Jeff's Guide to Cable Cutting
We were at a family gathering this weekend and I mentioned that we had cut our cable. My cousin Larry asked for some details about how we get TV and I mentioned "Netflix", "Hulu" and Internet TV. I later realized I had told him almost nothing at all about the details involved in cutting cable. First of all you need high speed internet. Secondly you need some kind of smart tv or internet tv set top box or computer at each TV. Lastly you need some kind of antenna for decent reception as losing signal with DTV means long periods of silence and gigantic pixels and you miss something.
Step 0: Sick of Comcast
We've been cable customers since the mid 1980's. I remember when basic cable was $18 a month and any "cable ready" TV was all you needed. No converter boxes. In 1998, we were one of the first homes in our area to get a cable modem due to a mixup at MediaOne where we were allowed to register for an account before the buildout was really finished. They honored the appointment anyway and we have been receiving ever increasing internet speeds ever since. Our most recent provider was Comcast. While Comcast internet is very good, Comcast cable has declined in value. We were paying $150 a month for internet and basic digital cable. Oh by the way, the only cable available is digital. This means a converter box rental for EVERY so-called cable ready tv in the house. The only thing Comcast provides in "clear QAM" is QVC. The only TV that had a DVR connected was in the family room and whenever there was a Comcast outage, we lost access to all the content we had recorded. I've called and complained about various outages and other issues and I've gotten "promotional rates" over the years but this year I came to realize I was paying for nothing that I really wanted. Every few months, Comcast would "forget" I paid for my own cable modem and that $3 charge would magically show up. So step 0 in cutting the cable is you have to be sick of what your cable company offers and willing to do without it.
Step 0b: Unwilling to Pay For an Alternative
I checked on DirectTV and Dish. Both were about the same cost as Comcast though they did offer better features. I checked on Uverse and alas we live too far from our neighborhood fiber cabinet and would require 2 copper pairs to make Uverse work. After 20 years of bad landline service (before we cut that cord), I knew better. I cancelled the Uverse install and grit my teeth and lived with Comcast a little longer. We cut our landline cord and got Ooma but that's a story for a different day. Then there was the issue of Comcast's lame channel numbering. 7 was 10, 2 was 12, 50 was 13. Who could come up with something like that? The HD versions were all up in the 300's so TV always looked muddy rather than crisp. Every time we had a power failure, which in our area was as much as 10 times a year, all our TVs would forget the time and I'd have to switch to antenna from cable, watch 30 seconds of a local station just to get the time set because Comcast was blocking the real digital signals that include time and program guide. All of our TVs are able to receive OTA HD but the signals in different parts of the house vary widely. With 2 kids in college, we decided it was time to save money and labor day weekend I made the call to Comcast to shut it off. They begged and pleaded but I held on and now have only internet (list price $64 a month). This process wasn't as simple as it sounds. There was a lot of preparation and that's what the rest of this article is about. I have Netflix, Hulu and Amazon prime on every TV. I have DLNA streaming movies there as well. This took some work and some investment but in our main viewing area we no longer juggle 3 remotes. The awful Comcast remote is somebody else's problem and I have one stock LG remote that adequately controls all our viewing with no need to dig in the couch cushions for the "other remote" when the phone or doorbell rings. All the other providers suffer from similar setups which rely entirely on set top boxes and remotes we hate to find and deal with so I was unwilling to give them a shot. It was time to go cold turkey.
Step One: Getting Rid of Blu Ray and DVD
I really hate the FBI warnings on something I know I paid for. I don't need to watch previews nor do I need to watch commercials. So about 3 or 4 years ago, I got in the habit of purchasing the movies I really like on DVD and ripping them using Handbrake. I put the DVD down in the basement next to the 78 rpm records, 8-track tapes and buggy whips. I store the ripped movies on a Synology Disk Station. This is an important part of cable cutting. The Disk Station isn't cheap but it provides high reliability and low power consumption. DLNA is not a base feature but it's very easy to enable it using the web based setup menus. The DS uses 6 watts on standby and 18 watts when streaming a movie. This also meant I had to run Cat5e/Cat6 ethernet around the house to avoid the glitches and dropouts we would get when trying to watch using wifi. This is an essential preparation for cable cutting. You will need high speed internet at each TV.
