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Why Free OTA TV beats the cable in picture quality



  Legs of two athletes playing football in a stadium.
We have heavily compressed one of these athletes to demonstrate the difference between OTA and cable quality. Krivosheev Vitaly / Shutterstock

It sounds ridiculous, but Free Broadcast TV offers significantly higher picture quality than expensive cables. But both work with a resolution of 1

080p. What is there? Why does a simple antenna give a better picture than expensive cable TV?

Free TV is not just Sesame Street

Before we look at why OTA TV looks better than cable, we have to understand that OTA TV is not It's as useless as one would imagine. In fact, OTA TV can easily replace your cable subscription.

Free TV is not just PBS and local news. Most major TV channels (especially sports channels) broadcast simultaneously via OTA and cable television. So, if you only use cables to watch networks like ABC, FOX, CBS, and NBC, you're wasting about $ 1,000 a year on content you can get with a $ 15 digital higher-quality digital antenna. And in most cases, a cheap streaming service can supplement the channels you may lose by dropping the cable.

Now that we have cleared the air, we can get to the point. Why does cable look worse than free-TV?

CONNECTED: How to get free HD TV channels (without cable fees)

Compression kills cable quality

The obvious difference between cable and OTA TV is channel density. Cable TV consists of a few thousand channels, while OTA TV transmits only (maximum) 69 channels for each location. This difference in channel density is the main reason why cables do not look as good as OTA-TV.

Most OTA channels (55 out of 69) sit comfortably in the 470- to 806-MHz UHF spectrum. This spectrum is split for each channel, so everyone has their own 6 MHz band. However, 6 MHz is far from enough for HDTV broadcasts. For this reason, broadcasters compress their video (reduce the file size) using the lightweight MPEG-2 codec, resulting in only minor loss of picture quality.

  Two identical pictures of a woman in sunglasses and a sunhat with lotion; The right image is blurry and pixelated.
The image on the right is an example of how strong compression leads to quality losses. Dean Drobot / Shutterstock

Cable television occupies the frequency range of 54 to 1000 MHz, with the emphasis on the bands 750 MHz and 860 MHz. This huge frequency range (with emphasis on high bands) means a large bandwidth – which means that cable TV should look better than OTA television, right?

The problem is that only the extra bandwidth is used to host more channels. While OTA TV places only one channel on each 6 MHz band, cable companies use aggressive compression algorithms (such as MPEG-4) to transmit about 20 channels on each 6 MHz band. As expected, this aggressive compression leads to a dramatic loss of quality. It's like putting 20 movies on a single DVD.

If you are having trouble understanding all this terminology (you are not alone), think about the radio frequency (expressed as MHz) in terms of Internet speed (MBps). In general, 1 MHz equals 1 Mbps. We need to know which coding schemes are used by broadcasters to make an accurate translation, but this simple comparison can improve digestibility.

Cable quality in transmission is deadly

You probably already know that, but OTA TV is it Only a local radio transmission that you receive with a receiver. And while radio signals can technically travel forever, their intensity decreases with time. This deterioration can lead to quality losses. However, if you have a properly configured antenna (and possibly a signal booster for booting), the quality loss is barely noticeable.

Cable television, however, is not exactly a local television operation. It starts with broadcasters sending their programs to local cable companies via satellite. (If you see a lot of satellite dishes, it's probably being operated by your local cable company.)

Cable companies are compressing these video signals and sending them through the city via a network of coaxial cables. These video signals get worse on their way through the city, amplifying them on the way through amplifiers. When the signal finally comes to your home, it must be decoded by your TV. As you can imagine, every step in this chaotic process leads to quality losses. In combination with the aggressive compression used by cable providers, cable TV looks amazingly good.

OTA TV has 4K cable

OTA TV already looks better than cable. But the difference may not be a reason for you, at least not yet.

Currently the FCC is switching OTA TV from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0 (we skip number 2). This change comes with a host of upgrades, including the ability to watch TV on your phone and automatically search for channels. However, the biggest change is that ATSC 3.0 will support 4K TV. If you forget, the cable TV is still stuck at 1080p.

  The ATSC logo on a radio mast.
I'm Friday / Shutterstock.

Why does cable TV still not support 4K? Well, because cable providers had problems because they offered too many channels. The cable spectrum simply does not provide enough bandwidth for 4K TV. Cable companies are already compressing the hell out of their 1080p content, and 4K's is twice as high as the 1080p resolution. If cable companies decide to move 20 different 4K channels to a single 6MHz band, they would have to double the compression and the quality would look like absolute garbage.

So if cable companies want to offer 4K, they must either downsize their channel library or buy more frequency bands. The FCC is currently licensing its available frequency bands to mobile operators in anticipation of 5G. The future does not look too bright for cables.

Make the Most of OTA TV

OTA TV has some obvious drawbacks. Most of these issues will be resolved after we completely migrate to ATSC 3.0. Until then, you only have to work with what you have. Here are some tips on getting the most out of OTA TV until ATSC 3.0 is released:

  • Using an OTA Box : Like the TiVo Bolt, grid guides, DVR features, and smart apps are added to your antenna TV , In essence, they make free TV more like cables.
  • Buy a Good Antenna : Cheap or built-in TV antennas work well, but do not have a long range. We recommend the purchase of a high-range digital antenna suitable for ATSC 3.0. This will give you many channels and will not require a new antenna when ATSC 3.0 is launched.
  • Check what's available in your area. : Use a TV Signal Finder to check which OTA channels are available in your area. This will allow you to tune your antenna until you receive the channels you want.
  • Try a Signal Amplifier : If you are not satisfied with your channel selection (or the channels you receive look like crap), try a signal amplifier. These essentially amplify the received signals. Be careful because signal amplifiers can over-amplify (and distort) good signals.
  • Rescan Common : When transitioning to ATSC 3.0, each channel changes to a new frequency. If you do not even search your TV once a month, channels will be lost.

Of course you can always supplement your OTA TV with some streaming services. Netflix and Hulu are great, but you can also subscribe to streaming TV services like Hulu Live and YouTube TV for a cable-like experience.


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