Before 2009, rabbit ears and even large, rooftop antennas were not uncommon sights in American households.
These inefficient metal monstrosities grabbed over-the-air, or OTA, television signals allowing people to watch local network affiliates and independent stations without paying Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), Time Warner Cable (NYSE:TWC), AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), DirecTV (NASDAQ:DTV), DISH Network (NASDAQ:DISH), or any other cable provider.
It was an inelegant system which delivered grainy pictures, random signal loss, and potential difficulties during bad weather. OTA television offered a poor substitute for cable TV, but it was gloriously free. You might have gotten a crummy picture and a limited set of channels, but you did not get a bill.
That changed in 2009 when federal laws forced channels to stop broadcasting OTA and move to pure digital signals, which resulted in the demise of rooftop antennas and rabbit ears. Many Americans thought that meant the end of free TV.
That's, of course, what the cable industry wants you to believe, but the opposite is true. Here's why.
How it works
The demise of OTA TV actually offers most Americans a chance to watch at least some HDTV stations for absolutely nothing.
The 2009 Federal Communication Commission's law did not end free television, but rather it simply changed the type of antenna you need in order to grab the free TV. Now, it's possible to watch potentially dozens of channels without paying for cable simply by hooking up an HDTV antenna. And, to make this option even more enticing, HDTV antennas aren't roof-mounted, they hook right into the back of the television and are about the size of a paperback book.
Price can vary greatly, but Amazon sells a perfectly viable option in its "Basics" line which costs under $25.
What do you get?
The first thing anyone switching to a HDTV antenna will notice is that it either can get a channel or it can't. Unlike the previous OTA signals which could go in and out or be somewhere in between, digital channels are either clearly HD or they are not available.
"With the conversion to all digital HDTV broadcasts, the experience of watching over-the-air TV is completely different than in days past," wrote Mohu, a company which makes HDTV antennas on its FAQ page. "Gone are the snowy images or ghosting. Digital signals are usually either 'there' or not. If you can receive an OTA TV signal, the quality of the signal is either perfect, as good as, or better than what you receive over cable or satellite."
The biggest wild card is what stations will be picked up in your area. This can vary greatly depending upon where you live. (Bigger cities typically have more channels.) In general, you will be able to receive, at the bare minimum, local stations including network affiliates and independents. You may also receive some unexpected surprises because some channels generally considered pay cable stations transmit free digital signals in certain markets.
At my home in Connecticut, located in the 06111 zip code, a channel checker provided by Tablo, another company which sells HDTV antennas, shows that I should receive 11 HDTV channels, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and even Telemundo, but not Fox for free.
Cable does not want you to know this
While the option of getting free channels via an HDTV antenna has been around since 2009, cable companies have little interest in letting their paying customers know they don't actually need to pay. This option has become even more viable since the launch of streaming services including Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Instant Video.
Pair any of those services with an HDTV antenna and in many locales you will have a decent mix of live TV to go with whatever your streaming choice is. Add in something like DISH's $20 Sling TV, which offers ESPN, and you'll have a pretty decent selection of live sports, which is one of the reasons some people choose to not cut the cord.
For those seeking to cut the cord and save a few extra dollars, HDTV antennas deliver pay-quality live TV without a bill -- not a bad deal, especially considering that a few popular cable companies have ranked among the worst in customer satisfaction anyway.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He still pays for cable, though he knows that's probably a little dumb. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Netflix, and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.