Getting over the air stations in the middle of nowhere
August 4, 2013 11:20 AM   Subscribe

We just moved to a new town where, apparently, over the air television signals cannot reach. When I input my address into AntennaWeb, I get this response: "No Stations were predicted for this address. Due to factors such as terrain and distance to broadcasting towers, signal strength calculations have predicted no television stations may be reliably received at this location." Without giving away my home address, I live in zip code 17837. I really would like to get OTA stations without purchasing cable or a satellite. What are my options?

I've got a big honking antenna that, predictably, gets no stations when I plug it in. A couple of neighbors have very large, industrial-looking antennas, but they appear to be relics; they're rusty and seem to have missing parts. Is there anything I can do? I don't really know anybody in this town, and I'd rather not hire someone to come by and attempt to install an antenna because a) seems like it won't work anyway and b) I already have a decent-sized antenna. What about grabbing network stations online? Is that not a possibility? I've also heard that if you get cable and then cancel after a month, that over the air stations still come through clearly. Is that definitely true or just anecdotally true?

Any help or information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates to Technology (12 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
TVFool might give more useful results. I tried AntennaWeb for my zip code and it gave me the same bullshit answer you got. Which is bullshit because I get about 50 channels with a home made set top antenna.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:28 AM on August 4, 2013

We also live in an area with "no stations" -- we're in a big city, but in a hilly, canyon-type zone. We bought a rabbit ears-style antenna, and it requires futzing with every time you change the channel. But we do get all of the regular channels, except for CBS. Not sure why we can't get CBS but there you have it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:30 AM on August 4, 2013

Haven't tried this since the TV channels went from analog to digital.

In the old days, the standard approach was a rotator and a high gain directional antenna. You'll have to know the compass headings to your target station, of course, but only as a starting point. (reflections can sometimes be better than direct signals.) Perhaps you can score the rotator from one of your neighbor's unused antenna. Antennas are still available at Radio Shack. Signal amplifiers should be, too.

Google "Digital TV dx-ing". "Dx" is "distance" and the amateur radio community has been full of Dx-ers for years. Find a local ham and see if she knows any Dx-ers. Follow their advice.

I once did a project to prove I was the master of my radio world and got my favorite FM station over-the-air from 100 miles (and this is the killer) ADJACENT TO A STRONG LOCAL FM STATION! From behind a towering mountain. O yeah. It involved modifying an old Kenwood analog FM radio with hand selected ceramic IF filters, directional antenna, mast amplifiers, and some other goodies, but it was fun.

Realize that your satellite signals come from 23000 miles away. It's true, they have high signal to noise because of the relatively quiet background, and they don't have the 'radio horizon' issue relevant to terrestrial signal sources, but still... they are loud compared to satellite signals.

Short answer..... find a local ham. Weak signals are a way of life.
posted by FauxScot at 11:44 AM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here is some more info. People apparently still do it. One contributor states 1000 miles. A hundred shouldn't be impossible. (Caveat is if you are in a signal shadow, like a ravine or valley.)
posted by FauxScot at 11:50 AM on August 4, 2013

You'll be trying to get a signal from a transmitter on this hill. Unfortunately, the simulation looks like this. You'd need a pretty high an antenna since you're in the flat part of the valley with your line of sight to the transmitter obscured by some hills.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:48 PM on August 4, 2013

Lewisburg, PA 17837 is surrounded by Pennsylvania's eastern hills. While beautiful in various seasons, that topography is death to UHF signals, which is what about 91% of DTV OTA signals are, now (a few remaining VHF stations are still in operation, I think, in areas where there is no competition for the bandwidth the FCC wants to free in the VHF spectrum). Your only hope for reliable reception of OTA signals would be if you happen to be near the top of a ridge or other terrain feature, and are willing to erect an outside antenna mast of at least 20 feet in height (higher antenna mount position is better, as the signal strength increases with increasing height above average terrain, up to several hundred feet, usually), and mount a multi-element yagi type antenna on top, pointed east towards Wilkes Barre-Scranton stations.

