Humboldt County HDTV
HDTV Is On The Way
HDTV and DTV service is coming soon to a television set near you, even if you live in Humboldt County. In February of 2009, most broadcasters across the county will be changing the frequencies that they currently broadcast at and start transmitting their signals in an all-digital format called DTV (Digital Television). The only over-the-air analog TV signals remaining will be that of Low-Power Television (LPTV) stations.
U.S. Government To The Rescue?
Many would argue that the Federal Government seems to be helping its citizens adjust to digital television in much the same manner as it helped the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Too little, too late. Few people seem to know what the transition to DTV will mean, or how it will affect them.
For those of you who do not have HDTV-ready television sets, the federal government has coupons for you. That’s right, every household in the United States is eligible to receive up to two (2) coupons good for $40 each towards the purchase of a government-approved “CECB” converter box. This box will allow you watch digital TV (DTV) signals on older, analog TV sets. Think of this as a bonus on top of your IRS “economic stimulus” check. Unfortunately, all of the CECB receivers we have found currently retail for $50 and up. It is highly questionable whether these converters will ever reach the $40 mark, making them free to consumers.
You can receive your coupons via mail from a program run by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Why the program is not administered by the Federal Communications Commission, I have no clue. In any event, you can apply to receive your coupons online at the website address: https://www.dtv2009.gov/ApplyCoupon.aspx , or call 1-800-DTV-2009 to get the forms mailed to you.
Once having filled out the form, you will be placed on a waiting list to receive your coupons. You will have less than 90 days to make use of the coupons once you receive them. Locally, you should be able to buy one of these CECB converters at Radio Shack, if they are in stock. I have even seen them sold at Walgreen’s in Fortuna recently. If you want to purchase a box over the Internet, the situation is a bit more muddled, since most online checkout systems have absolutely no clue as to how to handle discounts from a government coupon. You can currently find many units available on Amazon.Com though.
If you are a cable television subscriber, you will not need a new converter in order to watch channels on cable, before or after February 2009. Most cable channels are already transmitted in a proprietary digital format that can only be decoded by their own cable converters. If you already have a cable converter that is leased or sold to you by your cable company, that should be all you need. On some cable systems, channels on “basic” tiers will continue to be transmitted to subscribers in the pre-2009 (NTSC) analog format. If a local station switches to digital, the cable company may decide to “downconvert” the station’s digital (DTV) into analog, which would allow you to continue receiving local channels without a DTV converter box. That decision is up to your local cable television provider though.
If you subscribe to television service via satellite (i.e. DirecTV or DISH Network) you will not need a new converter to watch HD signals, because satellite broadcasters also use their own type of proprietary digital format. The DTV switchover should not affect you at all.
If you receive TV broadcasts via “rabbit ears”, an outdoor antenna, an antenna built-in to your television set or even just a coat hanger, you WILL need a CECB converter box in order to watch most local television stations after February 2009. If you already have an HDTV-Ready television set, it already has a digital tuner built-in. No converter should be necessary in that case. Almost all plasma and LCD flat screen TV sets sold in the past two years have digital tuners built-in. You will only need a converter if you have an older set that only tunes-in analog TV signals.
So, what is the difference between DTV and HDTV? All full-power (non-LPTV) broadcasters will be switching to DTV in February 2009. DTV simply stands for Digital Television. It produces a picture that is arguably equal in quality to a traditional analog TV signal, which is what most broadcasters currently use.
On the other hand, High Definition Television (HDTV) is unlikely to be used by the majority of broadcasters for some time to come. It produces a much higher quality picture than traditional analog or standard DTV broadcasts. However, it is still a very expensive broadcast technology to deploy, and few stations will be switching to it in the near term. All television stations that broadcast HDTV signals will be doing so via a digital signal (DTV). However, few who broadcast in DTV will have HDTV. Clear as mud?
What You See…
You will NOT be able to see the “High Definition” version of DTV broadcasts (if HDTV is broadcast locally) any more than you would be able to listen to a stereo TV broadcast with a TV that has only one speaker, or a color broadcast with a black-and-white TV, even if you have a converter box. Only HDTV ready televisions are capable of displaying the higher definition picture.
The CECB converter boxes will at least allow you watch DTV programming in standard resolution after the old VHF and UHF analog channels have switched to digital in 2009 though, and you will be able to use them to receive most local TV stations in Humboldt County right away. Keep in mind, these converters are only meant to pick up OVER-THE-AIR, local broadcasts. So, you will still need an external antenna of some type to pick up a signal. If you are not currently within range of analog TV reception, a converter will not likely be of much use to you.
I currently use a standard HDTV set at my home in Eureka and receive most of the local stations in DTV using a fairly large, outdoor, mast-mounted UHF Yagi antenna. I can’t say as I am all that impressed with the type of signal that I receive from most local broadcasters, but it is a better picture than I could get on many of the older analog simulcasts. My house actually resides BELOW sea level, so I am probably lucky to get any signal at all.
