Information and Ideas for San Diego area Cord Cutters

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John Richeson X-PLUS Antenna CraftsmanIt has been almost forgotten that over-the-air TV broadcasting was once the predominant source of audio and video content for American consumers. Although many TV networks still provide free over-the-air broadcasts supported by advertising, cable television providers have dominated the distribution of video content since the 1970s by paying the networks for broadcast rights.

With the expansion of internet broadband and mobile services, however, consumers are no longer captive of the cable companies, and this blog will hopefully help San Diego area residents understand their options when it comes to reducing the cost of TV services.

Scan-Scan-Scan
Posted on June 24, 2017

A number of channel changes have taken place during the first two months of the FCC "repack" process, but unless you have been recanning, you will have missed them.

First, CW is now broadcasting on channel 8.2, and channels 6.1 and 6.2 have gone off the air. Two new channels, 23.1 (Tijuana Cánal 5 that used to broadcast on 6.2) and 29.1 (the Televisia replacement for 6.1) are live. Also Cánal ONCE has shifted from channel 11.1 to 46.1. With the exception of CW, none of these channel shifts involve a change in broadcast frequency, so less sensitive tuners may show the same content on multiple channels.

As for tuner sensitivity, a couple of local FM broadcasters are exceeding modulation limits, creating sideband interference on channels 8 (including the CW subchannel 8.2) and 10 on TV sets with lower quality tuners. This is a separate issue from those I discussed in my Size Matters blog post, and it is also unclear how the FCC "repack" is being coordinated with cross-border TV broadcasters and local FM stations.

Finally, the HSN and QVC networks have begun intermittent broadcasting on channels 7.1, 7.4, and 7.7, and are running pre-recorded content on channel 21.278. None of those channels are on frequencies subject to the FCC "repack", so new over-the-air content might be on the way... another reason to scan-scan-scan.

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FCC Channel Repack Begins
Posted on April 24, 2017

The FCC announced on April 13 that UCSD has accepted $24M to give up broadcast spectrum that it has been using for its UCTV content on channel 35.1, and that fitness/nutrition broadcaster KSEX has accepted $34M to give up spectrum it has been using to broadcast on channel 42.1 and three sub-channels. With the spectrum sale, these channels will cease over-the-air broadcasting on May 31 (UCTV content will remain available online).

The announcement that UCSD and KSEX will go off the air was part of the FCC's "Incentive Auction Closing and Channel Reassignment" Public Notice (see my earlier FCC blog post). The Public Notice covered not only channels that will cease broadcasting (Phase 1), but also channels that have agreed to move to other frequencies (Phase 2 "repack"). These channels include NBC, FOX, PBS, and Univisión, with frequency transitions to be completed by April 12, 2019. All these channels will still be UHF and retain their current antenna numbers (39.1, 69.1, 15.1, and 25.1), but a rescan will be necessary to receive them once the transition is complete.

Notably missing from the announcement, are several other San Diego and Mexican broadcast channels that will be impacted by the the FCC spectrum sale. These channels include Cánal ONCE (11.1), Korea YTV (18.1), Unimás (36.1), GALA TV (45.1), MyTV (49.1), and KSDY (50.1). Apparently, none of these channels will receive proceeds from the spectrum sale to pay the costs of a "repack", so some of them could enter into channel-sharing arrangements with other broadcasters (resulting in channel number changes), reduce power levels to mitigate cell phone interference, or even cease broadcasting.

The entire transition must be completed within 39 months of the FCC announcement in order for the cell phone companies who purchased the spectrum to begin using it, so plan on periodically rescanning your set(s) to stay current with the channel lineup as it changes.

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What's Happening to CW?
Posted on April 3, 2017

For those accustomed to watching CW network programs on channel 6.1, they will no longer be broadcast on that channel beginning May 1. Channel 6.1 is switching to the Spanish-language network Galavisión.

All is not lost for CW fans, however, since CBS affiliate KFMB will begin airing CW programs on subchannel 8.2 in place of the MeTV programming currently available on that subchannel. For users of small indoor antennas, though, this may mean losing CW, since channel 8.2 will broadcast in VHF from Mt. Soledad, and will be as difficult to receive as CBS broadcasts on 8.1 (see my "Why Size Matters" blog post).

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Why Size Matters
Posted on March 1, 2017

One of the most common complaints of cord cutters in the San Diego area is poor (or no) reception from channels 8 (CBS) and 10 (ABC).

