How to switch from satellite to over-the-air TV

A couple of months ago, my wife and I got rid of our family’s satellite dish. I hesitate to call this “cord-cutting” because our entire family entertainment system still depends on a rather significant cord — the one that feeds data into and out of our high-speed cable modem-based Internet connection. Nevertheless, like other cord-cutters, our desire was cost savings. We knew there was a vast discrepancy between how much we were using our Dish Network subscription versus how much we were paying for it. We took an inventory of what we were actually watching via our dish and came up with a reasonably short list:

  • The whole family, but especially the children, watched a lot of the Disney Channel. They especially loved watching it with the Disney Now app on their tablets, which required our Dish Network login to unlock most content
  • The children also enjoyed a few Nickelodeon shows
  • Rose enjoyed several Food Network programs
  • We definitely wanted to keep watching network shows such as The Flash, Supergirl, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and Jeopardy!
  • And an electronic program guide and DVR were must-haves

That just didn’t feel like $72.12 per month worth of content to us. But what was our alternative? We knew our kids could live without the few shows they watched on Nickelodeon because the Disney Channel gave them so many appealing choices to choose from. And we could take some of the money we were paying Dish Network each month and instead purchase via Amazon Video full seasons of the Food Network shows Rose enjoyed the most — and still save a lot of money.

So that meant all we really wanted were the major broadcast networks and the Disney Channel. And we thought the desire to keep the Disney Channel would be the tether that kept us tied to a disproportionate monthly satellite TV bill. But then Disney CEO Bob Iger announced a little something called Disney+.

Best Disney CEO (besides Walt) ever?

I’ve long dreamed of à la carte cable service — pick and choose your own channels. I’d also long given up on that ever being a possibility because offering such a thing just isn’t in cable or satellite companies’ financial interests. But that option is kind of here now! With the plethora of streaming services now (and soon-to-be) available, there’s really no longer any reason for you to pay for programming you’re not going to watch.

With the impending launch of Disney+, Rose and I realized that if we could get our local channels via over-the-air TV, we could drop Dish Network. We didn’t know anything about HDTV antennas, but over the following few months, we learned a lot. In this article, I’ll share the details of how we went about making the switch in the hopes of informing others who might be thinking about taking the same plunge.

We made our cutover via a three-phase process.

Phase 1: Proof-of-Concept
POC-antennaWe started by purchasing a relatively inexpensive tabletop HDTV antenna just to try it out and see what kind of reception we could get. This antenna was connected directly to our television, so to watch it, we had to switch our TV to the antenna input. It also had no DVR and no on-screen channel guide, but it did let us start to explore what it was like to pick up our local channels over-the-air. We quickly learned a few things:

  • The basic setup for over-the-air TV is: plug your antenna into the TV, let the TV do a scan to inventory all the channels it can receive, and enjoy.
  • We live in a northeastern suburb of San Antonio, and all of the major networks have their antennas south of the city. That means we’re about twenty to twenty-five miles from most broadcast antennas, which isn’t bad but isn’t particularly desirable either.
  • Obtaining good reception meant frequently repositioning the tabletop antenna for optimal reception of whatever channel we happened to be watching at the moment.
  • We couldn’t receive our area’s VHF channels at all, which meant no PBS and no ABC, which was a big problem because America’s Funniest Home Videos is our favorite family show.
  • Multiplexed networks meant we now received some fun sub-channels Dish Network didn’t carry, like Antenna and Comet and MeTV.

Overall, we considered the cheap tabletop antenna a considerable success, though it was clear we’d need a far more powerful antenna before all was said and done. But we were ready to move to the next level.

Phase 2: Adding DVR
Who watches TV without time-shifting or skipping commercials today? DVR and an on-screen channel guide were musts for us. Luckily, there are a lot of products out there that do this. There’s Tivo, Roku, and a whole ton of others.

We decided on the Amazon Fire TV Recast. The way it works is pretty simple.

