This is a guest post by Tomasz who is a manager of systems engineering at AMD Inc. in Markham, ON. He is a technology enthusiast with his latest project on getting free HDTV over the air (OTA). He has been doing research for months and is looking to install his own OTA system in May of 2009.

With subscription rates for cable and satellite on a continuous upwards trajectory, there’s a little-known but quickly-growing niche market in Canada devoted to free (and 100% legal) reception of HDTV. I mentioned this idea for a post to FT a short while ago, and he offered up the idea of writing a guest post, so here it is.

What’s old is new again

So what is this magic bullet? It’s known as OTA, or Over-The-Air transmission. You may remember the old days of rabbit ears and big outdoor aerial antennas to pick up those few grainy ‘free’ analog tv stations. With the advent of digital technology, those same airwaves are now being slowly but surely changed over to digital transmissions, while at the same time remaining 100% free! I should insert a caveat here – you can expect to pay as little as zero and as much as $600-$700 for an OTA setup, depending on your location, your needs (how many channels you want to be able to receive), etc., but after the initial outlay there are no monthly fees whatsoever.

In the USA, there is a mandate for all analog tv broadcasts to be shut down as of June 2009 (originally, this was February 2009 but a recent ruling changed the date). In Canada, the date for the changeover is in 2011. However, most tv stations are already transmitting in digital, and the results you can achieve on your tv can be quite impressive.

Digital broadcasts are carried in either 720p or 1080i, and include digital sound.  The days of static on your tv are over. As long as you can pick up the signal, the image is 100% clean. In fact, if you were to compare an OTA image side-by-side to a satellite or cable HD broadcast, you’d be surprised to find the OTA signals looks far superior to both because they are not subject to the same levels of image compression that the cable/satellite companies use to maximize the number of channels they can stream to you.

What equipment do I need and what channels can I get?

The number of channels you can get depends solely on your location with respect to the channel’s transmitters as well as your antenna setup. If you live in a major Canadian city and all you want to receive are Global, CTV, and CBC, you might be able to get away with an indoor antenna. Keep in mind those ‘rabbit ears’ you’ve seen in the past may no longer be good enough – spring for a good antenna.

For those of us living in border areas (80% of Canadians live within 200km of the US border), with the right antenna setup you may be able to pick up the major American stations as well, including NBC, PBS, CBS, ABC, FOX, and CW. These cities include Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, and many others.

The best place to check what you can reasonably expect to receive is by visiting Canada’s largest OTA forum on digital home and clicking on “OTA Reception Results”. Note that receiving these signals may require a better antenna mounted either in your attic, on your roof, or on a dedicated mast. Typically, the higher in height you go, the more you can pick up. Having an unobstructed line of sight to the tv transmitter, being at a high elevation above sea level, etc. all help with reception. Pre-amplifiers can also help you pick up weak signals that otherwise would not be receivable.

A great online tool for determining your channel availability is available at TV Fool. Click ‘start here’ and plug in your home’s latitude/longitude coordinates (which you can get from Google Earth) and the site will list all channels in your area, show you a plot with where they are located, and also estimate whether you’d need an indoor, attic, or outdoor antenna to pick them up. Make sure you don’t just provide your city name, since that only works in the USA and will give wrong data. You need to give actual coordinates.

To receive digital OTA, at a minimum you need a UHF antenna (since OTA channels are almost all on channels 14-69) and a TV with an ATSC digital tuner (most TVs sold since 2004 have one built-in) or a stand-alone converter box or PC-based tuner card from a company like Hauppage.

Depending on your proximity to the transmitters, you may also need a preamplifier and possibly an outdoor roof-mounted tripod or ground-based tower mast. If transmitters are located in different directions, you may also need a rotor, which remotely rotates your antenna to change which direction it’s pointing. Note that anything installed outdoors should be done by a professional installer to ensure it’s done right and that the installation is compliant with local building and electrical codes.