If you happen to be located down near the bottom of a valley between hills, you're unlikely to reliably get OTA signals, because the surrounding hills shadow you from the broadcast signals. Even a large outside antenna on a high mast is unlikely to get you much signal in such a situation, unless the mast is tall enough to get your antenna up above the ridge lines between you and the broadcasting antennas. A mast of that dimension would probably be beyond the scope of most private home owners, and might require construction applications and special lighting with FAA approval.

Cable systems provide OTA station signals to towns like Lewisburg either by leasing head end facilities for putting up reception antennas at the top of a favorable ridge, or by backhaul of the studio signal on satellite links to their head end.
posted by paulsc at 12:56 PM on August 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

About the cable and free TV channel signals: that's a loophole most cable companies have closed.

The way it used to work was that the local broadcast channels were transmitted on the cable wire in a format called 'Clear QAM'. Virtually all modern TVs that have a cable tuner and digital OTA tuner can receive these signals. It's similar to the way over-the-air digital TV works, but not identical.

If you had cable installed to the house, but didn't have a cable subscription, these signals were still available to you.

Most cable vendors started encrypting those channels in 2011 or 2012. I bought a big digital TV just a week before they started doing so in Seattle, so I got to see that in action: on Friday I had KING5 digital, and on Monday it was gone.

My guess is that a new installation of cable TV would come from a vendor who has already closed that loophole, but you can ask around about Clear QAM signal availability from your provider.
posted by Kakkerlak at 2:28 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with paulsc. The distances aren't the problem, the mountains are. Looking at the map, I'd give up completely on any Harrisburg stations and concentrate on Scranton.

And for that you need height and directionality. You can either get something like this, or maybe like this. My own experience is that the latter (a yagi with a corner reflector) is more directional and sensitive, but also harder to aim and more prone to ghosting (dropouts on digital) and whatnot. I have an 8 bay and it worked better, but was more "noisy". Easier to aim, maintains a signal better, but with more frequent non-fatal errors, like the sound dropping out and green and magenta blocks in the image.

You can also buy yagi antennas that are even more sensitive than the regular old TV antennas, but they will be tuned for certain channel ranges. If you are lucky, maybe all the channels you are trying to pick up are within the range of one of these, but probably not.

Finally, two things:

1- There is no such thing as a digital antenna, or an HDTV antenna. Any television antenna will receive the signals (UHF versus VHF, at least). The rest is just marketing BS.

2- Amplifiers don't make the signal better, they make it louder. So to speak. Amplifiers will not fix a signal, they only counteract the signal loss of long cables and/or a lot of splitters. If you need an amplifier, put it as close to the antenna as possible, so it can "push" the signal down the line. You probably want one that is two pieces- one that is the amplifier, and one that is a power injector sort of thing.
posted by gjc at 5:02 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think your only hope of reception starts with getting a tall antenna mast, something that will place the antenna at least 30' off the ground.

One thing to look in to: Some cable companies have to offer inexpensive "antenna service" for local stations. If they do, they won't advertise it, and you might have to try multiple times before you find a customer service rep who even knows it exists, and even then, it will still have some sort of fee attached, and a monthly fee though.
posted by Good Brain at 5:57 PM on August 4, 2013

On the hill I linked to, you have two VHF stations, WBRE (NBC) on channel 11 and WYOU (CBS) on channel 13. You also have three UHF stations: WNEP (ABC) on channel 50, WVIA (PBS) on channel 41 and WOLD (Fox) on channel 45.

If you were to embark on a grand adventure on the waves, an antenna made to work well in high-VHF (TV channels 7-13, 174-210 MHz) might enable you to get NBC and CBS.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:36 PM on August 4, 2013

A quick search of AVSforum tells me that others in your area go for Wilkes-Barre stations. You should go to this thread and read the last couple pages, then post in there with your situation. Heed this guy's advice when posting.
posted by intermod at 9:48 PM on August 4, 2013

Thanks for all of the responses. Definitely have some research to do.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 8:01 AM on August 5, 2013

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