  • The Recast is just a box that contains a hard drive and a CPU. You plug your over-the-air antenna cable into it, and you hook it up to wifi or a wired Ethernet connection.
  • It uses its data connection to download program guide data from Amazon, and it uses its hard-drive and CPU to record programs for you when they’re on.
  • Notice I said nothing about any kind of output to your TV. That’s because it has none. You watch TV — either live or recorded — via an Amazon Fire TV Stick. The Fire TV Stick sees the Recast on your home network and treats it as just another source of programming.

Because of its dependence upon Fire TV Stick, the Recast works only in conjunction with Fire TV devices, but since we were already Amazon Prime subscribers, a further step into the Amazon eco-system didn’t concern us. The Fire TV Stick and Recast were both straightforward to set up and use.

As a proof-of-concept, we set up a timer to record Jeopardy! This was a great test program because it airs every weekday, so we were often testing. It airs on one of the channels we were receiving the strongest. And since we still had Dish Network, and since our Dish Network receiver was also recording Jeopardy! for us daily, we had nothing to lose. We planned to watch the Recast recordings of Jeopardy! when we could, and fall back to watching the Dish Network recordings when it failed.

But it didn’t fail that often! The biggest problem was our tabletop antenna would get bumped and moved and positioned in a way that kept us from receiving the appropriate channel well or at all, and so the Recast would fail to record that day’s episode. But when it worked, it worked wonderfully.

Satisfied that the Recast’s channel guide and DVR would work well for us, we moved on to the final step: a more powerful antenna.

Phase 3: Putting an antenna up on our roof
We have a two-story house, so I planned from the start to hire someone else to climb up there and mount our new antenna. Also, while I’d learned a lot by this point about VHF vs. UHF and unidirectional vs. multi-directional antennas, I was still far from being an expert, and I wanted someone who would know

  • What kind of antenna we needed
  • How to safely install it on the roof
  • And how to connect it to our existing home TV wiring

Antop400We found a reputable local contractor who knew what he was doing. (If you’re in the San Antonio area, I highly recommend Interlyte). He knew how to mount the antenna on the roof, and he knew what kind of antenna we needed — which turned out to be an Antop 400. He knew how to make sure it would be powerful enough to pick up all available channels, including those VHF channels our tabletop antenna couldn’t.

In just a couple of hours, he had our Dish Network dish down and a new HDTV antenna up in its place, fully calibrated and wired into our existing home TV coaxial cabling. This antenna didn’t get bumped and repositioned incorrectly, like our tabletop antenna did. At last, we could receive the VHF channels, and they were crystal clear. We now received double the channels our first proof-of-concept antenna gave us.

We canceled our Dish Network account an hour later.

The final analysis
Switching to an over-the-air antenna brought us these one-time expenses:

  • Original “proof-of-concept” tabletop HDTV antenna ($25)
  • Fire TV Stick 4K ($35)
  • Fire TV Recast ($180)
  • Fire TV USB power cable ($20)
    • Optional. We have an electrician-installed channel hidden in the wall to invisibly run cables from the floorboard up to our wall-mounted TV, but for $20, this allowed me power the Fire TV Stick off the TV itself rather than running the power cable through the wall
  • Fire TV Ethernet Adapter ($15)
    • Optional. When we built our house, I had it wired with Cat 5e Ethernet cable for just this reason. Why stream HD video over wifi when you can do it via fast, shielded wired connection?
  • Roof-mounted HDTV antenna and professional installation ($449)

We had our Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions before we made this change, so the costs of those items remained consistent. We dropped our $72.12/month Dish Network bill and added a Disney+ subscription, which we got at the special D23 member introductory price of $4.24/month for three years.

For $724 worth of one-time expenses, we’re now saving $67.88/month on TV programming.

We’re incredibly happy we made this change. We still get to watch all the TV shows we really care about but at a fraction of the price, and it was far easier to switch than I thought it would be.