Step Two: Getting Netfilx and Amazon Prime
This is something I had to think about a long time. We first discovered streaming to TVs when we purchased a Samsung BluRay player and home theater receiver that included Netflix and Amazon. I already had Netflix for DVDs and streaming and when they raised the price I kept streaming and dropped DVDs. I later added Amazon Prime, mainly for shipping. Amazon Prime doesn't really offer (for free) anything Netflix doesn't already offer BUT if you don't mind paying to rent a movie, you can watch absolutely anything on Amazon Prime. I hated the Samsung device. It had terrible menus. It bricked itself during an OTA software update and I had to fight with Samsung to get it fixed. I was looking for something else. I had a Samsung TV with the Samsung player and I thought I had tight integration... until I got an LG TV. The LG TV is somehow able to communicate with the Samsung player and turn on the home theater speakers so I get surround sound for just about everything we watch. Nice. I'm thinking of duct taping that stupid blu ray drawer shut. But the most important thing the Samsung TV had was built in internet TV. No longer did I have to juggle two remotes to watch stuff. And yes I have a harmony remote collecting dust in my basement. I refuse to create an online account and use Microsoft Internet Explorer to set up a tv remote. Not gonna happen. I found the menus on the LG TV to be vastly superior to those on the Samsung BR player. It was a few years newer so that may be the reason. Also there was only one thing missing. The LG TV didn't have Pandora but that came a few months later via software update (that didn't brick the TV I might add). So this setup took care of one TV. What about the others? I started looking into Apple TV, Roku, Boxee and others. The one I was most inclined to get was Boxee. It seemed like the most powerful. I spotted an "LG Smart TV Upgrader" on Amazon for about $75 and grabbed it. It does DLNA. It does Netflix. The menus are understandably clunky but it works and the remote is small. I liked it so much, I got more so that all the TVs in the house had streaming internet video. Now we really were ready to cut the cord.
I should mention why I didn't pick Apple TV, despite being an almost all Apple household because it did not support our large collection of DLNA movies and I didn't want to import hundreds of gigabytes of stuff into iTunes just so I could watch it. So I don't have airplay mirroring but I can run an HDMI from any TV to any Mac if I really want to use the giant TV as a 1080p monitor. Not really a priority for me right now.
Step Three: Calling Comcast.
For this step all I can suggest is don't back down. They will offer you just about anything to keep your business. I had a voicemail from them the next day offering service for $5 a month. That's about what it's worth to watch the 300 shopping channels and hundreds of On Demand grade B- slasher movies they offer.
Step Four: Rabbit Ears and Hulu+
Microcenter has rabbit ears for $3. I picked up 3 of them and installed them. This is where the fun begins. I thought we had 8 channels. After all that's what I grew up with in the Detroit area, 2, 4, 7, 9, 20, 50, 56 and 62. When the auto-tuner reported 18 channels, I thought it was broken. It turns out 2 had 2 channels, 4 had 2, 7 had 3, then there were 18, 31 and 38 each of which had at least 3 channels. We lost 9 as we are too far from Windsor to pick it up OTA. Oh well. I guess I can get my BBC/Canada fix by downloading bbd iplayer. Some TVs got everything, but most didn't, especially the set in the basement.
We had a Hulu account but it only allowed watching on a computer. We activated Hulu+ so we could watch current stuff on Hulu+ and catch reruns on Netflix or Amazon. This eliminates the need for a DVR because everything is always streaming on demand. The one down side is there are commercials. One up side is an on-screen commercial timer lets you know how long you have to go run that errand before the program resumes.
Step Five: Outdoor Antenna
I started looking into antenna design. Yagi antennas are typically used for VHF and Bow Tie antennas are typically used for UHF. There is a Mohu Leaf antenna which is nothing more than a sheet of plastic with a bow tie antenna printed on it in copper foil. The darn thing is 40 bucks. If you want an amplified version, it's 80 bucks. For an amplfied outdoor version, it's $180. I looked into GE and a Monoprice amplified outdoor antennas. My strategy was to go out to the cable box and remove the splitter that separated the cable modem from cable tv and plug the cable modem feed directly into Comcast's cable, then connect an outdoor antenna to what had been Comcast's tv feed. This provided a 3db boost. Every 3db doubles signal strength. After removing cable, I was getting 50mbps down and 12 mbps up. Nice.
I then routed the loose tv-only cable wire up higher on the wall and headed over to Home Depot to pick up a piece of plexiglass, a 50 ohm to 300 ohm balun and some bare copper wire to build my bow tie antenna. Home Depot was out of baluns so I headed to Radio Shack. I bought the last one. I asked about antennas and they had an amplified outdoor antenna, regularly $50 on clearance for $25. If it gets us through a year that's fine. If it breaks, maybe I can pick up one of those $180 Mohu amplified antennas then. I grabbed it and scrapped plans to build my own. I then went around unplugging rabbit ears, plugging cable back in and re-scanning channels. Some TVs gained 5 channels. One gained none. But now every TV gets everything with digital dropouts rare rather than frequent. The antenna is about halfway up the outside of the house, facing south toward all the TV towers. I may get around (someday maybe) to elevating the antenna so it sits at the roof line or possibly even at the peak of the roof. I may get around (someday maybe) to moving the antenna to the attic. But for now we have cut our cable and cheerfully keep over $80 a month in our pockets instead of handing it to Comcast to fund their "X1" commercials.