How can antenna TV be free?

We’re so used to paying for our entertainment. We pay the cable company, we pay the streaming company, we pay for downloads or for streaming music. We’ve gotten so used to paying for stuff that it seems really odd when we don’t have to.

Yes, over-the-air antenna TV is free.

In order to understand why, you have to understand a little bit of the history and the idea of broadcasting in this country.

Radio was the miracle invention of the early 20th century. You have to understand how transformational this was. By 1920 people had become accustomed, just like we are today, to amazing advances in communications technology. Most people alive then remembered the introduction of the telegraph, which allowed for instant point-to-point communication. Where a letter could take weeks to get from coast to coast, a telegram was instant. They recalled seeing and getting their first telephone, so that they could hear the voice of someone far away.

We take those things for granted but back then this was amazing. And then came radio. Wireless broadcasting had been around for a generation by 1920, but it was limited to businesses, governments, and hobbyists. With radio broadcasting, you could easily build — or later buy — a receiving set which would let you listen to mass-market entertainment. This was simply huge.

The idea of broadcasting as a resource and a right

In those early days there was a lot of talk about how this new power of broadcasting was to be used. This was a powerful thing and the brightest minds of the age were brought in to help understand how it should best be used.

It took another decade for the brand-spanking-new Federal Communications Commission to define what broadcasting was and how it was to be used. They defined the electromagnetic spectrum (the frequencies used by radio and other forms of broadcasting)  as a national resource. In other words, it was owned by the people, to be used sort of like national parks where everyone could enjoy it if they followed the rules.

The FCC retained the power to regulate and license broadcasters, and said that all broadcasting had to serve the public good in some way.

If that sounds weird to you…

…especially considering the way the government works today, I hear you. Back in the 1930s the US government was more focused on providing basic services for everyone and was more defensive toward big companies. This isn’t a political blog so I really don’t want to go too far in depth there.

Over-the-air TV is free and you have a right to get it

It’s actually in the law that empowers the FCC. All broadcasts on public bands must be free and you must be able to buy equipment that gets it. If you buy a TV, it has to have an over-the-air tuner unless it’s prominently listed as a “monitor” or “tuner-free TV.”

Recently a loophole has opened up that says broadcasters can send next-generation TV content for testing as long as it’s (a) just for testing and (b) identical to the content you can get for free with the built-in hardware your TV has. But this is temporary. If that next-gen TV standard gets fully adopted, all TVs will have those tuners built in.

Will broadcasting ever go away?

Of course it’s possible that over-the-air broadcasters will eventually sign off. Most over-the-air broadcasts are done for profit and businesses start and stop all the time. There may come a time when most local broadcasters just start streaming content instead of broadcasting it. That certainly would be less expensive. But personally I think that’s a long time away. If you get an antenna now from Solid Signal, you can be assured of free broadcasts for years to come!

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.