginning to sense a serious flaw in my plan.

For whatever reason, when the federal government required all TV signals to become digital they also insisted that the power of those signals be drastically reduced from what they had been during analog TV days. That means that digital TV signals are extremely finicky. This may be an exaggeration., but I think that even a large bird flying through the sky in front of my house can disrupt that signal. As I have noted if the antenna isn't aimed exactly right, no picture is received. And, I mean exactly. Move the antenna a fraction of an inch and a signal is suddenly there, or just as suddenly gone.

Bless her heart, Betty has (for the most part) quietly endured these problems. But, she did ask what my long range plan was. I am afraid this grand experiment is not working because of my home's location. So, my answer to her is simple; when I have been away from the cable connection long enough to be considered a new customer and there is an attractive offer to get me to sign up, I may rejoin the connected world. We have agreed to not go back to the 250 channels of television, movies, and music. But, when the company offers the basic 75 channel lineup at a rate that is attractive, our cord may become uncut. I may consider satellite TV but I'll have to do a bit more research on their picture quality and stability during storms.

Television programming is crammed full of commercials, promotional announcements for stuff we have no interest in watching, and fluff that is insulting and boorish. But, until I can move a mountain and get the federal government to increase allowable signal strength, there is just enough there that can't be watched any other way.

Or, maybe not. Suddenly I have found another option. 

What if I keep the antenna aimed so it usually picks up a few of the important channels. Then, I use the web sites of the other networks, and specialty nets like HGTV, or Hulu, to fill in what is missing? By hooking the laptop to the TV the program is shown in excellent quality. Network shows may be a day or two late, but that doesn't bother us. HGTV or Discovery channel shows aren't time-sensitive so it doesn't matter when they were first aired.

Betty has agreed to give this new approach a chance. The story continues.

17 comments:

  1. Bob,
    You don't know how much this post cheers me up. I have learned over time that changing things is fraught with peril. I switched our house phone to a voice over IP account. Thinking that I could plug it into our two line phone system and there wouldn't be any difference. (I left my wife's line alone). Two months later I am saving money but anybody calling me on the house phone had better not expect to leave a message. I'm sure I can fix this but I just don't want to start the process because I know it would stir up even more problems.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good morning Ralph,

    The cable companies are selling convenience. The quality isn't the best (even on the HD channels) and the prices go up every year while the quality goes down. Still, for many it is the only choice that provides stability.

    I can state, without equivocation, that without Netflix, this experiment would have never gotten of the ground.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I'm also a no-cable home, and I've found that the upstairs TVs get the signals fine, but the living room on the first floor suffers the inch-turn problem. Often, it fails altogether. My working solution (imperfect as it is) is to record over-the-air broadcasts on my upstairs PC via Windows Media Player and a tiny tuner that plugs into its USB port. Then I copy the files to a portable harddrive and sneaker-net them downstairs to watch on an old Western Digital Media Player.
    An upgrade for me to the WD Player would let me wirelessly connect to the upstairs PC and watch the shows, but good-enough for now is, well, good enough for now.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There's comes a point when you have to draw the savings line. My options to help me save money is to just go with the basics.
    To me, the TV basics meant the family plan with satellite TV. It's not advertised but for $19.95 I get 120 channels which include, of course, all the basics with a few cable channels such as DIY, HLN, Hallmark, FOX News, Discovery, Animal Planet and GMC (country) thrown in. For just 5 measley bucks more I got a DVR, two receptors and two remote controls. Throw in taxes and I am only paying $30.99 a month for fantastic TV service. Do I miss or do I really need 170 channels? Puh-lease NO!
    Same with my landline service. Do I need long distance, call waiting, caller ID. A loud NO! On that one also, for $11.95 a month I have a basic phone, get clear incoming calls and can call 911 without having to hold my cell phone a certain way to tell the police officer where the emergency is. He can find me on a state-of-the art GPS, thank you very much.
    Both hubby and I have cell phones and opted for the senior citizen plan (oh, you didn't know you can get cell phone service for $25 a month, complete with 1000 text messages? Ask for it.)
    Realistically, as long as you are content with the basic plans, I have found these features to be affordable, necessary and welcomed. When I sit down at night to watch the news, that's what I'm doing. Watching the news. If there's a show on that I may miss, I tape it and watch it later. Or save an old movie forever (every month you get one free, different cable channel....so I tape, tape, tape!)

    It's your money or your life. Right now, it's my life and the quality of it.

    How much of the value of your precious time has been wasted? How much money have you spent for your 'free' TV? Was it worth it? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. For me, the savings just weren't worth the hassle. I found another way through the maze.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Rreimer,

    At the very least you are getting your exercise! You've found a solution to weak digital signals that works for you. It took me a minute to get the "sneaker-net" reference...I like it!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Morrison,

    Each person makes the determination if the effort or lack of something is worth the cost savings. In your case you have found a good deal. For $31/month I would probably make the same choice. Cable is about $70 for just basic (about 75 channels). We don't watch enough from those choices to make it worth the money. Satellite is available but those signals suffer outages during storms, rain, and wind, too.

    Netflix, at $12 a month, keeps us full up on movies, documentaries, and old TV shows.

    We eliminated our home phone almost a year ago, not so much for the $25 but to stop the junk/sales/political calls. Being on a "do-not-call" list is only marginally effective. Newer cell phones all have built in GPS systems for 911 locating so that isn't a fear.

