Cutting the Cable: Preliminary Considerations
This is the second post in a series about abandoning cable/satellite television in favor of HD broadcast TV combined with a web-connected computer acting as a media server. To start with the introduction, click here; links to the rest of the series are at the bottom of the post.
I started this process with a fully-featured Comcast package that included HBO and some other movie channels as well as some sports packages to make sure we got The Tennis Channel. We had a Comcast HD DVR and a Roku box to access NetFlix instant play content; our television was (and remains) a 2006-era Panasonic 42” plasma. I wanted to duplicate the content we watched as closely as possible but get rid of the Comcast cable service because we were paying so much for content we never watched.
This evaluation involves asking three questions: can you get network television over-the-air (OTA), can you get missing cable content on the web and can you get enough bandwidth to your television to deliver the web-based content. I’ll address each of these questions in turn.
Could I Get OTA Broadcasts of Reliable Quality?
Many of the shows we like to follow and the sports events we like to watch are carried on network television, so being able to get high-quality OTA broadcasts was the first thing I researched.
We live near Atlanta, but our house is in a small valley and not so close to downtown that this was a sure thing. I went to AntennaWeb where there is an easy-to-use tool that matches your home address up with the broadcast antenna signal strength database to see what kind of signal you ought to get from which stations, the compass heading to the stations from your house and how far away you are from the antenna. We were far enough away that the heading to all the antennas in Atlanta was within a few
degrees in one direction or another. AntennaWeb told me I ought to get good reception from all the networks and a number of independent stations. And, as a bonus, HD OTA programming is of visibly higher quality than the cable HD programming.
Hurdle one crossed.
Could I Find the Right Content?
My next step involved figuring out whether we could get the cable content we wanted without being tied to our cable company. For us, this meant HBO (for its Sunday night programming), regular network television, SyFy channel content, Discovery Channel content, History Channel content, Project Runway (now on Lifetime), decent coverage of tennis and some children’s programming (primarily horrible Disney Channel shows).
I’m not going to detail what I found here, but it is easy to summarize: with the exception of HBO which has no digital sourcing (other than pirates), I was able to find watchable sources for all the cable content that was about to go away, some of it better than others. For instance, all the SyFy shows we follow are available in HD quality from Amazon’s Video on Demand service for what I thought was a reasonable charge or free at lower (but very watchable) quality from the SyFy channel and Hulu. To watch Project Runway, however, we had to resort to using a feed from Lifetime’s own website a few days after the show aired; it was of watchable quality, but that’s about all I can say for it.
So what about HBO? We decided that cutting the cable was more important than getting the HBO content for a year; all the shows we missed are just starting to get released on DVD, and we’ll catch up.
I’ll give a lot more information about media content in a later post (especially the sports problem), but for now it must suffice to say that I confirmed what I had suspected: we could make the leap to OTA + computer without missing much.
Hurdle two crossed.
Could I Get Enough Bandwidth to My Television?
To make the system work, it is absolutely imperative to have a broadband connection to the computer you are going to attach to your television that is capable of streaming HD content. Various posts will tell you the minimum for this is 1.5 mpbs, but that was not going to be adequate for my house where there are often multiple children on the web in other parts of the house while television is being watched; I wanted at least 6 mpbs reserved for the television if I could get it.
We have a great Comcast broadband connection that delivers about 15 mbps to the house, but our main television is located several rooms and about 75 feet away from our cable modem. Although we have an 802.11n WiFi network in the house, I really wanted a wired connection to the computer. But running Ethernet cable from the modem to the TV would have made the project much more difficult. So what to do?
After some research, I narrowed the choices down to either using Ethernet over my home’s internal wiring or using an Apple AirPort Express operating as an Ethernet bridge to cross the gap. Because the wiring in my house is older and I was not confident about my ability to keep the Ethernet-over-home-wiring system on the same circuit, I went with the AirPort Express option. I’ll detail
how that works in the next post.
Hurdle three crossed. Now it was time to make equipment and network design decisions. I’ll detail those in the next post.
Other Posts in This Series
Network Hardware: Setting It All Up
Software and Remotes: Making It All Useful
Getting the Media Content You Need
On-Going Frustrations: One Year In