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Peter Warner is an electrical engineer in Calgary with four antennas on his roof that pick up all the local stations. 'The images are incredible,' he says

chris bolin The Globe and Mail

In Richmond Hill, Ont., John Krim gets all the TV he needs from the $100 antenna he installed on his roof himself: The federal government accountant can pull in 19 Canadian and U.S. stations without ever paying the cable company a dime.

About 100 kilometres south of him in Dunnville, Ont., near the Lake Erie shore, Dennis James can do him one better: He gets 38 channels with one antenna that he designed and built himself after he retired from a career as a renovator and auto-parts plant manager.

Krim and James are over-the-air enthusiasts, tech-savvy hobbyists who know how to get the most from free TV, those signals wafting through the air for anyone with the rabbit ears or roof-top equipment to catch them.

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"It really is the original, legal form of broadcasting, it is what kids of the 1950s grew up with and it is undergoing a renaissance," said Jon LeBlanc of North Delta, B.C., where he can get 15 channels with his antenna.

The over-the-air enthusiasts attribute that renaissance partly to rising cable and satellite bills that make a free alternative attractive, but also to Canada's coming transition to digital television transmission.

On Aug. 31, Canadian broadcasters are required to shut off their analog signals and broadcast digitally in all major centres. Cable and satellite subscribers will not notice any difference: Their service providers will decode the digital signals for them.

People who get television over-the-air will need either a recent, digital-ready TV set or a converter box for older sets, to get the signals – but what signals they will be!

Enthusiasts point out that, because they are not compressed to be carried by cable or satellite, the over-the-air digital signals offer the highest definition images. Sports fans, in particular, appreciate the pristine HD pictures they can get over the air. (CBC, CTV and Global are already transmitting digitally in various cities including Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, so many over-the-air viewers are already enjoying HD.)

"It was really great getting the Olympics HD," said Peter Warner, an electrical engineer in Calgary with four antennas on his roof that pick up all the local stations (but no U.S. channels because he is too far from the border.) "The images are incredible."

"The sports really benefit from the HD broadcast," Krim agreed. "I can even watch American football, just for the quality of the colour and the signal."

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Normally, Krim isn't much of a sports fan, nor much of a coach potato; mainly he watches documentaries on PBS and TVO. The antenna enthusiasts are often light TV watchers who are willing to forgo specialty channels such as TSN that are only available by cable and satellite.

"I was hooked on a few cable shows but now weeks go by and I don't watch them," said William Moss, an Ottawa engineer who is thinking about discontinuing his cable subscription since he has stopped watching the home-renovation shows he used to follow. He also has an antenna beside his TV that currently picks up eight digital channels; he expects another six to show up Aug. 31. He figures if he buys a better one and positions it on the roof, he will catch a further six or eight U.S. stations, including PBS.

Besides, as Moss and other antenna enthusiasts point out, you can always turn to the home computer for specialty fare.

"I think with the antenna and the Internet we are filling in all the gaps for news and entertainment," said Warner in Calgary, where he watches the Al-Jazeera news service online.

Still, not everyone is convinced that the antenna is about to replace the cable subscription as Canada goes digital.

"It's a niche," cautions Hugh Thompson, editor of the Digital Home website. "There will be some renewed interest [with the digital switchover]but it will be a bump. Long term, the percentage of people who use antennas is constant."

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That won't stop the enthusiasts from their crusade. They fill the over-the-air forums on Digital Home with debates about different styles of antennae and instructions about positioning them to boost the signal strength – when they are not boasting about the number of signals they can pluck out of the air. So far, James's 38 channels appears to be the winner.

DIY antenna

Dennis James of Dunnville, Ont. has designed his own multidirectional antenna that he says anybody with a screwdriver (and no fear of heights) can build and mount themselves. He calls his invention the Stealth Hawk antenna. Here are his instructions, converted to metric measurements.

You will need:

  • 1.5-metre length of straightened No. 10 gauge wire
  • a non-conductive plastic block to mount the wire element onto
  • a 4:1 balun, a balanced to unbalanced transformer
  • two screws to mount the element feed points and the balun
  • a coaxial cable that will reach the length from antenna to TV
  • The top diamond leg length is 16.5 cm.
  • The bottom diamond leg length is 21.5 cm.
  • The bottom splayed leg is 38 cm.
  • All side bends are about 85 degrees and the top bend is about 140 degrees.
  • The upper diamond height to the feed point is 24 cm.
  • The width of the upper diamond is 30 cm.
  • The feed point is gapped 5 cm apart for the 4:1 balun connections.

Mount the antenna outdoors as high as possible at the very top end of the mast. Attach the coaxial cable to the 4:1 balun and then attach the other end of the cable to the TV.

If you are using a cable length over 7.5 m, or if you are located in a fringe reception area, you may need to use a mast mounted preamp or a small indoor booster amp to improve the signal strengths. You should be able to receive good signal strengths from broadcast TV towers within an 80-km range without having to use a rotor device.

This home-made antenna seems to give a full range 7-51 with good signal strength performance throughout the VHF and UHF bands and FM radio signals.

For further instructions and discussions about the Stealth Hawk, you can visit this forum.

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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