    But, your overall point is that each person decides where his or her line is between money and convenience. You have found a mix that works for you. RReimer (above) has found a different approach that works for him. Mine is different from both of you and it is working for me (I think).

    Choices..aren't they great?

    ReplyDelete
  7. Well, I guess now I can finally post....what a mess. I'll be interested in what you decide. I did a review again and have decided that at elast for not it stays-I dont watch a great deal but much of what I watch is cable as opposed to network (BBC USA, Top Chef on Bravo, Classic movies. So I am just watching less and using my DVR much more

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Barb,

    There are several million upset bloggers due to Google's 26 hour long debacle. Oh well....not the worst thing in the world to take a brief break.

    I'll be sure to keep the story updated as Betty & I decide if the antenna/laptop combo works for us.

    ReplyDelete
  9. (able to be restored from original comment)

    There's comes a point when you have to draw the savings line. My options to help me save money is to just go with the basics.
    To me, the TV basics meant the family plan with satellite TV. It's not advertised but for $19.95 I get 120 channels which include, of course, all the basics with a few cable channels such as DIY, HLN, Hallmark, FOX News, Discovery, Animal Planet and GMC (country) thrown in. For just 5 measley bucks more I got a DVR, two receptors and two remote controls. Throw in taxes and I am only paying $30.99 a month for fantastic TV service. Do I miss or do I really need 170 channels? Puh-lease NO!
    Same with my landline service. Do I need long distance, call waiting, caller ID. A loud NO! On that one also, for $11.95 a month I have a basic phone, get clear incoming calls and can call 911 without having to hold my cell phone a certain way to tell the police officer where the emergency is. He can find me on a state-of-the art GPS, thank you very much.
    Both hubby and I have cell phones and opted for the senior citizen plan (oh, you didn't know you can get cell phone service for $25 a month, complete with 1000 text messages? Ask for it.)
    Realistically, as long as you are content with the basic plans, I have found these features to be affordable, necessary and welcomed. When I sit down at night to watch the news, that's what I'm doing. Watching the news. If there's a show on that I may miss, I tape it and watch it later. Or save an old movie forever (every month you get one free, different cable channel....so I tape, tape, tape!)

    It's your money or your life. Right now, it's my life and the quality of it.

    How much of the value of your precious time has been wasted? How much money have you spent for your 'free' TV? Was it worth it? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. For me, the savings just weren't worth the hassle. I found another way through the maze.

    ReplyDelete
  10. (restored from original post)

    Morrison,

    Each person makes the determination if the effort or lack of something is worth the cost savings. In your case you have found a good deal. For $31/month I would probably make the same choice. Cable is about $70 for just basic (about 75 channels). We don't watch enough from those choices to make it worth the money. Satellite is available but those signals suffer outages during storms, rain, and wind, too.

    Netflix, at $12 a month, keeps us full up on movies, documentaries, and old TV shows.

    We eliminated our home phone almost a year ago, not so much for the $25 but to stop the junk/sales/political calls. Being on a "do-not-call" list is only marginally effective. Newer cell phones all have built in GPS systems for 911 locating so that isn't a fear.

    But, your overall point is that each person decides where his or her line is between money and convenience. You have found a mix that works for you. Another fellow, rreimer, has found a different approach that works for him. Mine is different from both of you and it is working for me (I think).

    Choices..aren't they great?

    ReplyDelete
  11. Try going to (www.TVFool.com). This site has a ton of information and help about getting rid of the cable company. You can run a test as to the best area for your antenna etc. to get best channel receptions.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Summers,

    I did check out the web site you note. It has quite a bit of information that might be helpful to those trying the antenna route. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
  13. (Partially restored from original post)

    RReimer left a comment on his solution: he records a TV show on his upstairs TV that gets good reception via antenna. He puts that show on a Thumb drive, takes it downstairs and watches the show there. He calls that his "sneaker-net" solution.

    My response,

    Rreimer,

    At the very least you are getting your exercise! You've found a solution to weak digital signals that works for you. It took me a minute to get the "sneaker-net" reference...I like it!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Bob,
    You don't know how much this post cheers me up. I have learned over time that changing things is fraught with peril. I switched our house phone to a voice over IP account. Thinking that I could plug it into our two line phone system and there wouldn't be any difference. (I left my wife's line alone). Two months later I am saving money but anybody calling me on the house phone had better not expect to leave a message. I'm sure I can fix this but I just don't want to start the process because I know it would stir up even more problems.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Hi Ralph,

    The cable companies are selling convenience. The quality isn't the best (even on the HD channels) and the prices go up every year while the quality goes down. Still, for many it is the only choice that provides stability.

    I can state, without equivocation, that without Netflix, this experiment would have never gotten of the ground.

    I agree that changing things almost never works out the way it is intended. Knowing that going in keeps me sane!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Bob,
    This is a great idea. We haven't taken the plunge yet, but are looking into the free TV via computer options. Anything to help limit costs. We recently started using Skpye with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandkids who live out of state. It works great!

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hi Adam,

    I have heard good things about Skype for staying in touch with out-of-state folks. Now that Microsoft has purchased it the options with it will [probably be enhanced.

    I am looking at a better antenna to install on my roof to increase the signal strength. But, for now the setup described in the post is working for our needs.

    ReplyDelete

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