With broadcast towers atop Mt. Soledad in La Jolla pumping out signals across the region at the full power authorized by the FCC for their stations, why is it so difficult to pick up these signals compared to all the other channels being broadcast in the region?

Part of the answer is in my Location blog post, but there is more to the story. The reality is that the cord-cutting movement is being driven by internet streaming alternatives, not a nostalgia for rooftop antennas, so over-the-air TV is often an "add-on", consisting of small, inexpensive flat indoor antennas that can be hung behind a picture frame, hidden in a corner or behind the TV set, and are simple to install.

The complaints begin when more is expected of these "add-on" antennas than they can deliver... expectations that are often created through hyped and misleading advertising.

A quick trip to the beach might help explain what this has to do with channels 8 and 10. Believe it or not, ocean waves have a lot in common with TV signals, where some waves are broad and rolling with substantial distances between wave peaks (referred to as "wavelength"), while others are small and rippling, with only a few feet (or less) between peaks. In viewing the ocean, it becomes obvious that it would take a longer boat to span between peaks of large rolling waves than between small rippling ones.

In San Diego area TV broadcasting, channels 8 and 10 are broad rolling (VHF) wave signals, while all other channels in the San Diego area are small rippling (UHF) wave signals, so like a boat, VHF channels 8 and 10 require a longer (in this case, wider) antenna than do the UHF channels. A simple mathematical formula is used to calculate wavelengths for broadcast frequencies, and none of the flat indoor antennas currently on the market is wide enough to effectively receive channels 8 and 10. Only a fully-extended set of old "rabbit ears" comes close, but they leave a lot to be desired from an aesthetic standpoint.

Unfortunately, with the FCC reallocating additional TV broadcast spectrum beginning in 2017 (see my FCC blog post), more channels could be joining channels 8 and 10 in broadcasting VHF signals, further reducing the channels viewable with inexpensive flat indoor antennas. Stay tuned for more information on spectrum reallocations as they are announced.

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To Amplify or not to Amplify?
Posted on February 1, 2017

Anyone who has turned the volume up - or down - on their TV, radio, or cell phone, has a basic understanding of what it means to put an amplifier in their TV antenna system.

Volume buttons increase or decrease the output of whatever is entering the receiver device. I emphasize the word output to highlight an important misunderstanding about TV antenna amplifiers. That misunderstanding is that somehow an amplifier will increase the number of channels that will be input to an antenna. Not only would that violate the laws of physics, but it would be a very unwanted thing if the volume button on your radio brought in other radio stations on top of the one you are listening to.

Meanwhile, there are numerous blog posts that demonstrably claim that more channels become viewable with an amplifier, just as there are numerous posts that complain that amplifiers either "don't do anything" or decrease the number of viewable channels.

So, what is going on? As I detailed in my Location blog post, over-the-air TV signals arrive at any given location from various directions with different signal strengths for each channel. The tuners built into TV sets, in turn, require a certain minimum signal input strength to lock onto a channel and output it to the screen, so stronger channels may be viewable when received on virtually any indoor or outdoor antenna, while the weaker ones may not. Signal fluctuations, and even weather conditions, can sometimes alter channel strengths and affect their viewability.

Under these conditions, the major problem with amplifiers is that they have no capacity to distinguish between strong signals and weak signals. They simply "turn up the volume" on every signal crossing the antenna. Obviously, for weak signals, this can be a good thing... making the channels viewable. For strong signals, however, it can be a bad thing, sometimes causing the signals to overload the TV tuner... making the channels unviewable. For antennas placed in "goldilocks" locations (no extra strong or weak signals crossing the antenna), an amplifier may not alter channel viewability one way or the other.

A secondary problem with amplifiers is that they generate "noise" on the line (much like radio static), and actually cause a slight reduction in the strength of all antenna input signals before they "turn up the volume" (technical electronic stuff). All of this explains the widely-differing experiences people have with amplifiers and why the "to amplify or not to amplify" question has no simple answer.

Generally, however, reception using a single-set TV antenna (usually indoor) is not improved with an amplifier. The only exception here, is if the TV set has a poor quality tuner (an entirely separate issue from channel viewability). On the other hand, it is best to install an amplifier on antennas (usually outdoor) used to distribute signals to multiple TV sets. In these cases, amplifiers should be installed as close to the antenna as possible, since cables and splitters cause signal loss, leaving less signal available to amplify downstream.