Why wouldn’t everyone do this? There has to be some hitch…

I won’t lie to you, there’s always a hitch. Here are some pros and cons of switching to OTA:


  • 100% free (after initial setup) and legal.
  • No simsubbing on American channels (this means you get all the American commercials; yes, including during Superbowl!).
  • Better quality HD than on satellite or cable.
  • Many (though not all) stations incorporate EPG (electronic programming guide) information into their streams. You can also use a PC-based application like Vista Media Centre, which is a Windows-based PVR tool that downloads guide listings off the web.


  • If you watch a lot of cable, sports, or specialty channels, these aren’t broadcast OTA. Examples include TSN, CNN, Treehouse (for those with kids), YTV, CPAC, and many others. OTA stations are limited to the major Canadian and American networks. For many people though, this is enough!
  • If you don’t live close to the border and/or a major American city, you won’t be able to receive NBC/CBS/PBS/FOX/CW. 150km from a transmitter is usually about as far as you can go, and that’s only if the transmitter is relatively powerful.
  • If you’re in a ‘fringe’ reception area (meaning at the outskirts of where the transmitters can reach), have a lot of tall trees or buildings nearby, or live in a valley, you may not be able to receive as many channels as you would otherwise if those obstacles weren’t present.
  • OTA is slightly affected by weather (especially fog), particularly on weaker channels in your area. However, the same can be said for satellite. In high rain or heavy snow, OTA will suffer much less than most satellite installation.
  • Your monthly programming fees are no longer helping put your local cable/satellite company’s employees’ kids through college.

Final Thoughts

I hope this post has been enough to get you interested enough to learn more. The community of people ‘going OTA’ is constantly growing. Personally, I am going to be installing my first OTA setup for my home north of Toronto this spring, where I hope to receive approximately 25 HD channels for free.

I invite everyone over to the forums, where there are some great people and FAQ documents which will help explain things better than I ever could in one post. Make sure you read their “OTA Knowledge Base & FAQ” (a great primer) before posting as well as the forum’s general rules. If you have any questions in the meantime, feel free to post comments here and I’ll do my best to answer them!

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I don’t imagine my rural Newfoundland area gets much reception. Some places don’t even have radio or cell service. Too bad. Sounds pretty interesting.

This is interesting. As someone who lives downtown Toronto this might be an ideal solution. I was going to buy an AppleTV and download most of my programs. But sports was always going to be the issue. Keep us updated when you settle into actually doing it.

I’m using a $30 antenna (bought from Canada Computers) in downtown Montreal at the foot of Mount Royal. I get about 8 channels, several in glorious HDTV, which is good enough for me, when augmented with downloaded content. One note though, during “weather” the signal may be momentarily lost, but this seems to happen with cable as well.

very interesting read. im guessing that eventually more channels will be offered? im in a decent area so hmm.

My rabbit ears pick up CBC and CTV in digital and it looks great. Thinking of getting a better antenna for more channels.

This is pretty interesting, I knew about HDTV OTA but never really looked into it. If I can get Global here in Edmonton then I’ll have most of the U.S. shows anyways!

More digital channels should definitely come online as we get closer to the Canadian transition date (August 2011). In the meantime, as usual, the bigger cities get the transition first, and the smaller cities and rural areas will be later. For now, if you’re in the Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, or Vancouver areas, you have a lot online already. I believe Edmonton also got their first digital station up now as well. For other folks, if you’re close enough to the US border, you can usually pick up the US transmitters for the major networks.

We’re looking forward to setting up our system in a few months. We’re about 150-160km from most of the Buffalo US stations, but with Lake Ontario accounting for most of the distance, we should with a little luck be able to pick up 25 or more channels.

If you’re close to the downtown areas of the major cities above, you can pick up the local digital channels with just an indoor antenna like davidm did in Montreal. But if you’re further or want the US stations, you’ll need something outdoors.



According to the threads on digitalhome, Global is expected to start transmitting OTA digital in Edmonton this spring, so you may get your wish!

This is a definite possibility for me -thanks for all the great info. Right now I’m subscribing to a newsgroup.

