If you are currently subscribed to one of the major cable, satellite, or fibre TV companies in Canada (including Bell, Cogeo, EastLink, Rogers, Shaw, and Vidéotron) you know how high your monthly TV bills can be, especially with the addition of premium content or speciality TV channels. Even when your TV service is bundled with Internet and home phone, you're probably tied to a restrictive term contract that lasts two or three years with ridiculously high cancellation fees.
Unless you don't mind throwing away money and making your TV service provider even richer, there are alternatives:
Many Canadians don't know that most of their local Canadian TV network channels are actually available for free. These are the channels that bring you your local news, weather, and community programming. For the majority of Canadians, all you need is a TV antenna and a TV with a digital tuner.
Why would I want to use an old TV antenna when I've got a brand new HD TV?
It's true that analog TV and the days of getting a fuzzy picture on your tube TV with a pair of rabbit ears are long gone. But between 2007 and 2011, the same technology of broadcasting TV channels over the air was upgraded to digital. This means you can now receive crystal clear picture quality with a TV antenna. Depending on the station and the program being aired, the picture can be as good or even better than cable, satellite, or fibre (ie. at 1080 lines of resolution).
Is it really free and what do I need?
Yes, over-the-air (or OTA) TV channels are free to receive. There is no monthly fee and you don't need to pay any companies for them. The operators of these channels receive funding through on-air commercials, licensing and distribution agreements with TV service providers, or funding from viewers in the case of public broadcasters.
Newer Flat-Panel TVs
You will need a TV with a built-in digital antenna tuner. If you check your TV's manual or lookup the model online, you'll see this mentioned as either an "ATSC tuner", "digital tuner", or "HD TV tuner". Almost all TVs made after 2010 have this type of tuner built-in. Many LCD and some rear-projection TVs before 2010 also have a built-in digital tuner.
Older Tube-Type TVs
If your TV is an older model TV (for example, a tube TV), you don't need to throw it out. You can still make use of it by adding a "digital-to-analog" converter box. This is an external digital tuner that connects your old TV to an antenna to receive over-the-air digital TV channels.
TV Antenna and Accessories
The type of TV antenna you need will depend on your location: how far you are away from the broadcast stations, and what type of home you have. Indoor TV antennas can be very compact and convenient for apartments and condos, but have a limited range, about 55 km (35 mi) or less. Outdoor antennas can have a range of 70 km (45 mi) to upwards of 160 km (100 mi), but these are larger and require special mounting poles and brackets, as well as longer wiring.
You can also "boost" your antenna signal strength by adding a pre-amplifier or a distribution amplifier. A pre-amplifier is normally installed right next to the antenna to increase your overall signal strength. A distribution amplifier, on the other hand, splits a signal and allows you to have digital antenna reception on more than one TV in your home. Both types of amplifiers help maintain a strong signal over long lengths of wiring (for example, 15+ m/50+ ft).
OK, but what channels can I get?
The number and types of channels you can get will vary depending on your location. Some cities in Canada will receive only one or two channels, while others will receive dozens. Here in Toronto, the maximum number of channels is between 30 and 40. This is because we're able to receive many channels broadcasted from the CN Tower and stations across the border in upstate New York.
To find out what channels are available in your area and how far away each channel is from you, please see:
For people in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), please see:
While digital channels you receive over-the-air with a TV antenna are mostly local network, public broadcast, news, weather and community channels, Internet TV offers even more choices: a world with virtually unlimited possibilities.
Most Canadians have heard or have used of Netflix. With its relatively low monthly cost of $8.99 (previously $7.99), Netflix is a great choice for movies, documentaries, TV shows, children's content, and some international movies and dramas. Among Netflix's strengths is the fact that you can use the same Netflix account to simultaneously watch shows and movies on multiple devices, including your computer or laptop, tablet, phone, game console, smart TV or Internet-connected Blu-Ray player or home theatre system. If you haven't already given it a try, Netflix is a great alternative for those looking for ways to avoid paying $50 or more per month to their regular TV service provider.
Canadians have a few choices for streaming Internet TV service providers, among these the major ones are:
Also, Rogers and Shaw have a new joint streaming service called "Shomi" which is due to be available in Canada soon. Yet despite these choices, Canadians have long known that our American neighbours to the south have seemingly much more to choose from, including Amazon Prime, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, Vudu and Epix, among others. (We will be reviewing some of the techniques that Canadians and expats use to access movies and TV shows from these providers in another post.)
Internet TV Devices
Although Netflix and other Internet streaming services (such as Youtube, Vimeo, and so on) can be viewed on the small screen with your tablet or computer, many people would rather watch on their big screen. This can be done with Internet TV devices, also called "smart TV boxes", IPTV boxes", "internet TV hubs", or "Internet streaming boxes". There are many similar products on the market, varying by price, features, what streams or content providers you can access, ease-of-use and level of convenience.
Some of the most popular devices on the market are:
So many boxes, which one should I choose?
This really depends on what your needs and preferences are. But if we had to recommend the best balance of value, performance, and flexibility, then it would have to be an Android Internet TV box. For the same price of an Apple TV, Android boxes tend to be less expensive or be more powerful (with a faster processor, more memory and ports). Moreover, since Android devices do need to be "jailbroken" or "unlocked", this means you have the freedom to install your choice of many apps on your device.
Besides Netflix and Youtube, popular apps for Android boxes include:
Moreover, there are literally thousands of apps available for download for free from Google's Play Store, which is accessible on all Android devices.
Android TV boxes are essentially mini-computers. They even come with USB ports that allow you to connect a regular keyboard and/or mouse. You can connect a USB drive or external hard-drive to play videos, view photos, listen to music, and so on. Even more convenient, you can stream media from a connected device, such as a computer, network drive, or server right to your Android box.
It should be clear that you have choices when it comes to your TV service. As Canadians increasingly change the way we enjoy and consume media, we can no longer think of TV service as simply a line-up of neatly arranged channels. As modern life becomes more complex, we are increasingly turning to on-demand, individualized content.
Moreover, as the Internet has helped to completely change the model of content distribution, some of the most interesting stories are now told by independent filmmakers, artists, and normal individuals. Our attention is no longer commanded solely by large networks and TV studios, but also by regular people uploading videos to relatively open platforms like Youtube and the many hundreds if not thousands of other similar video sharing sites.
Websites such as Twitch.tv are defining a whole new genre of entertainment: instead of Sunday Night Football on NBC, we now have digital and e-gaming tournaments that draw millions of fans from around the world. This means that not only are our viewing patterns changing, or the ways we are accessing content, but also what we consider entertainment.
Please tell us what you think. You can leave a message below or contact us if you have any questions or comments.
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