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Location, Location, Location
Posted on January 15, 2017

It is a common misconception that choosing a television antenna is all about "range", with numerous on-line ads touting "150-mile" ratings. Don't believe them. Even traditional chimney-mounted directional antennas with rotators have an effective range of about 80 miles when used by farmers in the wide-open cornfields of Iowa. Not to get technical, but TV signals generally travel in straight lines and do not follow the curvature of the earth (except in extreme atmospheric conditions). The visible horizon (commonly referred to as "Line of Sight") is the effective range limit for over-the-air TV reception anywhere on earth... and for all antennas, no matter what the sellers claim.

So that brings us to the first "location" parameter: proximity to broadcast towers. Most broadcast towers are placed on mountain tops so they can be "visible" farther out on the horizon, but distance is not the only consideration. The frequencies and power levels of channels being broadcast from those towers, are also critical factors in TV reception, and here, antenna selection begins to play a role. More on that later, but suffice it to say that "range" has more to do with broadcast tower output (regulated by the FCC) than with television antenna reception.

This brings us to the second "location" parameter: neighborhood geographics. San Diego environs are not like the wide-open cornfields of Iowa, and "line of sight" to TV towers can be as short as the nearest canyon ridge or a neighboring building. Nonetheless, lots of people watch over-the-air TV broadcasts in the San Diego area, so what is going on? Again, not to get technical, but those straight-line TV signals reflect off buildings and bounce off hillsides just like sunlight (see my FCC blog post), filling the spaces in between with TV signals that could be arriving from any direction. In this situation, "long range" antennas (which are directional by design) may actually decrease viewable channels if pointed toward broadcast towers. Also, the old axiom "higher is better" doesn't always hold when it comes to antenna installation in such a "multi-path" environment.

Which brings us to the third and final "location" parameter: home antenna placement. The only way over-the-air television can be viewed is if the antenna is placed in the path of a passing broadcast signal, and every time that signal reflects, bounces, or is obstructed before it reaches the antenna, it is weakened. That explains, in part, why indoor antennas are seldom as effective as outdoor antennas, and why rooftop antennas are generally more effective than attic antennas. Any antenna will perform better in the presence of a stronger signal, but there is absolutely nothing that can be done (such as using an "amplifier") to force broadcast signals to reach a television antenna. Moreover, different channel signals arrive at the antenna with different strengths, making preference for some channels over others the ultimate determinant of the best antenna placement at each home.

So what criteria can be used to select a TV antenna? It should be clear from this blog post that there is no single answer. Location is the primary determinant of over-the-air viewing quality, with one exception. If any channels are being broadcast in VHF (most are UHF), either an antenna capable of receiving both VHF and UHF signals (like the X-PLUS®) should be selected, or the signals from two separate antennas (one for VHF and one for UHF) will need to be combined. Entering your address in TVFool.com will provide information on local broadcast channels and their potential viewability in your area, but remember, the key factors will always be location, location, location.

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What's Up With NBC?
Posted on January 7, 2017

According to engineers at KNSD, the San Diego NBC affiliate broadcasting on channel 39.1, with sub-channels 39.2 (COZI) and 39.20 (TeleXito), transmission equipment on Mt. Miguel was damaged during the winter storm that passed through during the Christmas holiday weekend.

Initial damage assessment indicated a fairly quick repair, but unfortunately, new equipment had to be ordered and installed before transmissions could be returned to full broadcast power. All three channels will continue to experience intermittent periods of blackout and low signal transmission until permanent repairs can be completed by the end of January.

Although KNSD is a Full Power licensed broadcast station with FCC priority to provide over-the-air TV broadcasts, its broadcast frequency is scheduled to be reallocated to mobile broadband operations (see my FCC blog post) sometime during the next three years. As more information becomes available on how the FCC spectrum reallocation will impact San Diego TV broadcasters, it will be posted here.

UPDATE: NBC restored its broadcasts to full power on January 18.

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Balancing the Budget
Posted on January 3, 2017

Cutting the cord is about saving money, right? Once you have given the cable company the heave-ho, it is important to pay attention to the little things that can add up to a monthly cost number that is bigger than the one that shocked you into action in the first place.

Let's break it down. First, there is the unbundling penalty. Cancelling TV, but retaining internet service, will raise the monthly cost of internet while lowering the monthly bill. Adding subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Sling, HBO, and others, will quickly offset the savings. Even if you already subscribed to those services before cutting the cord, cancel subscriptions you don't use regularly.

Next is the smart TV. Do you really need one? If you have a TV set with an HDMI port, plugging in an inexpensive Roku streaming device is all it would take to "convert" that set to a smart TV (the only downside is having to use a second remote). Keep in mind that your monthly savings from cutting the cord is the difference between the bundled bill and the internet bill, and if some of that is used up in monthly subscriptions, the smart TV will be obsolute long before you recover its cost.

