Cutting the Cord: Saying Goodbye to Cable

This past weekend we finally pulled the plug on cable in the Coleman household. It’s an idea we’ve been flirting with over the past year or so, culminating in me starting to take it a whole lot more seriously over the past 6 weeks or so. Truth be told, we essentially cut cable in our house a couple of weeks ago when I unplugged the primary cable feed coming into the house in order to jack in the Over the Air (OTA) Antenna feed.

Over these past couple of weeks we haven’t missed cable at all. Sure the kids have missed having something like Teletoon or Treehouse always there as an option but the truth is, they don’t watch a lot of TV and when they do it’s usually at times when at least a few channels have some sort of kid programming on. In fact, I’d argue we’ve been enjoying the programs we do watch live a lot more because the picture quality is far superior to the compressed feeds you get through a cable broadcaster. We made the switch over Superbowl weekend so we were even able to watch the “real” commercials on our NBC channel without having a Canadian broadcaster air their coverage over it.

We get roughly 20 channels in HD, including a handful that we couldn’t receive on Cable; for example, who would have thought that I’d have to get rid of cable to get a 24 hour music video station? (CoolTV)

Research, Research, Research.

My advice to anyone thinking about making the jump to an OTA solution is to read up and get a gameplan together. The technology isn’t complex but you really do need to get a sense of how the gear works, and what the right tools for the ‘job’ are. If you’re a fellow Canadian, don’t waste anytime Googling – just head straight to Digitalhome.ca, specifically, their OTA forum. Hands down this forum consistently had the best information & it seems like a really supportive community. Their reception results threads will help you get a good handle on what channels you should be able to get & what kind of gear you’ll need to get them. Indeed, it was these forums that convinced me to keep going after my initial experiments.

Be Ready to Experiment – take it one step at a time

While we’re not talking about huge sums of money, the bits and pieces can add up – my final tally for gear & materials was ~$300 but I got to that total over the course of a few steps of investigation. After reading the forums and seeing what folks in my area were using I decided to go with a CM4221HD antenna.  Part of the reason I chose this particular model was I knew I had to mount my antenna in the attic (we live in a condo townhome & can’t mount antenna’s high on exterior walls etc.) and as a result I had a finite sized opening that the antenna needed to fit through.

Step One – Can I Get Anything?

I initially bought the antenna, mounted it on a broomstick in a Christmas tree stand in the family room and got a basic feel for what channels I’d be able to receive.  While initial results were okay I was missing a couple of key channels (CTV, NBC, FOX) but after reading up some more it was clear that once properly mounted I’d likely fill in those blanks. At this stage I was fairly sure an amp was also going to be my saviour so I added a CM7777 preamp to the mix and CTV immediately joined the channel line-up.

Step Two – Is my cabling good enough?

Something to be aware of is that not all cabling is created equally (RG-59 is a little more lossy than the preferred RG-6). My son’s room has an unused cable jack in it that I planned to tie into once I mounted the antenna in the attic from there that cable runs down into the basement where it joins up with the cable splitters. My concern, of course, was that over the run of cable down two floors then back up a floor and a half to our TV (plus a long run in the family room itself from wall to TV) that I’d start losing signal quality & thus channels. So before mounting it in the attic I moved the patchwork broomstick contraption up to the upstairs room, plugged it in and went downstairs to see what I could receive. NBC joined the ranks but it was still a little touch and go. The good news was though, that all of the other channels remained BUT I had to pivot the antenna to get all of them – the CN Tower & Buffalo are unfortunately ~50-70 degrees separated for me so I was getting concerned about maybe having to add a second antenna in (which complicates everything). I decided though to take a flyer and install just the one antenna in the attic & see how things went.

Step Three – Install

My attic is blown insulation, so I was really, really hoping I didn’t have to go crawling around in it. As luck would have it there was the perfect vertical post in the rafters right next to the attic opening. First things first, I had to make sure I could run the cable. Thankfully the jack in one son’s room shares a wall with the closet of my other son’s room so I could just drill into the closet, run the wire up the back corner of the closet and through the ceiling, cheating it closer to the attic opening. I then just made sure to aim the cables natural curve to roughly the direction of the opening. Sure enough the cable ended up pretty close and a little nudge with a brook stick was enough to get a hand on it. I managed to do the whole install from the opening on top of a ladder.

Then it was time to mount the antenna and amp in the attic – the “professional” way would probably be to use a J-mount – a $60 mount that’s basically a short stump of vertical pipe attached to a mounting plate. But that’s not the “maker” way, so instead I improved with 2, $2 1″ 90deg PVC elbows (pictured above center). That hole in the side was my addition to help counteract the one challenge of using these elbows. Basically the mounting hardware was just two half-circle brackets that you’d place over the pipe and screw into the wood behind. The challenge was the weight of the antenna would cause the elbow to pivot/rotate. So what I did was put the first bracket on. Got the elbow level and then drove a screw threw the wall of the elbow opposite the hole and into the post, to tack it into place. Then put the second bracket on (above right)

Then I mounted the antenna and added a second elbow to mount the mast half of the CM7777 pre-amp I mentioned earlier. You can see the finished mounting below on the left.

Next it was time to trim the cable back at the jack I was going to tie into and mount the pre-amp power supply – because the jacks were behind my son’s dresser, and you’re supposed to keep the power supply as close to the antenna as possible I just went with a simple wall mount for the amp. Last but not least, the conversion was completed by plugging this line into the source on the primary splitter in the basement.

And that was it – to celebrate FOX finally decided to come in and join the OTA party as well. A little tweaking via walkie talkie between my son and I and we actually managed to get the antenna dialed in so we only need one to get almost all our channels. Our only sacrifice was OMNI2 but I honestly can’t tell you the last time I watched that station.

