I walked into a Best Buy store in Toronto a few weeks ago, and asked a sales assistant: “How do I get all of the main US stations (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, PBS) and the main Canadian ones for free, in HD?”

He told me you couldn’t. The only way to view High Definition television was with a Bell Satellite package, or a Rogers Cable package. Unfortunately, there is no “branded” body in Canada correcting this myth propagated for years by Bell, Rogers, and through their interests in selling subscriptions, retailers like Best Buy.

Here is a good article from 2009 explaining the situation. Last year marked the year most US urban areas switched to digital terrestrial television. Later this year, broadcasters in Canadian urban areas will be switching off their old analog system (the one that used to give you channels 2 to 13 with an indoor antenna), in favour of the same digital system as in the US.

Digital signals means they can fit a lot more through the airwaves; there is space for about 40 to 60 HDTV channels over the air (OTA). If you are in the Toronto or Vancouver area, all you need to watch High Definition Television with higher-quality video than Bell or Rogers can provide is:

  1. An indoor digital TV antenna ($30-$50) if all you care about is receiving Canadian channels in HD
  2. A rooftop digital TV antenna ($50-$100) if you want to get all the American networks and PBS too.
  3. A HDTV television with a built-in ATSC tuner (all TV’s sold over the past couple of years have them, unless they specifically say they don’t)

If you add a TiVo Premiere PVR (about $300 + a $300 lifetime subscription) you will also have a much nicer PVR experience than Rogers or Bell can ever dream of providing.

All for a $50 to $650 fixed cost investment, then it’s free forever.What’s the catch?

Catch number one is that you need a 3-foot high antenna on top of your house, pointing to Buffalo from Toronto or Seattle from Vancouver. Canadians from my generation aren’t comfortable with rooftop antennas.

Catch Number 2 is you can’t get TSN or any of the dedicated sports channels. Which is why you need a sports bar nearby, or a great streaming service.

The biggest brand problem I see is a lack of awareness of these possibilities by a TV-viewing public that has been lulled into thinking Rogers and Bell are the only way to get decent quality TV and PVRs.

When the UK began its switchover to digital television many years ago, a private company was allowed to try to profit from OTA television. Although a commercial flop, OnDigital succeeded in creating awareness, resulting in a wave of people ditching their indoor analog antennas in favour of outdoor digital antennas. When OnDigital and its rebrand, ITV digital failed, the BBC stepped in with some other players to create FreeView, which continued to publicise the wonders of OTA television as an alternative to cable and satellite.

In Canada, there is no private body with any interest in telling people about the simplicity, cost effectiveness, and quality of OTA. The CRTC (our version of the FCC) has a pathetic excuse for information on their website. There is perhaps something more nefarious afoot.

The CRTC seems to be very cosy with Rogers and Bell; read here about the controversial decision to require caps and pay-per-usage on internet data for all Internet providers in Canada. If there are suspicions about the suppression of information about OTA television, wouldn’t the Government of Canada’s excellent marketing department agree that the best way to eliminate suspicion is to create and execute a thorough awareness campaign, online and on television, in tandem with Canada’s digital switchover this summer?

Of course the answer should be yes. Creating a branded effort (like “Freeview”) to remind people of the simplicity and freeness, would be even better. After all, Canadians like to save money and talk about the money they saved. Certain duopolistic forces are afraid of just that.

Join the conversation! 9 Comments

  1. Right on! I get it, too … that is, the freeeee ota dtv! It’s too sweet and amazing. I only wish there was a way to let the others know. Nobody knows, they are clueless. And, it’s no accident, which really peeves me. What’s worse is that the government stood by and allowed the mega-media-giants to conceal the truth from the viewing public.