UHDTV? Count on having to increase your internet download speed (and internet cost) once content begins streaming at the required pixel density to make things look different on these sets. NOTE: The uncompressed digital signal received with an over-the-air antenna is the only current source of content to fill an UHDTV screen.

Finally, there is the question of multiple TV sets. The incremental cost of internet streaming to multiple TV sets is much higher than the set top converter boxes connected through cables strung in your attic and walls. Having one internet-connected TV with small indoor antennas attached to the others is one option, but the available content will vary between sets. An outdoor antenna like the X-PLUS® antenna, feeding signals through the old cables to all the non-internet TV sets, will at least, provide a consistent viewing experience - if all those TV sets are really needed.

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Watch TV On The Go
Posted on December 15, 2016

You have seen the ads... view your cable or satellite TV shows on "all your devices" - television sets, computers, tablets and cell phones - any time, any where. It is the latest pitch to keep people shelling out hundreds of dollars each month for cable TV. As it turns out, being able to do this with a TV antenna is not only possible, but is no more expensive than paying for your home internet service.

As with antenna DVR options (see my DVR blog post), the old is now the new. The producers of Sling.TV manufactured the Slingbox Pro-HD during the 2009 analog conversion (see my FCC blog post), and while Sling has now gone the cable TV route of charging monthly fees for its internet streaming service, remanufactured and used Pro-HD boxes are readily available online for $150 or less. It is a bit complicated and tedious to configure the box for "all device" viewing, but someone who is tech savvy enough to be using all those devices should be able to get it done.

There are, of course, the simple steps... screwing on the antenna cable, inserting the home network ethernet cable (no WiFi connection is available), and plugging in the power cord, but that is about it. Everything else must be done with a computer connected to your home network. The first step is to download a "no-longer-supported" desktop application from the Sling Media website and install it on your computer. Once launched, the app searches for the network-connected Slingbox, then guides you through the setup process, including scanning for channels from your antenna and testing device-streaming readiness. This is where things can get dicey.

"Any time, any where" means being able to wirelessly access the Slingbox connected to your home network when you are not at home. Such access exposes your home network to the risk of outside intrusion (something the cable companies do not address in their ads), and if your internet service provider set up your home network using their modem/router combination device (highly likely), the Sling Media application should automatically open the access port and complete the configuration. Should that fail, or if you have taken the recommended security step of placing a separate router behind the modem for your home network, "port forwarding" will need to be manually set up on both the router and the modem (do an internet search for "Slingbox port forwarding" for instructions).

Once setup is complete using your computer, a SlingPlayer app must then be download on each phone or tablet - which requires login with the user name and password created for your Slingbox during setup - for the "any time, any where" viewing experience.

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KPBS Expands to 4 Channels
Posted on December 10, 2016

Good news for Public Television fans. The San Diego PBS affiliate KPBS has expanded its over-the-air channel offerings to 4, including the original KPBS programming on channel 15.1, a second channel of similar programming at different time slots on 15.2, CREATE.TV on channel 15.3, and PBS KIDS on 15.4. Some time slots on channel 15.4 are also filled with documentaries.

Apparently, missing from the new lineup will be V-Me, the Spanish-language channel that had been carried on 15.2. KPBS has only officially announced that CREATE.TV will be available in January, so the 4-channel lineup may undergo some changes before being published in the channel guide.

If you do not see these new channels when scrolling up and down the channels on your TV set(s), you will need to either rescan channels on each set, or perform an "add digital channels" scan if that option is available in your setup menu(s).

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The DVR Dilemma
Posted on December 1, 2016

One of the benefits of paying for cable is the video recorder box that is generally included in the bundle. It allows you to watch TV programs on your schedule, skip commercials, and pause and rewind live broadcasts. People who have not cut the cord may assume this cannot be done with an antenna, but it can!

Since cutting the cord is about saving money, let's start with the least expensive way of doing this. For about $40, Walmart - and online retailers - still sell analog converter boxes (see my blog post on the FCC) that have DVR capability. Both the Ematic AT103B and the Mediasonic HW-150PVR record the digital signals from the antenna and have HDMI ports that pass the digital signal through to your TV set, so there is really nothing analog about these boxes (unless you have an old analog TV set). Adding a $60 1GB USB drive is necessary to store recorded videos with these devices, the on-screen GUI leaves a lot to be desired, and the 24-hour on-screen TV guide is limited, but recording can be scheduled for any channel, date, time, duration, and frequency, and using a splitter to feed the antenna signal to both the recorder and the TV tuner lets you watch one channel while recording another.