I already have an indoor amplified antennae and I am receiving some local channels ie CTV, global. What I want to know is where to get an outdoor antennae so I can also get the US channels. I dont think I can just go to futureshop and buy one here in Vancouver ?


Futureshop definitely won’t have it; they only sell the mainstream digital cable/satellite solutions since the OTA game is a relatively niche market. That said, there are several threads on digitalhome about where to buy. Go to (there are three separate threads discussing where-to-buy). You may need to register for an account (free) in order to access the link, otherwise it may just show up blank. If you’re having trouble finding the info you need, you can always post a message there any you’ll get a pretty quick reply from the folks on the west coast.

Very nice,
I have been running a HTPC application with downloaded or streamed content for a longtime now.
But I have been looking for this kind of setup to add to the mix for local news and other bits, the fact it is HD is a big bonus.

Its also the final push for me to buy the hauppage tv card :)

What a coincidence that I read this article today, and now I click on my homepage – Canadian Business – and this is the main article ‘End of over-the-air tv’

That Canwest is having to sell some of their non-subscription channels:

There are definitely some interesting dynamics at work in the OTA industry. Some people believe that Global and CTV have over-extended themselves with their secondary networks like E! (Global) and A-channel (CTV). I don’t think that the ‘core’ networks like CBC, CTV, and Global are in as dire straits as the offshoot channels. For now, OTA is still strong for these core networks. In fact, the act of simsubbing (putting Canadian ads into American channels on satellite/cable) is only allowed if (as per Wikipedia) “simsubs can only be applied by cable companies in areas where the local station is available terrestrially”. This means that if CTV is airing the same show as NBC at the same time on cable/satellite, they can only insert Canadian ads onto the NBC channel if CTV is available OTA in that area. OTA therefore helps the network by ensuring that their cable/satellite ad revenue is not jeopardized by people tuning into the American network airing the same show with U.S. ads, and in turn we as consumers benefit because we can pick up CTV for free via OTA. Ironically, we can still see the American ads by picking up the terrestrial OTA versions of U.S. networks that leak across the border :)

So all in all, Canadian networks have a vested interest in keeping OTA to maintain their ad share on subscription-based cable/satellite services. I do not think this story by the Globe took that into account when they made the premature blanket statement about OTA dying.

For more information, I invite you to visit where there is a much better explanation of simsubbing than I can scribble out!

I have never watch cable or satellite tv in my home, but it is interesting to hear that OTA gives better image qualities than others.
As far as I know OTA use interlaced format(1080i), so the picture quality may not good as you wish with fast moving actions such as sports.

I can pick up CBC and CTV easily, and CityTV and CW when the weather is good. More is merrier, but 4 is good enough with an indoor antenna.

Englishman in Canada, buy a TV tuner card for PC with ATSC support(make sure it does) like this one

and plug it to the HTPC and to any UHF antenna. After installing the bundled software, you will be good to watch.
As a side note, my family has never paid a cent for cable or satellite TV and this is my first comment in this blog.

my tv (a samsung lcd) has a built in receiver. we get a hand full of stations and i believe CBC and Global in HD. i can’t remember what stations, but those sound right. i still never watch it, though.

Philip in North York,

OTA HD broadcasts are carried in either 720p or 1080i, depending on the channel. True, 1080i always has the disadvantage of being dependant on deinterlacing methods to ensure smooth images in fast motion. It comes down to how good your deinteracer is. Some are very simple BOB-style deinterlacing, whereas more advanced deinterlacers use motion-adaptive technologies to smooth out the image. If you have a larger tv though, 1080i is still sharper than 720p, which is what cable/satellite is transmitted at. And the compression is much lower on OTA than cable/satellite. Funny thing I read (not sure if this is true or not) is that Bell Expressvu doesn’t compress their “HD Preview” channel – to make sure you get hooked on the image quality – but then all their subscription channels are overly compressed. I can’t see this getting any better because they keep cramming more HD channels onto their existing satellites. Perhaps when they switch to MPEG4 compression, they’ll get a bit better – but chances are they’ll just use that to cram even more channels into their packages (and of course, charge more $$$).. But I’m getting off-topic..