Step Four – Enjoy

So like I said, we’re getting a whole whack of channels including: CBC English, CBC French, CTV, Global, CHCH, CITS, City, Omni1, NBC (+WGRZ2), CBS, ABC, FOX, PBS (+PBS3), MyTV, The Country Network and The Cool TV.

Non OTA Sources

In addition to the OTA setup we’ve also got Netflix on all of the TVs in the house and our two primary TVs also have devices (PS3 Family Room, Samsung Blu-ray in the bedroom) that can play back files of our server in the basement. For serving up the media files I use the Serviio DLNA server, which I highly recommend. It’ll play almost anything and has a built in transcoder, so even if your device can’t play the native file format it will transcode the file into something the device will understand on the fly. It’ll also take live streams and pipe those to your TV and some members of the Serviio forum kindly maintain and update a list of available streams that automatically update when they show on your TV.

Savings

Cutting cable cuts about $60/month from our bill – with Netflix and one other subscription we add back ~$13 for a net savings of $47. Depending on how the next few months go, I may need to up our Internet connection to get us to the next bandwidth cap tier – we’ve got 80GB bit it’s tight. For another $10/month we double our connection speed and more than double our bandwidth cap. All-in-all we should be break even in 6-9 months which is more than reasonable.

Have you cut the cable? Got questions? Let me know in the comments below!

 

  • http://twitter.com/jasonwilliamsIN Jason Williams

    We abandoned cable a few years ago and couldn’t be more pleased.  Rather than pay the ridiculous subscription amount from the cable company, we now use a combination of the antenna (free HD networks) and a Roku box (TV internet app box).  Through the Roku we have subscriptions to Hulu ($7.99) and Netflix ($8.99).  The kids get all their favorite shows and movies through Netflix and mommy still gets all her taped network shows on Hulu.  One drawback of the antenna system is no digital recorder/Tivo.  Hulu takes care of that.  Long story short, we cut our almost $100 cable bill in less than half by just paying for internet and a few online sibscriptions.

  • http://ryancoleman.ca/ ryancoleman

    yeah – the only thing I’m considering adding is a Boxee Box to our setup to make accessing TV shows easier although Serviio has some capabilities that have mitigated that concern for now.

  • http://ryancoleman.ca/ ryancoleman

    Thanks Neil, TV fool is a great resource & I used it in the early stages (found through digitalhome). We got a pretty good number of our channels definitely all the greens.
    Ryan

  • Coleman Rob01

    Something to consider to enhance your experience with Netflix and other subscriptions. I subscribe to vpnmaster which for $3.95/month I get a US, UK, DE and CA ip addresses. I then flashed a couple of Netgear WNR3500L routers I have with dd-wrt vpn firmware (Turns your $60 router into a $400 router) and setup vpn tunnels to the US and UK. Now either through PC’s or our PlayStation we enjoy the UK and US Netflix catalogues. If you want to do this, don’t buy a Boxee (Been there, returned that) as its firmware seems to be tied to the country it was bought in (PlayStation doesn’t seem to care.. thank god) and would only show the Canadian catalogue. On another similar note, we dumped out home phone for ITPvoip.com.
    1 Line 500min north american long distance $9.99/month no tax (US company) month to month contract. I opted for the 19.99 plan, 2 lines (2 numbers) 1000 min north american long distance. I checked a year of Rogers bill and we’ve never gone over 750 min/month.

  • http://ryancoleman.ca/ ryancoleman

    Yeah – we’re using a similar service for US/UK sites but it’s DNS based so there’s no need for VPNs etc & it doesn’t impact our access to Canadian sites/content – it just automatically routes us based on what the site is looking for.
    For now I’ve just flipped our PS3 & one of the laptops onto it & leave everything else routed normally – been working great so far. Phone we just have the most stripped down home line possible – we use our cells way more than our home phone now.

  • Anonymous

    Great write up Ryan!

    In our OTA install at home we were able to mount an antenna on a juliette balcony so no going on the roof, but I used a cheap $25 job from the computer outlet stores. I wanted to see how cheap I could get. I don’t get the US channels but get just the Canadian ones (9 I think in total). I avoided wiring the antenna into our cable plant since it is a total mess (thanks Rogers) and decided to plant antennas near every TV for most flexibility and ability to rotate. I was surprised to find that the cheapest antenna possible gives you the basic Canadian channels. Even in the basement.

    The Antennas Direct http://www.antennasdirect.com/ ClearStream2 I found to be an excellent indoor/outdoor antenna and may use it in the future. My son installed it at a  house of someone who wanted the US channels on the 3rd floor attached to the wall, indoors and picked up most of the US channels from Thorrnhill, Ontario which is easily 100km away from Buffalo.  I think only NBC wasn’t available.

    The OTA for us for live sporting events and maybe the odd news broadcast. Rarely for TV broadcasts. I found that Netflix in Canada has a poor selection unless you want children’s shows. Not really worth the $8 per month, although the VPN options sound appealing I don’t think I want to risk that sort of setup long term. And it’s all about reducing cost right?

    The Synology Diskstations products for network attached storage (NAS) are simply astounding. Coupling an AppleTV with the firecore.com atv flash black makes for a compelling solution as well. A more full write up on Synology (these do a tremendous amount of work including webhosting, 3rd party apps etc)

    http://blog.newpathnetwork.org/2011/11/synology-nas-enclosures-your-own-cloud-and-media-center.html

    Here’s the AppleTV/firecore setup —

    http://blog.newpathnetwork.org/2011/11/tv-finally-gets-real-10-of-atv-flash-black.html

    All in about $100 for the antenna and cabling/grounding/accessories, $150 for the AppleTV setup and $250 for the NAS and 1TB hard drive I had lying around. So $500 or so for a 1 TV setup.