The Rapidian

Cutting the Cord – Step One: Over the Air HDTV in Grand Rapids, MI

Underwriting support from:

/Will Hartwell

 To promote the Grand Rapids Technology Partnership’s (GRTP) goals of providing technology education and promoting technology use in the region, GRTP Partner Will Hartwell is writing the “Cutting the Cord” series.  In this series, Will discusses how he has replaced traditional paid television service with free alternatives through the use of an Over-The-Air antenna and a Home Theater PC.

 

First things first. 

To justify cancelling pay TV, I would first need to determine which TV networks I could receive, for free, with an Over The Air (OTA) antenna.  Ideally, a solid antenna would provide me free access to the four major networks (ABC, CBS, FOX, and NBC) as well as a number of other minor offerings (The CW, PBS, etc.).

Before I get into things I should note that there is no such thing as an “HD” antenna.  All TV antennas are capable of picking up HD broadcasts as long as they are connected to a digital tuner.  Although most HD Television sets have these tuners built-in, TV’s without digital tuners (i.e. older TV’s) can pick up digital broadcasts by using a converter box.  So when you see an antenna advertised as being “HD Compatible,” it doesn’t mean anything special.

So anyway, I began my search by heading to AntennaWeb, a wonderful online resource designed to tell users – based on their address and other location data – which TV stations will be able to be received by which types of antennas.

From the beginning I knew that I would be limited.  I live in a condo and, as such, I would not be able to place an antenna outdoors.  With this in mind, I had to take my AntennaWeb results with a grain of salt, as their rating system is specifically designed for outdoor antennas.  Nonetheless, the results were still helpful, especially in their ability to map my proximity to area TV towers.

 

Antenna Number 1: RadioShack DA-5200

The next step was picking out my antenna.  According to my AntennaWeb results, I would need a Medium Directional Antenna (i.e. Red Zone) to pick up the four major networks.   Now, these antennas can be a little pricey, so I first tried my luck with a smaller, more modestly priced indoor/outdoor antenna, theRadioShack DA-5200 ($59.99 at RadioShack).

I placed the antenna near the window in my upstairs bedroom and pointed it toward the southern sky – the direction recommended by AntennaWeb based on my location in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids.  I turned on my HDTV and set the built-in digital tuner to scan for channels.

To my dismay, I found that only Fox 17 (Digital Channel 17.1) came in clear.  Although I was treated to Saturday Afternoon Baseball in its full HD glory, I was unable to get my tuner to even recognize the other network channels – even after moving the antenna throughout the entire second floor of the condo.

But to be honest, I kind of expected this.  I purchased an underpowered antenna to see how it would do, and expected better than sub-par results?

 

Antenna Number 2: Antennas Direct ClearStream 2

For the next antenna I decided to head to the opposite end of the spectrum.  I walked into a local BestBuy and asked an associate for the best (in-store) antenna they had.  He handed me the Antennas Direct ClearStream 2 Long-Range Antenna ($105.99).

The ClearStream 2 was significantly larger than the DA-5200, but ultimately I didn’t mind as long as it did its job.  After some minor assembly I aimed the antenna to again point out the window toward the southern sky.  After scanning the digital spectrum, my tuner picked up a number of additional channels.  Unfortunately, these were mostly PBS, public-access, and religion-based networks – networks that, although nice to have, were not enough to justify the drop from pay-TV.  The ClearStream 2 did pick up two ABC stations – WZZM (Channel 13.1) in Grand Rapids and WOTV (Channel 41.1) in Battle Creek, but overall still left me with much to be desired.

[I should note here that the ClearStream 2 is listed as an outdoor antenna, and therefore will not produce ideal results when placed indoors.  So I did my due diligence and tested it outdoors on the awning outside my bedroom window.  Unfortunately, I was still unable to receive either WWMT (CBS, Digital Channel 3.1) or WOODTV (NBC, Digital Channel 8.1).]

