Cutting the cord - the continuing saga - Over the air and into the house

I've brought you previous tales of woe on the great cord-cutting experiment out here at Cruiskeen Farm. I thought it was time for an update. 

A little over a year ago we decided that the cost of our TV service was way too high. We received about 150 channels of TV.  We watched about 4 of them consistently. We are also fairly narrow TV viewers - we love to watch things on TV, but a limited range of things. Also, I'm a tech sort of guy. Someone once told me that a computer hobbyist is someone who is disappointed when his computer works.  That's me sometimes.

We get our Internet service from 24/7 Telcom - the local phone co-op. This is great, we have fiber optic running to our remote farm house, and we get 75 down 30 up internet service.  In general that's actually pretty accurate.  We could have faster, but the service we have is great for my purposes, despite running an internet-based company from my home. Some days I wish the upload speed were faster, like when uploading YouTube videos, but compared to many of my neighbors I cannot complain (and there'll be an article about Broadband soon). We used to get our TV service from them, but like many people, we just found the cost prohibitive.

We took several steps. One was pretty retro - we bought an antenna. This is a mixed success. We live south of Menomonie, in a big horseshoe-shaped valley, surrounded by trees on three sides.  Tall trees. On the top of bluffs. The gist of the problem is that we have a lot of trees waving in the breeze on three sides, causing all sorts of disruption to our TV signal. This all means that in the winter our TV reception from the Eau Claire area is great. In the summer - it's iffy. Windy days are pretty bad. Sometimes the picture starts breaking up and I cannot even identify a reason. This isn't a huge problem since the current range of TV programming on the networks means that we mostly watch the evening news, and occasionally one or two comedy shows. But it's summer, so at the moment it's just the news. 

The good antenna news is that we get great reception of PBS, which we do watch quite a lot.  The path to the Menomonie PBS transmitter is clear, and we're quite close, so there's a lot of joy there. For the curious, what we're using for an antenna is this:

It's a good basic antenna for a 60-mile throw with VHF or UHF.  It's good enough to pick  up WEAU reliably from here - at least when the leaves are off the trees. We also get WQOW, WEUX, and WHWC just fine most of the time.  In theory we could receive some of the stations in the cities but the antenna is aimed at Eau Claire, so that's really not an option at the moment without a rotor. It's possible a higher mount for the antenna would help, but the idea of clambering around on the peak of our roof isn't appealing at my age.  If you wonder what kind of over the air TV reception you can get, I recommend https://tvfool.com - it will give you all the bewildering tables, charts, and maps you could wish for. 

We're also doing recording of those shows. Did I mention the Do-It-Yourself tech passion?  Rather than doing what a normal person would do and buying a DVR like a Tablo https://www.tablotv.com/ (don't get me wrong, this is a nice product and some days I wish I had gone that way) I built my own. So I have a small computer that works as a server for various purposes, and one of the things it does is to be a DVR. I'm using a software package called Plex. This has been a long-term solution for media servers, and I have used it for some time. More recently they have introduced the capability to record over-the-air TV shows. Along with the computer, there is a small TV tuner box that can take two channels at once and send the stream up through our network to the computer. The computer uses the PLEX software to record the video stream to disk. The recorded shows then are served off of the disk, along with a growing music collection, movies, podcasts, and more. 

The Plex software was a little dicey for about the first year, but the software quality has settled down to the point where it is fairly reliable. I record a  lot of PBS shows, the daily news programs, and more. This allows us to watch whenever we feel like it.  The only fly in this ointment is the above-mentioned waving trees. Well, there's one more little issue which is that the amount of disk storage required keeps growing and clearly within the next year I'm going to have to get creative. The tuner I am currently using is a Silicon Dust HDHomerun Connect. It's a nice piece of equipment, and there are several other tuners in the series that can work with Cable systems, or which have 4 tuners instead of 2.

We watch the television shows through our Roku box, which has been great for this and some other purposes.

So in general - we get to watch TV, we get to record it, and we can do some of the tricks that commercial DVR's do like pause a TV show while watching it, etc. But I will admit it's all a little more cumbersome than a lot of commercial setups. Plex software is free, but to use the live TV and DVR functions (along with a few other niceties) you need to purchase a PlexPass subscription which is $40/year or $120 for a lifetime subscription. There are sales occasionally. I have a lifetime pass which I bought on sale a couple years back.

Of course, this is the 21st Century and we do most of our TV viewing over the Internet. That will be the next installment.

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Published on

August 1, 2018

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