If you’re thinking of cutting the cord, you’re probably thinking about an antenna. If you aren’t, you really should be. All of the top rated programs are available live, for free, using an antenna. 90% of Americans can get free television signals in their homes, and chances are right now you could be looking at a couple of dozen free channels that come in without affecting your data caps and without straining your home’s bandwidth. If you’re coming from satellite though, you’re probably worrying about aiming. Don’t be.
Aiming a satellite is hard
When you’re talking about satellite TV, you’re talking about getting a signal from 22,000 miles away. If your dish is off by as little as 1/32″, you’re pointing at an area 30 miles off course. That means you’re missing the strongest part of the signal and that’s a problem.
That’s why most people with satellite TV let the experts worry about it. They call DIRECTV or DISH and someone comes out with a really expensive meter and a bunch of tools and when they’re done you have TV. It only takes, well, an hour or so.
Aiming an antenna is much easier
There are quite a few reasons why aiming an antenna is much easier than aiming a satellite dish. Let’s dive in.
The broadcast towers are less than 75 miles away.
In almost every area, your local broadcast signal is fairly close. There are some quirky markets out west where you’re “technically” in market even if you’re 150 miles away, but those are more about politics. You should reliably be able to get signals up to 75 miles away with the right equipment and even up to 100 miles away if everything lines up the right way for you. But either way that’s a lot closer than 22,000 miles. Even if you’re off a little bit you’re going to be much better off than if you were aiming a dish.
The signal coming to your home is much stronger from an antenna.
Satellite signals are so incredibly weak when they get to your home, it’s a miracle you can even get them. On average, TV signals from local towers are about 100 times more powerful, sometimes more. So you’re going to have an easier time getting them, no question.
There’s “beam width” to consider.
Beam width is simply a measure of how far off you can be in your aim and still get an acceptable signal. It’s based on the design of the antenna. Most TV antennas have a beam width of 40-60 degrees. This means you can be off up to 30 degrees when you aim and still get an acceptable signal (30 degrees one way, 30 degrees the other way, that’s 60 degrees.) However every antenna design is a compromise between beam width and raw gain. An antenna with greater beam width will usually be less capable of getting those really weak signals.
Because satellite signals are so weak, they’re received by an antenna with a beam width of about 2 degrees. Because antenna signals are so much stronger, designers can create antennas with much better beam widths that still work well.
Antennas can be really big (if you need them.)
You will find as you look at antennas and satellite dishes that most of them are smaller than 39″ in any direction. This is done to satisfy FCC rules. The FCC says your homeowner’s association or landlord can’t stop you from putting an antenna or dish on your property if it meets these criteria:
It has to be in a private area like a courtyard or a part of the house not visible from the outside
If you don’t own the property it has to be mounted in a way that doesn’t damage the property
The antenna has to be smaller than 39.37″ (one meter) in all directions.
Satellite dishes and most antennas fall under that size restriction for that reason. However if you’re a homeowner and there’s no HOA, you can make your antenna as big as you want. In theory you could have a massive satellite dish too except they’re really not made. Big antennas can pull in signals better than small ones, in general. So, there’s that opportunity to use a larger antenna and get better reception.
How to aim an antenna in 10 minutes or less, using stuff you already have.
Chances are you loaded Google Earth on your PC at one point or another. Fire it up and zoom in until your city or town, and the nearest large city, are both in the window. There’s a “ruler tool” at the top, press it. You can draw a line from your town to the big city and it will give you a heading. For example:
Your phone has a compass app. Stand outside and turn around until the compass says you’re facing the same heading that Google Earth gives you.
Point the antenna there.
Seriously that’s it. Most antenna aiming is flexible enough that if you’re off by a bit, if the towers aren’t in the center of the city, you’ll still be fine. Sure, you can get far more precise tools for aiming, but this is going to get you going just fine in most cases.