Let’s say you’ve gone and bought a high-definition LCD TV that’s as big as your outstretched arms. And perhaps you’ve also splurged on a 7.1 channel surround sound system, and an upconverting DVD player or maybe a sleek Blu-ray player. Maybe you’ve got a state-of-the-art game console or Apple TV or some other Web-based feed. Well, come 17 February, you just might want one more thing: a new antenna on your roof.
If you live in the United States and you’re one of the 19 million people who still prefer to pull their TV signals out of the air rather than pay a cable company to deliver them, you may already know that this month the vast majority of analog television broadcasts in the United States are scheduled to end and most free, over-the-air TV signals will be transmitted only in the new digital Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) format. A massive advertising campaign is now telling people who get their signals from the ether that they’ll need a TV with a built-in ATSC tuner or a digital converter box to display their favorite programs.
What the ads don’t mention is that most of those people will also need a new antenna. For the vast majority of you out there in Broadcast-TV Land, the quality of what you see—or even whether you get a picture at all—will depend not on your TV or converter box but on the antenna that brings the signal to them.
If you have a cable or satellite hookup, you might think that this antenna issue is irrelevant—but think again. Some owners of high-end systems complain that the signals coming from their satellite or cable provider aren’t giving them the picture quality they expected. That’s because cable and satellite operators often use lossy compression algorithms to squeeze more channels, particularly local channels, into their allotted bandwidth. This compression often results in a picture with less detail than the corresponding terrestrial broadcast signal provides. For videophiles who have already spent a fortune on their home-theater systems, a couple of hundred dollars more for a top-of-the-line antenna obviously makes sense. And of course, antennas are also good backup for the times when the cable gets cut or the satellite system fades out due to rain or snow. In addition, they serve second TV sets in houses not wired to distribute signals to every room.
Suddenly the dowdy TV antenna, a piece of technology that has changed little over the past 30 years, is about to be the belle of the ball.
Gone, however, are the days when a large rooftop antenna was a status symbol. Cellphones and handheld GPS units have conditioned consumers to expect reliable wireless services in very small packages. Such dramatic changes in consumer preferences—coupled with the new frequency allocations, channel distributions, and high demand for reliable over-the-air digital antennas—mean that the time for new designs has indeed come.
Most TV viewers think of antennas as simple devices, but you’re tech savvy, so of course you’d never assume this. Nevertheless, bear with us briefly as we review Antennas 101.
The decades-old designs of most TV antennas on rooftops—and in the market today—are typically configured on a horizontal fish bone, with arms of varying lengths to handle a broad range of frequencies.Though the engineering of antennas in other spheres has advanced radically over the years, manufacturers of television equipment have stuck pretty much with the old designs for economic reasons. Traditional antennas were good enough for analog television, and the shrinking customer base for broadcast reception didn’t offer much incentive to plow money into new designs.
The transition to digital has changed all that. Most digital channels are broadcast in UHF, and UHF antennas are smaller than those used for analog TV, where most broadcast signals were VHF. Also, the multipath problem, arising from signals that reflect off buildings and hills, which may have occasionally caused ghosting on analog TVs, can completely destroy a digital picture.