Unlike with analog broadcasts, DTV is an “all-or-nothing” type of proposition. You will either get a perfect signal, or none at all. In that regards, it is much like satellite television. Gone will be the days of watching TV in fringe areas with weak reception. You will either get a signal, or you won’t. Occasionally, you may see the signal fading in quality due to weather conditions. When this happens, you will typically start to see what is called pixelation on the screen. This may be followed by the screen “freezing” on a single frame, or going black altogether.
This “all-or-nothing” DTV quality has its obvious downsides, but in most cases much can be done to improve the chances of receiving a signal just good enough to keep the tuner “locked” on a channel. By far, the best investment you can make is in a high-gain, directional, outdoor UHF TV antenna. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Generally speaking though, the bigger, the better. A 10′ long “ugly” rooftop antenna will always outperform a “cute” looking circular antenna or pair of rabbit ears.
What Type of Antenna?
First of all, I highly advise you NOT to buy any antenna that is small enough to set on top of your TV set, even if it has an amplifier built into it. The whole concept of adding an amplifier to an antenna that is only inches away from your TV set makes little sense. While the signal of the DTV stations may be increased by the amplifier, so will any background noise or interference. To make matters worse, indoor antennas suffer from what is called “multipath”. Indoors, a TV signal will bounce off walls, doors and other objects much the same as light will bounce off a mirror. Unfortunately, DTV does not handle multipath situations very well. You will be infinitely better off with an outdoor antenna that has a line-of-sight view of the station’s transmitter.
So, what will you need in order to set up a proper antenna for DTV reception? The materials are much the same as are used when installing a home satellite dish. The majority of the cost will be in the antenna itself.
Most high-quality, directional, outdoor antennas are referred to as Yagi antennas. The name came from the designer of the original antenna concept. These antennas will give you the most DTV bang for your buck. The outdoor antenna should be connected to your television or converter box via high-quality RG-6 coaxial cable, which is the same cabling used in satellite and most cable television installations. Each end of the cable must be fitted with “F” connectors, which are available from any hardware store. You can usually buy coaxial cable with F connectors already fitted to each end in 25′ lengths.
You will also need an antenna mast. These can typically be found at Radio Shack or at local hardware stores. They usually come in heights of 6′ and 10′. You may be able to save a few bucks by substituting metal pipe for an antenna mast. In that case, look for pipe that has around a 1.5″ outside diameter.
Lastly, you will need some type of mounting bracket. There are numerous types of mounting brackets for antenna masts, depending what you plan to mount the mast on. There are mounting brackets specially designed to affix your mast to a chimney, among other things. Typically, you will be mounting the antenna on the side of a house though. These brackets are easy to find online and locally at places like Radio Shack.
If you have to run at least 75′ of cable between your antenna and DTV receiver, it might be a good investment to purchase a mast mounted pre-amplifier. The best place to amplify a signal is as close to the antenna itself as possible. The closer to the receiver an amplifier is located, the less good it will do you. If you are unsure of whether you will need a pre-amp, you can always buy one after installing the antenna, later on. They are relatively simple to install and will mount on the mast directly below the antenna itself. Your money will be best spent investing in as big an antenna as possible first though. Only if you still can not get a watchable signal should you then consider adding a pre-amp.
One other option that you may want to consider if you are in a very “fringe” DTV area is an antenna rotor. What does it do? To put it simply, an antenna rotor allows you to rotate your outdoor DTV antenna at a 360 degree angle without having to go outside and move it manually. While the majority of television broadcasters in the area transmit their signal from somewhere high atop Kneeland Mountain, there are stations like KIEM-TV that place their main transmitter and low-power translators in alternative locations. It might be necessary in some cases to change the direction your antenna is pointing in to get a decent signal from each station. A good quality rotor is a significant investment, so you will definitely want to see if you can get decent reception without using one at first. Most rotors these days come with a wireless remote that will store the position of your favorite channels in memory. If you are unsure of what type of antenna rotor you will need for your particular installation, it is best to ask a professional. As is the case with most antennas, the bigger, the better. An underpowered or cheap-o rotor is the part of your system that is most likely to break-down first, especially if you live in an area with high winds.
What NOT To Buy
If you rely solely upon advice from a salesperson at a local electronics store, you are bound to be disappointed with what you have paid for. The majority of salespeople have never installed an antenna, and most are paid a higher commission for selling you the most expensive solution possible, NOT the BEST solution possible. If you need advice, go to a website or shop locally with a dealer that specializes in selling Over The Air antennas. If you can’t find one, look for dealers or installers that handle satellite television equipment. Many of the older satellite dealers have extensive experience in installing Over The Air antennas.
Some items that you should definitely steer clear of are things such as worthless gold-plated connectors and accessories. None of these will improve your signal significantly. In fact, most brands only use gold plating for the ground portion of the connector, which doesn’t even carry the signal! These overpriced items exist for one reason only. To sucker people out of their money. If you meet a salesperson claiming that anything gold-plated will improve your signal, don’t walk away… RUN!
Another nearly worthless contraption is the small, indoor antenna that is shaped like a satellite dish. You will be no better off with these than with a 99 cent pair of “rabbit ears”. Like gold-plated connectors, these things are for cosmetic purposes only. The “dish” portion of the antenna serves absolutely no functional purpose whatsoever.
