There are times when I am so far behind a trend that I actually end up at the leading edge of that trend’s rebirth (think of those skinny and wide neckties). The latest example is the increasing number of cable-TV users who are “cutting the cord” and going with over-the-air (OTA) TV broadcasts, in combination with Internet-streamed video. Since I have never been a cable (or dish) subscriber and stayed solely with the free OTA signal, I feel my procrastination has been rewarded – at least in an ironic way – as I am riding a trend wave even though I haven’t shifted.
A recent article in The Wall Street Journal discussed this “back to the future” situation, “Millennials Unearth an Amazing Hack to Get Free TV: the Antenna” and it included some fascinating points (sorry, it may be behind their paywall). Unlike many of these purported “trend” articles which are supported only anecdotes and speculation but no data, this one had some hard numbers as well. Among them: in a survey by the National Association of Broadcasters, almost a third of Americans (29%) were unaware local TV is available free over the air.
Others thought that the transition to digital TV killed OTA TV signals, rather than replaced the historic analog signals with digital ones.
Unlike the old, ubiquitous pre-cable VHF “rabbit ear” antennas, Figure 1 , which were eyesores, dust collectors, and the subject of countless jokes, many of today’s OTA antennas, such as this one from Mohu, are wall-hung flat panels, and some come with a preamplifier powered by a USB source for improved SNR, Figure 2 .
The classic “rabbit ear” TV antenna served the VHF analog TV band for decades, and came in simple configurations (shown) as well as more complicated versions with additional appendages and even antenna-match tuners.
Today’s OTA broadcast antennas, such as this ReLeaf 30 HDTV indoor antenna from Mohu with 30-mile (nominal) range are small (9 × 11.5 in/23 × 29 cm), lightweight, unobtrusive, and easily mounted to a wall; some also come with a preamplifier for improved performance. (Image: Mohu)
Sales of antennas corroborate the OTA trend. The article noted that antenna sales in the U.S. are projected to rise 7% in 2017 to nearly 8 million units, according to the Consumer Technology Association, a trade group (previously known as CEA, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the sponsor of the massive Consumer Electronics Show). The article also cited Richard Schneider, founder of manufacturing company Antennas Direct, who said he started selling antennas as a hobby more than 15 years ago, while expecting to sell a few hundred each year. Instead, he sold 75,000 antennas in June of this year alone; their web site is very useful for estimating which TV stations you can receive with different antennas. Market research firm Parks Associates has a report which claims that the percentage of broadband-connected households using antenna-delivered broadcast TV has jumped from 9 percent to 15 percent over the past three years.
Of course, there’s an analog challenge here. In many locations, due to distance from the transmitter, geography, or indoor siting, the flat antennas don’t have the gain needed. Instead, an outdoor antenna may be needed in weaker signal areas perhaps with a more directional array (and perhaps even a mast rotator in extreme cases – now we really are going back to the future!). The AntennaWeb site (co-sponsored by CTA) also helps you decide what reception zone you are in, which stations you can expect to receive, and what sort of antenna you need; there are six levels for antenna “strength” (actually gain and directionality) defined by CTA standards.
It looks like we are coming full circle in “TV land” and users are re-learning how to deal, directly or indirectly, with the classic analog issues of propagation vagaries, received signal strength, SNR, antenna gain and directivity, and more. For analog-RF specialists, it looks likely that some of their traditional skills and understanding will be in demand to an even greater extent. For broadcasters, there’s one simple fact: the cost of supporting incremental OTA users in their range is zero, and it’s not often you can make that sort of statement.
Did you stick with OTA reception, or come to it lately? What’s been you experience? Have you considered cord cutting supplemented by an OTA setup?