Digital only broadcasts replaced analog transmissions at the end of August in most parts of Canada. So, people with older TVs and rely on rabbit ears, must either buy a digital television, or a converter box to change the digital signals to analog.
So, what to do if you don't want to pay for cable, satellite or fiber-based television service? Depending on where you live, you can still get free over-the-air broadcasts.
Even better, these digital stations broadcast in wide screen high-definition quality, and in many cases, with multi-channel surround sound audio. Sales of antennas have spiked across the country, says Elliott Chun, communications manager for Future Shop. "Some people simply refuse to subscribe to cable, and since the [analog] cut-off the other week, we've seen a lot of customers coming in to buy an antenna."
Most newer televisions have a built-in ATSC tuner, therefore you just need an indoor or outdoor antenna to pick up reception. Chun says many stores have sold out, but sales associates are referring customers to their website to buy antennas.
Local stores are also selling many antennas. "Everything went bananas about two weeks ago when stations switched from analog to digital and sales are just as strong," recalls Jeff Bayly, owner and operator of the Ottawa-based OTA Canada (OTA stands for "over the air"). "We recently got shipment of 50 to 60 antennas and sold out right away, both in our storefront and online, but we've since brought in more inventory."
While Future Shop sells mostly indoor antennas, which might do the trick for some, OTA Canada focuses more on outdoor antennas for a roof or balcony, which results in much stronger reception; some antennas require power to amplify the signal for maximum reception.
Bayly, who switched from cable to OTA (over the air) broadcasts 18 months ago, has also written an iPhone app, OTAMap ($1.99) that lists all the HD OTA stations available and guides users on where to point the antenna (typically south, but there are exceptions).
"People don’t seem to realize what you can get over the air, especially if you're in Toronto and have access to more than 30 Canadian and American stations," explains Bayly.
Chun says some people who use a TV antenna pick up an Internet-connected box -- such as Apple TV, Boxxee Box or LG Smart TV Upgrader (all between $100 and $200) – to watch shows and movies not available via over-the-air broadcasts. "Or, if you're like my dad, you can stream many popular shows on websites for free," says Chun, who says his father can't get "60 Minutes" via his antenna so watches it on the web.
If you're considering an OTA set-up to replace or compliment your existing television service, here are some pros and cons:
* Over-the-air HD broadcasts are free after the initial costs of an antenna (typically $40 to $150) and perhaps $40 for a chimney mount or $10 to $30 for an antenna mast.
* The video and audio quality of these "uncompressed" HD broadcasts are often better than what you'd get from cable or satellite.
* Canadians will get U.S. commercials on American channels (great for viewing the Super Bowl ads).
* Some set-up is required, such as buying and placing an antenna to pick up a signal; a digital TV with integrated ATSC tuner is required to process the signal. Also, reception can be affected by obstacles (tall trees, buildings) and weather (fog, hard rain, snow), but should be better than satellite.
* Station selection is limited. You can probably get the major Canadian and perhaps American stations, but few specialty channels, if any. Compare that to the 500-odd stations you'll get from cable or satellite. If you don't live close to the U.S. border you probably won't be able to access the major American stations, such as ABC, NBC, CBS and FOX.
* While there are personal video recorders (PVRs), they're not as easy to use as ones integrated with cable or satellite service.