Ditching cable for free local TV

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Ditching cable for free local TV
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Ditching cable for free local TV

When it comes to cutting the cable cord, it's easy enough to find a variety of television programs ready for streaming on the Internet, via sites like Hulu and Netflix. But what about the stuff that's not online -- namely, live local and network broadcasts?

Fortunately, you don't need cable to view your local news shows or watch Jimmy Fallon live. All your local stations broadcast their programming for free over the public airwaves, and in pristine digital format. Since just about every TV sold in the past five years or so has a built-in digital tuner for these over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts, you should be able to receive what you want just by hooking up an antenna and tuning your TV to the appropriate station number. And if you don't have a newfangled digital TV, you can buy a low-priced digital converter box that enables your old set to receive these new digital broadcasts.

Unlike old school analog broadcasting, the digital OTA signals you receive today are crisp and sharp, in perfect high definition with Dolby Digital sound. The days of fuzzy, snowy TV reception are long gone; if you can receive a station's signal, it's going to look pretty good.

Even better, most local stations broadcast not just their main signal, but also several subsidiary channels. (The digital broadcast standard provides the added bandwidth for these so-called sub-channels.) This means you get more free programming today than you used to -- and, in many cases, channels that aren't carried by your local cable company.

For example, I live in the Twin Cities and our local ABC affiliate KSTP broadcasts the standard ABC HD programming on digital channel 5.1. Digital subchannel 5.3 broadcasts the Me-TV network (classic TV programs), subchannel 5.4 is for Antenna TV (more classic TV programs), 5.6 is for This TV (classic movies), and 5.7 is for the Live Well Network (lifestyle programming). That's just one approach; other local channels devote their digital subchannels to 24/7 weather, children's programming, or foreign-language networks.

Despite all the free OTA programming available, there may be reasons to stick with your cable provider - even if it's just for the basic cable service. For starters, you may not be able to receive all your local stations. Yes, digital broadcasting is clearer than traditional analog broadcasting, with no ghosts or snow, but if you can't receive the signal, you get nothing. (Digital TV is a binary thing; it's either all on or all off.) That may mean buying a more expensive indoor antenna, which is ugly in your living room, or paying someone to install an even uglier outdoor antenna on your roof. Either option requires more work on your part than just staying with your current cable provider.

In addition, your cable provider offers all sorts of additional services, in the form of extra channels and, if you pay for it, digital video recording (DVR). If all you have is a TV and an antenna, you have no way to capture programming while you're gone. You could purchase a TiVo or similar third-party DVR, but you're talking an immediate additional expense of between $150 and $400. It may be less painful to your pocketbook to rent a DVR cable box from your friendly cable company, one month at a time.

Finally, unless you have fast and reliable broadband Internet service, watching streaming video online can be problematic -- if not downright painful. There's no way you can do it over a dial-up connection, and many broadband ISPs aren't as speedy or as steady as you need, either. The last thing you want is for that HD movie you're watching to stop or stutter mid-scene, which can happen. This is why some ISPs offer faster service -- at a higher monthly cost. If you have to pay a lot more to get a reliable Internet connection, you might as well stick with cable.

But here's the bottom line: If you disconnect your cable service, there's a lot of programming available from your local stations, and it's all free. Supplement this free local programming with the cable shows you can find online, and you won't miss cable (or that big cable bill) one iota.

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