HD OTA experiments

Friday, July 11, 2008

An online conversation with a few friends last week got me thinking harder about something that’s been on my mind lately: is it possible to get rid of my Rogers cable subscription, and get TV signals the old-fashioned way: with an antenna? This is now referred to as “OTA” (over the air) for those in the know, and there’s a whole range of digital HD channels that you can pick up in addition to the old familiar analog ones.

We already had pared back to the most basic analog cable plan, with no desire for several hundred channels of additional crap that we wouldn’t watch at additional cost, and when we got the Wii a few weeks ago, our TV watching dropped to less than an hour per day on average. We rent movies a couple times a month, read a lot of books, and, of course, there’s the internet: a vast library of fascinating material in a variety of formats. Although the US networks and Hulu block viewing of full TV episodes from Canada, some of our networks do show full episodes online of a few programs, such as Mad Men on CTV.

So, for the cost of one month of our basic cable, we picked up a Philips indoor DTV/HDTV antenna to see how OTA would work for us. We live near Richmond and Spadina, in a west-facing apartment on a low floor: that means that we face away from the CN Tower, source of most OTA signals in the Toronto area (although within 1km of it) and have a lot of taller buildings in the way.

We plugged in the antenna to the DTV port on our TV, scanned for channels, and wham! There was CBC in beautiful HD, completely without distortion. A few hours of playing around, and we found 6 additional channels, including CTV and Global, which syndicate many of the popular US shows during evening prime time. Here’s the rundown of what we can receive:

Station DTV channel Zap2It channel
CBC (CBLT) 5 5
CTV (CFTO) 9 9
Omni 2 (CJMT) 44 69
City TV 57 57
Omni 1 (CFMT) 64 47
Global (CIII) 65 6
Sun TV (CKXT) 66 45

The Zap2It channel is the corresponding channel if you use Zap2It for TV listings, and select Toronto – Local Broadcast as the source: I set my preferences on that site so that I see a grid of only these stations, in this order, as my TV guide.

Unfortunately, we haven’t found a single position that brings in all channels: CBC, Global and CTV seem to be best when bounced off the top of a taller building to the southwest of us, while SunTV is best reflected from the building directly across the road. CityTV and the two OMNI stations are picked up when the antenna is pointed directly towards the tower, that is, through our building. We’re still experimenting, and need a longer cable so that we can try some other locations within our apartment. If we lived in a higher or south-facing unit, I’m sure that the results would be radically different, and we might even pick up some Buffalo stations across the lake if we were high enough, but this is good enough for our TV-watching habits.

2 Comments

  1. Leona says:

    I came across this post after most of an early evening spent trawling the web for OTA tidbits. I am heading to a retailer specialising in antennas this weekend to try and get my mitts on a half-decent device… quite frankly even if it doesn’t work out for me (north-facing; strong possibility of this), I still pointedly refuse to give my telco any more money than they’re already fleecing me for.

    I love that so many people are equally motivated. Thanks for sharing! Glad it worked out for you…

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