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Looking to 'cut the cord'? Consider an antenna

JIM DAMASKE | Times Delbert Voss with his attic installed digital tv antenna. - We got a ton of responses to our call out regarding Tampa Bay residents who cut the cord, and many had or were considering an antenna instead of cable. This article is an explainer about digital antennas. Delbert uses an antenna for his home and his RV and likes the devices because they're cheap and reliable.
Published Oct. 23, 2018

It's no secret that Tampa Bay residents are "cutting the cord" and moving away from cable. But last month, when the Tampa Bay Times asked readers to reach out about the non-cable entertainment services they used, a common theme emerged — antennas.

The share of American households using digital antennas for TV has risen from 15 percent in 2015 to nearly 20 percent, according to March data from Parks Associates.

If an antenna for a TV seems anachronistic (think the "bunny ears" sets for TVs or large rooftop monstrosities), the latest version of the devices may come as a surprise.

"The newer ones are a little bit sleeker looking and in with the (modern) style," said Chris Cagle, CEO of cutting-the-cord information clearinghouse NoCable.org.

RELATED: Here's why millions are cutting the cord with cable

But how do you know if one is right for your home?

How do they work?

Antennas pick up signals that are broadcast by nearby transmission towers and send them to a customer's digital TV. The towers provide varying numbers of local channels depending on the area, Cagle said. Consumers can also get these channels through paid services such as cable.

A network such as NBC, for example, will have a main channel — Channel 8 — and could also have several sub-channels — Channel 8.2 and 8.3, for example. Those sub-channels contain separate programming that looks to viewers like just another channel. In Tampa Bay, according to Cagle, there are about 60 over-the-air channels available, including sub-channels.

"All you need is an antenna to receive these free digital signals, many of which will be in HD," Richard Schneider, founder and president of Antennas Direct. "There's no trick. There's no catch."

Schneider said his company sold 75,000 antennas last month, up 15 percent from that time last year.

What are the benefits?

Antennas are fairly customizable. They come in both indoor and outdoor varieties, with some indoor versions thin, flat and able to stick to a wall.

Delbert Voss, a Clearwater resident, bought an antenna for his RV for trips with his wife, and has one for home viewing, too.

"I like it fine," he said. "It works well."

They are also fairly cheap, ranging from as low as about $10 to over $100. Besides the startup cost of an antenna — and maybe a splitter so multiple TVs can receive signal — there is not an ongoing cost.

The picture quality may even be better than cable, too. Because cable providers have so many channels, they must compress the signal of the channels to send to a TV because the physical cables can only handle so much data at a time. That means a slightly lower-quality image.

What are the drawbacks?

Antennas only pick up local programming. That means premium content, such as Netflix and Hulu, still requires a separate subscription.

And reception can be a challenge. The devices get the best reception when they are closer to the towers, and have more difficulty or can't receive signals well when they are between 50 and 70 miles away from a tower.

Devon Higginbotham, a Plant City resident, said she and her husband use an indoor antenna for sports channels, but sometimes reception is spotty.

"Sometimes it gets a little pixelated," she said. "It works well enough that we're happy enough (with it)."

The surrounding geography, too, can be a challenge. Radio signals that antennas pick up have difficulty moving through solid objects, such as large buildings or particularly mountainous areas.

To see what reception in your area is like, visit a site such as http://www.tvfool.com.

"It's a trend that's not going away," NoCable's Cagle said.

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Contact Malena Carollo at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.

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