Thanks for the info Thomaz, if it’s coming in spring I think I’ll look into this… I currently use a windows media center with regular cable, the firewire on Shaw’s HD box is apparently disabled so I wouldn’t be able to record if I went that route. I’ll just get the atsc card and plug that in!

I setup my OTA HD setup last fall, I live just northwest of Hamilton up on the escarpment.

I love OTA TV, it’s much higher quality video then the crap I pay for with Cogeco.

HOWEVER, the canadian networks ARE NOT interested in boosting OTA. Many of them have been continuously badgering the CRTC for entensions on their deadline to convert to digital transmission.

The bottom line is, very few people view broadcast networks OTA. Most of there viewers (i’ve heard about 95%) use cable or satellite. Those digital transmission towers are very expensive to operate. This means spending a lot of money to reach very few customers (remember ad revenue is all they get).

As a result, most networks are doing the bare minium in terms of transmission power.

American networks often broad cast 200-300 kW all the way up to 1000 kW.

CBC is 30 kW (government funded).
CTV is 15 kw (I think).
CityTV is 1.5 kW.
Global is 1.0 kW.

in the GTA, but outside of Toronto, it’s easier to get american stations from 100 km away then to pick up canadian stations 20 km away.

Unless the popularity of OTA picks up really fast, the networks are not going to be interested in providing strong, reliable signals.

I’ve ditched Cable and have been using OTA for about 2 years now. I’m in Mississauga and get about 22 digital channels. NBC (WGRZ) is the only one that drops off in the winter times. My install is a CM4221 antenna with a winegard AP4700 preamp mounted in my attic. The only station still not broadcasting in digital that I watch is TVO.

The OTA FAQ on digital home forums is the best place to start looking.

My tip – don’t buy a crappy antenna. My experience has been that people who find OTA problematic usually have dollar store rabbit ears.

Get a Channelmaster 4221 or 4228 for outdoor, or a Zenith Silver Sensor if you are indoors. You may even try building a Gray-Hoverman antenna (instructions on digital home) – they work very well.

Interesting article, though there are a few factual errors. For example although UHF (channels 14-69) is predominantly being used currently for DTV, after the analog shutdown, many stations will be reverting to their VHF (2-13) channel number (especially VHF-HI (7-13)) so a combination antenna my be necessary in the long run.

With regards to 1080i vs 720p, don’t forget that the OTA broadcast is what the cable and satellite companies receive. If they are giving you 720p and the original broadcast is in 1080i, they are down converting it and may not be doing a very good job of it (especially Compress-View).

Thanks Roger for the clarification. Just for the record, I had stated “OTA channels are *almost* all on channels 14-69”. Most stations post-transition will actually be located on 14-51 (52-69 no longer being available), with fewer than 20% being on VHF-hi. You’re right though, I may have given the impression that DTV is *only* on UHF, which is not the case since there will be the occasional network on VHF-hi (or even more rarely, on VHF-low).

Hi there, i just stumbled upon this link by accident (was searching for wifi antenna boost), and it seems pretty interesting so far.

I currently have an old analog tv,
so to get me started, i’d have to get a digital tuner is that correct?
will any brand work?
I plan on building my own antenna

any info is greatly appreciated,

For those of you that are more interested in the ‘zero’ end of the investment scale than the ‘$500-$600’ end, have a look at It shows you how to very quickly and easily make a neat little antenna. Mine has been in service for a couple of years and works just great here in Vancouver. Couldn’t be happier, and so glad I didn’t listen to all the TV salesmen who told me nothing was available over the air in HD!

I live in Trenton Ontario I have a stand alone tv tower on the side of the house with a rotor which I have never used in the six years here. Going to buy a HD tv and wondering what I can expect in this area with a tower and rotor. I would love to kick bell expressview to the curb. Any comments would be helpfull.

Thanks Willow Gates

Try making your own antenna and see how that works before shelling out money to buy one. Do a youtube search for Coat Hanger HDTV antenna.