 

More Research Needed

I was beginning to get a little frustrated.  You would think that someone living in a relatively large metro area like Grand Rapids would live close enough to the local TV transmitters to receive a full signal, right?

So I began to do some research.  It didn’t take long before I came across a blog entry on WOODTV’s website entitled “Digital TV and Indoor Antennas,” written by Dave DeJonge, WOODTV’s Internet Director.  In the article, Mr. DeJonge explains that WOODTV (NBC),  WXMI TV (FOX), WOTV (ABC), and WWMT (CBS) are all located in the geographic center of the intended coverage area.  Basically, the fact that Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Holland are so close to each other means that instead of each city getting its own stations, all four cities have to share the same stations, forcing the antennas away from metro Grand Rapids and closer to a point between all four cities.  So as opposed to cities like Lansing and Detroit, where TV towers are a lot closer to their respective metro areas, places like Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo are left in the dark.

I also discovered the importance of determining whether an antenna is capable of receiving VHF (Very High Frequency) and/or UHF (Ultra High Frequency) transmissions.  VHF antennas can pick up channels 2-13, while UHF antennas pick up channels 14 and on.  Although most antennas today are both UHF and VHF, some may work a lot better with one type of frequency than the other.  For example, although the ClearStream 2 could pick up UHF channels from 50 miles away, it struggled with VHF stations a mere 20 miles away – which explains why it wasn’t able to pick up channels 3.1 (CBS) and 8.1 (NBC).

 

Antenna Number 3: Antennacraft HDX1000 – We Have A Winner!

So, armed with my new knowledge, I once again headed over to RadioShack (theAlpine location, which is apparently the regional HQ, has a pretty solid selection).  I explained my situation to the associate, and he directed me to theAntennacraft HDX1000 ($79.99).  With a UHF range of 50 miles and a VHF range of 40 miles (and with a Red sticker indicating that it is a Medium Directional Antenna), this appeared to be the answer to my problems.  I hastily ran home to test it out.

It did not disappoint (for the most part, at least).  Digital Channels 8.1 (NBC), 13.1 (ABC), and 17.1 (FOX) all came in crystal clear, as did pretty much all of the secondary channels (including the CW, a couple of weather channels, and three PBS channels).  The only desired channel that I couldn’t get was channel 3.1 (CBS), which, according to the super-helpful AVS Forum for Grand Rapids HDTV, is nearly impossible to get if you live anywhere near the city, especially if you are limited to an indoor antenna.

So in the end, I found an antenna that was able to receive MOST of the channels I wanted.  And honestly, of all the networks we watch, CBS is probably the one we watch the least, and most of its content is available online (we particularly enjoy “How I Met Your Mother” and “The Big Bang Theory.”)  The only major thing we are missing out on is CBS’s NFL coverage in the fall.  However, given the fact that both my wife and I support out-of-state teams (I the Browns, my wife the Colts), we can rarely get our games over-the-air anyway.

But I digress.  For some more antenna-related resources, check out: HDTV Antenna Labs and TV Antenna Source.  And as always, if you have any questions about OTA Antennas or anything related to “Cutting the Cord,” feel free to leave them in the comments.

Up Next: how to choose a Home Theater PC.

Stay Tuned.

 

About Will:  Will is a Partner in the Grand Rapids Technology Partnership and an Associate Attorney at Paparella & Associates, an Intellectual Property Law Firm here in Grand Rapids, MI.  Will lives with his wife, Becky, in the East Hills neighborhood of Grand Rapids.  He can be reached at [email protected]

 

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Comments

 Thanks for this info Will. I went through the same process when I got my converter box. I tried a couple powered antennas but they didn't work well since the tv is in our basement. Up in the attic was an older antenna someone had mounted there before we owned the house. I fed the end of that cable to the converter box and was amazed how well it picked up the local digital channels. But I've never received even a whiff of the CBS affiliate (WWMT). I think their tower is south of the Gun Lake area--furthest away from GR. WOOD TV (8.1) sometimes degrades depending on weather but works well about 90% of the time. 

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