The Magnavox HD DVR/HDD and the Channel Master DVR+ offer significant feature upgrades compared to analog converter DVRs, including a modern on-screen GUI, free on-screen 14-day TV guide, simultaneous recording from two channels, and some internet streaming integration, but at $250 (plus a $60 1GB USB drive) and an internet connection required to view the TV guide and schedule recordings, they are substantially more expensive than the converter boxes for a single-TV DVR. Otherwise, they deliver antenna-grade HD to your TV through an HDMI port, and with two built-in tuners, splitting the incoming antenna cable feed between the DVR and the TV tuner is not recommended.

At the highest price range are devices like TIVO and X-BOX, but unless you are into gaming and want ongoing monthly fees, they aren't much of a cord-cutting option. Ongoing monthly fees and device networking costs also put the Tablo, a combination DVR and streaming device that allows multiple channels to be simultaneously recorded or remotely viewed from a single antenna connection, into the high-priced category. Why pay monthly fees for TV guide listings when they are free online and on mobile apps?

With cord cutting, simpler can not only be cheaper, but better.

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Spanish-Language Broadcast Channel Lineup
Posted on November 17, 2016

Several virtual channel changes occurred in November affecting Spanish-Language broadcasts in the San Diego area. It is unclear whether these changes are in anticipation of future FCC frequency reallocations or to make room for the new IMAGEN, WorldTV, and TeleXitos networks. The channel changes include:

Azteca San Diego channel 1.1 (old 27.1) Proyecto 40 San Diego channel 1.2 (old 27.2) Canal Once San Diego channel 46.1 (old 11.1)
Once Ninos San Diego channel 46.2 (old 11.2) IMAGEN San Diego channel 3.1 (NEW) Univision San Diego channel 25.1 (old 17.1)
LATV San Diego channel 25.2 (old 17.2) WorldTV San Diego channel 26.1 (NEW) TeleXitos San Diego channel 39.20 (NEW)

Performing a rescan or adding digital channels will bring these new channels to your TV.

UPDATE: As of May 1, 2017, Channel 6.1 will switch its affiliation from CW (English) to Galavisión (Spanish).

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The FCC: It is all about the Sun
Posted on November 1, 2016

Anyone who has seen a rainbow or color bands from sunlight streaming through a window, has a basic understanding of over-the-air broadcast TV. Each color has a different wavelength within the broad spectrum of sunlight, but there is more to the spectrum than meets the eye. You cannot "see" the ultraviolet rays that burn your skin, for example, and likewise, you cannot "see" the wavelengths of light that carry radio, TV, and cell phone signals... or cook your food.

The fact that human beings can embed information in rays of invisible light that can be decoded by receivers, is what gave rise to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Although noone owns sunlight, the FCC licenses the use of segments of invisible light spectrum to designated users to avoid interference and ensure the use of common standards. With the abundance of sunlight hitting the earth, it may seem counterintuitive, but segments of the spectrum that are "useable" with current technology are limited, and competition for "useable" spectrum to meet mobile streaming demands is growing. In responding to this demand, and with cable having taken over the bulk of video content users by the turn of the century, Congress first moved to reduce spectrum allocated to broadcast TV in 2005, directing the FCC to act by 2009.

To more efficiently use the remaining spectrum, the FCC required TV broadcasters in 2009 to switch from analog to digital signals, creating a major disruption to users of TV antennas. This disruption, however, resulted in over-the-air broadcasts in higher defintion than cable, actually spurring an increase in demand for over-the-air antennas just as spectrum was being reduced.

Nonetheless, spectrum reallocations are continuing. Under a law passed by Congress in 2012, the FCC is again pursuing a reduction in spectrum allocated to over-the-air TV broadcasting. This time, the FCC is asking broadcasters how much money they want to either cease broadcasting or have their channels "repacked" into different spectrum segments. Cell phone companies are then being asked to separately bid for the spectrum with the expectation that their bids will be equal to or higher than broadcasters want. With this complicated "reverse" and "forward" auction process, the reallocation was scheduled to be completed in 2015, but has been delayed to 2017. It seems that television broadcasters may want more money for their spectrum than cell phone companies are willing to pay at this time.

Once the FCC completes its work, however, several San Diego area channels will be affected as noted on our channel listing. The good news is that with the spectrum range of the X-PLUS® antenna, periodic rescanning is all that will be necessary to continue receiving all available channels.

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