You should also avoid in-line amplifiers on short runs of cable (i.e. 75′ or less). Line amplifiers are only meant to help in conditions where there is a significant loss of signal between the antenna and the receiver. Unless your antenna is a very long distance away from the receiver, a line amp is not going to do you much (if any) good. It might even make the picture worse.
“Flat antennas”, circular antennas and omnidirectional antennas will only work well in limited situations, where you are very close to a TV station’s transmitter. A traditional, directional antenna will always outperform these, and usually at a lower price. The bigger and uglier the antenna, the more likely it is to work well. The less something looks like an antenna, the less it tends to perform like an antenna. The only situation where I would recommend these types of antennas are in situations where zoning restrictions do not allow you to erect a real antenna, or if you live in an apartment building.
“House wiring” antennas are also just a gimmick. They claim to use your home’s electrical wiring as an antenna for television reception. There are many, many reasons why these devices do not work as advertised. They might sound good in theory to the average consumer, but anyone who knows anything about antennas knows that you would be better off just using a coat hanger and saving your money.
Snap-On F connectors are completely inferior to threaded, crimped on F connectors. Avoid any cable with connectors that are not threaded. Similarly, you should avoid bargain-brand RG-6 coaxial cable if you want good reception. Good quality coaxial cable is the second most important part of any antenna system, next to the antenna. Belden makes quality cable. That brand is usually a safe bet. The more shielding coaxial cable has, the better. Typically, high-quality RG-6 coaxial cable will feel a bit “stiff” and you will have a difficult time bending it at a 90 degree angle. Never use cable that has a “floppy” or “rubbery” quality to it, or that appears smaller in diameter to other RG-6 cable. Do NOT use RG-59 or other types of coaxial cable that are cheaper, but inferior in design.
How To Get HD On Your HDTV
So, you’ve spent a lot of money on a fancy, new flat panel, HDTV ready TV set. The picture may have looked great when you saw it in the store at Costco, but it looks lousy in your living room. What’s the deal? First of all, you can bet that the picture you were watching at the store was from either satellite or a Blu-Ray DVD player. If you want the best picture you can possibly see on your HDTV set, you will need to buy a Blu-Ray DVD player or a Playstation III console that has one built in to it. At the moment, these players are still rather pricey. Eventually, they will replace most home DVD players. For the moment though, you will have to shell out some serious cash for both a player and the limited number of discs that are available for it.
If you thought that you might be able to get an HDTV signal over the air for free with an antenna, you are in for a long wait. No local broadcasters have yet announced plans to offer their signals in HDTV. They are not required to do so by law, and it will likely be years before any stations are broadcasting in high definition.
So, what are your alternatives? Right now, cable and satellite subscription services are your only real options. The local cable company in most of Humboldt County is SuddenLink Communications. They claim to currently have up to 21 channels available in HD. Pricing for their services are not published, so we can’t give you an apples vs apples comparison to satellite TV providers whom openly advertise their subscription rates.
The United States currently has two DBS satellite providers who offer service to consumers via small, pizza sized antennas. They are DirecTV and DISH Network. Currently, DirecTV has the most HDTV channels and programming available. When comparing the two side-by-side, DirecTV is definitely the leader when it comes to the number of channels available, number of sports packages available and in receiver technology. DISH Network mainly advertises themselves as an alternative to cable and is a bit more competitive on price.
There are a few sources of HDTV programming that the majority of the public is totally unaware of. They are usually more expensive than cable or standard DBS service, but are worth considering if you can afford it.
The first alternative is a C-Band satellite system with a 4DTV receiver. C-Band satellites operate on different frequencies than that of DBS providers. These were the first satellite systems available to home users, and generally require a dish antenna that is at least 6′ wide. In Humboldt County, which has marginal reception of most U.S. satellites, I would not recommend anything smaller than a 9′ dish. Next to Blu-Ray, the HDTV picture you will get with C-Band 4DTV programming is the best you can find. Programming packages are much more flexible than with DBS providers and subscription services are the cheapest you will find anywhere. The trade-off is the expense involved in setting up a C-Band system and the amount of space it will take-up in your yard. Expect to spend in the neighborhood of $1,500 or more to have such a system installed. This is definitely NOT a “do-it-yourself” type of project if you are unfamiliar with how these systems work. The biggest upside with these systems is the fact that you can get a lot of programming “in the clear”, which means free and unscrambled, that is quite simply unavailable anywhere else. With the proper hardware you can pull-in hundreds of TV channels and radio stations across North America and even some from Central America. A C-Band system is the ultimate in home entertainment. No cable or DBS system in the world provides as much programming as is available using a “Big Ugly Dish”. Still, only a small percentage of it is currently broadcast in HD.
Another alternative that is well beyond the reach of most consumers is the unadvertised DirecTV Titanium package. For $7,500 a year, you get every single channel that DirecTV broadcasts. This includes all HDTV channels, all pay-per-view movies and events, all local network affiliates… everything. I can’t imagine anywhere else that you could possibly get more HD programming from. It certainly isn’t cheap though.