At the very least you’ll find an alternative use for those old metal coat hangers in your basement. Or you’ll be kicking yourself for tossing them all out last spring.

Good luck and happy HD surfing.

Hi Mike,
I am close to you in Colborne and have an outdoor (Delhi) Antenna and rotor which came with my house. I hooked up a $60 (Tivax stb-t8) digiotal tv converter and get 26 channels including Citytv, CTV, and the buffalo stations. The picture is perfect and I cancelled Bell. Good luck! Dave

Hi everyone, I was wondering if someone could provide some real feedback for the following antenna “Futura HDTV Outdoor Antenna GE TV24769”. I live in Montreal, and even though I’m on the 3rd floor I don’t get any clear signals from local networks (ctv, cbs,…). May be someone has had similar problems and have already tried this GE antenna. Any feedback is welcome. Thanks a lot!
PS: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to paste the link but here it goes.. hope the admin will tell me.

Hi all, I have a Sony Bravia and completely technology illiterate. From what I understand, is all I need a UHF indoor antenna (I’m only interested in CBC for HD) and then I’m good to go?

What out for Free HD Canada small cish free local stations and access to
pay channels only if you want them On Air Auh 2011

hi there, i live in markham and would appreciate some advice.

i’d like to get an antenna. from what i’ve read, i believe i need a CM 4221. can anyone tell me from where i can get this and who can install…how much money am i looking at ?


I’m living in a high-rise (30/F) in Scarborough and facing south (CN Tower in my SW about 11 miles), I am very interesting in OTA, and I bought a Samsung 40″ HDTV a week ago. I tried 3 different indoor antennas -Trek(a) $39, RCA-1400 $25 (from Tiger Direct) and Philips (rabbit-ear) $13 (in Walmart)….guess what? The Philips is the best and very reliable. I received all 28 dtv in HD (NBC, CBC, CTV, ABC, RTV, CBS, CHCH, PBS, CTS, CITY, CW, SUN, GLOBAL, THINK-BRIGHT, TCT, FOX 29, ION, OMNI, 2 etc)…plus 12 sap channel. I am very lucky to have it all because of my location..! I am also compared with Rogers cable HD channel, yes, OTA is more crystal clear than cable..! I will monitoring the condition and decide to terminate the Rogers…save $63 per month…!

I live in a condo in south Etobicoke, face west. I have an indoor antenna from tiger direct (forget what brand it is cost about $40) I have no problem with the American channels but my CBC (by far the worst) SUN, and CITY are very intermittent. Any ideas why?
I’m also close to the tracks so when trains go by I lose my signal. Over all happy with OTA. It’s been about six months and not really missing the cable.

Likely, you face the wrong way or your antenna isn’t large enough to get the signal range. I have the Digiwave – its a small outdoor antenna that you can keep inside. I hang mine on the wall with a couple of picture hangers (its very light), and – strangely, guests think its art! Its not truly small, like the phillips rabbit ears, with which I had major signal problems, be prepared for about 18″ x24″. My location is downtown TO, facing NE, UNDER the Gardiner on the 3rd floor. I get signal reflection from the buildings and in rain or fog, it can be dicey, although at those times, I usually place it on a chair to get a stronger signal. Anyway, I normally get about 15 channels (CBC, Global, CTV, CHCH, PBS, My TV, Omni 1&2, City, SUN, and a couple of others. I recently was able to get FOX (29.1) regularly and have to say that I don’t miss my cable at all. Try the larger antenna, and retune your HDTV for new signals. You may see a huge difference. The outlay with the Digiwave was about 30-40 bucks, you might try to spend about $5 more, which will give you a longer range to pick up a signal. These can be easily bought at any of the computer/tech stores at College St just west of Spadina. I compared prices and signal ranges – not all were the same. Hope that helps.