    I feel immensely grateful that I happen to live with someone who knows about wire and how antennas and airwaves work. In the states, as soon as they (the government) started talking about the switch, we knew immediately what it meant. We’d finally, finally be able to watch tv. TV reception here on the eastern shore, no-man’s land, sticksville – was non-existent. Using the silly rabbit ears all we could pick-up, if we were lucky, were 2 measly snow channels. I kid you not! And, absolutely no one knows about it or if they were paying attention, they don’t have the right antenna. Just any old antenna won’t do. You need a very special antenna that’s amplified, is roof mounted, and they are not available in retail stores.
    I tried telling people I ran into at the grocery store but there was so much resistance to the whole idea. Mostly, people were turned off after being pounded about the converter boxes on tv & radio spots that led up to the switch. I’ve had it the entire 3 years and I’m loving it. I say that it’s about darned time, too. Those who had “heard” what I was saying went out and purchased poor-quality locally and wondered why it didn’t work for them. Unless you know some basic principles of how OTA works and what to look for in an antenna, you’ll be fumbling at best. What a shame that this information isn’t mainstream. Oh well!
    Society doesn’t believe their neighbors anymore or even talk to them and rely strictly on mainstream media for all their information. The problem with that is that it’s not reliable information. Everything’s pretty much a lie, designed around getting you to spend precious money. Personally, I understand how commercials works and would only believe what my neighbor says because he’s not trying to sell me something.
    Funny thing is, when I tried to talk to people they’d get offended and automatically assume that I was attempting to sell them something. Stupids!

  2. TiVo-HD is not available in Canada! Go ahead look it up. You might want to check your TiVo pricing as well.

  3. Hi Joe. Yes, you are right, TiVo Premiere and TiVo HD are not officially available in Canada. However, if you are close to the American border, as most Canadians are, you can buy it there or get it shipped to a UPS store or equivalent in an American border town for free. If you negotiate with the TiVo people you should be able to get the prices I mentioned or better for the TiVo Premiere + lifetime subscription. If you declare the box you will pay HST to Canada customs.

    Once you install it in your house in Canada, it works fine; although if you’re in Toronto it helps to tell it you have a Niagara Falls ON or NY address (the box doesn’t expect you to be able to get all the Buffalo channels from Toronto).

    Of course, if that level of effort is problematic, there are other HD OTA PVR options available in Canada that work pretty well too. But not as enjoyable as TiVo.

    Good luck.

  4. I’ve been using TiVo HD in Mississauga, Ontario for several months now and loving it. I cancelled my Rogers cable subscription and went OTA with a Clearstream 2 antenna pointing towards buffalo. Picked up 21 stations including Canadian stations mostly HD.
    Also picked up Netflix and Planning on nhL game center for streaming live games via the apple tv. All at less than half of what I payed Rogers.

  5. Dan- interested to hear more about your OTA – Tivo set up. We are pulling in about 25 channels up in Whitby and use a Channel Master PVR to record shows. It is not a “quality product” to say the least and plan to get rid of it and thinking of Tivo. What parts of the Tivo service do you get/not get – such as enhanced Program Guide, access to Netflix, Hulu Plus, etc and are there “issues” with your location (i.e. do you have to “claim” you are in Niagara Falls, cloak your IP, etc etc) We just want a reliable set up without a ton of hassles. Any input you can share would be welcome.


  6. Hey Shawn

    You don’t really get any of the enhanced features of TiVo if you are coming from a Canadian ip address. Just the awesome program guide.

    There is something else you might want to try… It’s called witopia. You can get witopia VPN service for 70$ for the year
    Then you need to get what I think is called the witopia dream box. With that, your TiVo goes through VPN too, and you can make the receiving computer think you are in the states… Then Netflix USA, enhanced guide etc get activated.

  7. 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. All currently available FTA satellite channels are listed at http://fta.channels.drsat.ca

    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 at http://www.digitalhome.ca/forum/showthread.php?t=170234.

    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.

  8. I live in Oshawa and would like to know where Shawn got all his equipment to get OTA channels.

  9. Hi Mario. This thread is pretty old, you may have a hard time getting in contact with Shawn.

    I got my stuff from the Save and Replay guys in Mississauga, very nice, very knowledgeable, good prices and they may be able to steer you to a good installer in Oshawa.

    Good luck.


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