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Basic TV antenna technology hasn’t changed since the 1940's

Not only is broadcast TV completely free, but it’s also expected to get better as the nation upgrades standards over the next few years.

Antennas get a bad rap. Young people think that a device that lets you watch TV for free is too good to be true, and the older crowd remembers having to fiddle with rabbit ears to get a decent signal. Although it’s true that antennas have been around for decades, there have been significant strides made in technology in that time. Modern-day HD antennas benefit from tech advances, but the basic principles remain the same. Television signals transmit sound and picture through the air by piggybacking on electromagnetic waves. You only need an antenna pointed toward the closest local broadcast tower and a TV to watch free over-the-air digital broadcast signals.

Is free TV too good to be true?

It sounds farfetched, but no matter how much you pay for the TV signal to reach your home, you won’t get a better signal than the one available over the air for free. Cable and satellite providers capture the signal, compress it to fit into their allotted bandwidth, and re-distribute it. So if you receive the original broadcast signal directly through an over-the-air with an antenna, you’ll experience the best high definition TV with 4K clarity that exists.

Isn’t an antenna outdated technology?

If you’ve always had cable TV, using an antenna might seem low-tech or like a downgrade. Nothing could be further from the truth. The revival of antennas allows people to access the uncompressed HD broadcast signal for free, and the new design and technology upgrades make it an even better experience. Although the engineering concepts are basically unchanged, the dramatic changes in technology, along with the switch from analog to digital signals, allowed companies to create more powerful antennas that receive better pictures and sound than ever before.

With the upgrades to the national broadcast infrastructure currently underway in the U.S., broadcast TV will undergo another leap forward. Over the next few years, consumers will benefit from the better picture, sound, and reception in over-the-air broadcasts. Expect new services like video on demand, mobile viewing, 4K Ultra Hi-Def, enhanced emergency alerts, a high frame rate, more colorful picture, and immersive audio – all delivered free with an over-the-air antenna.

Modern antennas don’t look like the rooftop or set-top contraptions of the past either; they are sleek, portable, and designed to fit into your décor discretely. Current indoor models mount easily on walls, while others tuck away behind the television. Outdoor antennas are designed to mount on the rooftop for long distance reception.

What makes an antenna work?

HD antennas are designed to receive over-the-air digital broadcast television signals transmitted in the UHF and VHF bands. No matter what the shape and size of the antenna or where it’s located, the waves arriving from the transmitter are exactly the same. The antenna picks up signals traveling toward it at a right angle, so it must be mounted properly and facing the correct direction to get a clear picture. Different patterns of wires help concentrate the signal, so when it’s properly aligned, there is less interference from nearby stations and unwanted signals.

HD antennas on the market today automatically search for the strongest signal available. You can improve it even further by checking the signal strength display and moving the antenna around the room or putting it near a window to boost the signal.

Why isn’t everyone using antennas?

Some people with cable or satellite subscriptions haven’t installed antennas because they think the technology is irrelevant. However, a digital antenna keeps you connected to important updates in emergency weather situations because it’s less likely to fade than other connections. As the emergency broadcast system upgrades, having an antenna will be even more important. The national broadcast infrastructure is currently migrating to a new, more sophisticated standard known as ATSC 3.0. Once complete, the enhanced emergency alert features will include live video, maps outlining escape routes, and other details so you can respond more quickly to warnings of natural disasters or weather events.

Antennas are also beneficial to consumers because cable and satellite providers don’t offer every channel broadcast. For every main broadcast feed, there are sub-channels with additional content you won’t get with cable or satellite. It also mitigates the danger of losing access due to contract negotiations. Cable providers must negotiate re-broadcasting fees with the local network channels to televise sports, news, and other programs. If they can’t agree on a contract, consumers always have access to the channel via an HD antenna.

How do I know where to mount the antenna?

HD antennas are available as indoor or outdoor models. Indoor antennas mount on or near the television itself, connected by a short coax cable. Since it works based on a clear line of sight, installing the antenna in a second-story window or near the ceiling is likely to give you the strongest signal. That’s all you need in most urban markets, but rural areas may require an outdoor antenna for adequate reception.

Anything that is between you and the broadcast tower can dampen or deaden your signal strength. If buildings and trees obstruct the view to the broadcast tower, they’ll also obstruct the signal. Outdoor antennas are larger and more elaborate, but allow the signal to overcome obstructions like terrain and obstacles that interrupt the signal from the broadcast tower.

Where can I get an antenna?

Most HDTV antennas range from $30-$100 and are available at online retailers, including our own e-commerce website. When you’re talking about a relatively inexpensive purchase, there’s not much of a gap in the price point between a quality antenna and a cheap model that breaks easily or one made from shabby components. It’s worth investing in a name brand with good reviews that will be backed up by solid customer service, knowledgeable employees, a fair return policy, and high-quality materials and cables.

What other reason do you need?

The reason you see story after story about cord cutting and people installing antennas is that there are so many advantages. Not only is broadcast TV completely free, but it’s also expected to get better as the nation upgrades standards over the next few years.

Step away from the compressed signal you get from cable or satellite and open up a world of free TV. You’ll get more channels, with better picture and sound, than what you’re paying for today. The humble antenna gives you access to a lifetime of free programming. To begin your cord cutting journey, start here.

 Tagged: broadcast tv ota antenna free tv tv

Article Author
Megan Southard
NoCable.org Contributor

Megan Southard is a writer, mom, technology enthusiast, and movie junkie. She dreads the day her kids have to explain gadgets to her and is old enough to say, "I was the remote for our TV growing up."

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