I live in South Burnaby BC, in one of those favorable locations, ie. 450′ above sea level, with a great LOS for local channels, and clear unobstructed view south towards Seattle Washington. With a high gain 91XG antenna, I am able to receive ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS in HD, their sub channels, plus all local channels, though 2 or 3 such as Fox are very weather reliant. In total it is 22 channels (17 digital and 5 analog)

With a good antenna on the roof, and favorable location, it will be definitely possible in the lower Mainland of Vancouver to receive 15-25 digital channels after August 2011, when the analog cutoff is complete.

I agree about digital and TV, both are fantastic websites, that are a must if you want to seriously get into this whole OTA TV thing.

For Vancouverites this website has great deals on high gain antennas

I live in Toronto and get a whole bunch of free hdtv channels. In Canada, as well as the US, the FTC and CRTC passed laws that forced broadcasters to publish their feeds in digital. It’s surprising the kind of content you get. You get channels from all around as well as local channels in hd free. You go to and see what you have access to.

Love this article and I love my free OTA television! From Toronto, I get a bunch of US station from Buffalo, NY and soon all the locals will be digital as well. You are also 100% right about the Digital Home forum, some of the nicest people and most informative out there for all of Canada. It was a huge help to me. Also, do a google search for “revenge of the rabbit ears” for even more good reading on Canadian DTV from the guys at Average Joe Consumer Product Reviews.

There is ota in Newfoundland here in St. John’s . We have NTV HD and CBC will also be going digital Hd here as well by aug.31 . If you live in st. johns and area you should be able to get both free . NTVHD is awesome in crystal clear ota HD . You can get a hd antenna on Ebay for a decent price. I’ll get these channels free and use Netflix and apple tv as well.

For those using indoor antennas, we used to live in a high rise condo in a corner unit with a sun room. My husband decided one day to attach a cable wire to the antenna/tv and string it over to the corner window (the same way that some radios have a piece of wire that you use as an antenna). And it improved our reception. Not only that but if you held on to the end it was even better. Since you can’t really hold on to the end of the cable and watch tv at the same time we stuck a wrinkled potato on the end and lo and behold, it held the signal! With some tinkering we found that a stick of lemongrass worked just as well, lasted longer and smelled better. *grin* We now live in a house with a tower mounted antenna and are loving all the HD we’re getting now.

No I just purchased a hd indoor antenna on ebay for 20.00 and its fine here and I live just outside the city of ST. John’s.

I would invest in an outdoor antenna if I was able to receive more channels but that doesn’t seem to be the case here in NL Canada.

interested in knowing how many channels (OTA/FTA) are available in St. John’s NL.

Yes we in St. John’s,NL have 2 tv channels Ntv hd and CBC hd . Also ozfm a local radio station as well . All are recieved using a simple rca antenna about 10.00 on Ebay. I use Apple tv ,NHL Gamecentre ,Netflix and all is well. Roku is coming soon to Canada and that may prove to be an even better entertainment experience. Also a lot of content available on the computer as well and could hook up to tv if all wanted to see . Anyway Magicjack plus will be replacing the homephone as well soon . Lots of solutions out there ,we have been gouged too much over the years by big companies.

What area of st. john’s are you recieving CBC? Just purchased an indoor antenna and am getting NTV, but not CBC. Living in the downtown core.

@Iggy, I am not receiving CBC either…I live in East End…

You forgot to list free legal satellite TV as an option. With a 36 inch dish and an HD FTA satellite receiver, you can receive about 85 English channels with over 10 of those in HD on Ku Band FTA satellite. If you have room for a bigger dish to receive C band FTA satellite, you can get even more with over 200 additional English channels and over 50 of them in HD.

In addition to these full time channels, you may also receive temporary “wild feed” channels which don’t appear on the above list but carry many sporting & special events along with breaking news coverage. You may find these channels yourself by rescanning certain satellites on your receiver or by following a few feed hunting groups such as the Dr. Sat SatHunters Club.

These channels are unencrypted so they are legally available for free with no monthly subscription and complement nicely the channels you may already receive using an OTA antenna. However unlike OTA, FTA satellite offers near-nationwide coverage which is great for people who have a limited amount of OTA channels available in their area.