Design & DIY

How to tune into free TV


Tired of a monthly satellite bill, just for weekend TV at the cottage? As television stations make the switch to digital over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts, you can probably receive at least a few signals with a simple, inexpensive antenna. There’s no charge for the service, it’s completely legal, the picture quality is as good as cable or satellite, and it’s just enough TV to watch the news or a game, but not so much that the kids are glued to it.

Which channels can I pick up?
TV Fool ( will map the distance to nearby towers, and the direction and strength of signals. You’ll need this to choose the right antenna. It’s not an exact science: With any antenna, obstacles such as trees and changes in elevation can interfere with reception, although—bonus—a lake helps you receive signals.

What kind of antenna do I need?
They can be eyesores, but outdoor antennas work best: Most cottages are too far from transmission towers for attic or TV-top antennas. If there’s an old TV antenna on the roof, it’s worth a try to see what you’ll pick up. For new antennas, retailers such as Save and Replay ( have an almost overwhelming selection, but range and radius are the most important features. Using the data from TV Fool, pick an antenna with a range to match the distance to the broadcast towers. Talk to the folks selling OTA equipment—they likely have customers in your area, so can offer recommendations. For instance, a $60 antenna with a 50-km range may get you a handful of stations, but a larger, $200 antenna with a 160-km range may significantly improve your results.

How do I position the antenna?
Mount the antenna as high as you can and use a compass to aim it at the tower whose signals you’re trying to receive. Once you’ve connected the antenna to the TV with coax-ial cable, adjust the antenna’s angle, or even relocate it, to get the best reception.

All in, expect to pay no more than a few hundred dollars for the setup—not bad, considering it’s a one-time cost, with no ongoing fees.

Will I need a new TV?
Most TVs made in the past few years have an astc (a.k.a. hdtv) tuner that can receive digital signals over the air. Check your TV’s manual; if you’ve lost it, search online by model number. Older sets need a digital-to-analog converter, about $100. Also, a weak signal or a long coaxial cable between the TV and antenna may need an amplifier to boost the signal.