Recently, we were going over our cable bill. $178 a month for a no-phone plan that included high speed Internet (30Mbps), standard cable, DVR, and a few cable boxes. When we realized this was over $2,000 a year, we started to really wonder if this was something our family needed. So we embarked on a journey to find out what some of the other options were, and discovered we could actually get more choice and channels for less money with some creative use of streaming services and hardware to connect things up to the TVs. Here’s what we learned.
The Ithaca area was one of the first in the country to have a cable TV system, and for good reason. Our geography in a valley makes it practically impossible to get good television signals from the other cities in our area large enough to host broadcast network TV stations (Syracuse, Binghamton, Elmira). Even though this has created benefits for the area (such as a vibrant television program at Ithaca College, and broadband Internet before many other places had it), it has made it challenging for people who just want to watch a few TV channels and not splurge for the entire cable lineup.
In the “old days” there were far fewer choices. Analog TV channels, VCR to record TV for later playback, DVD to play back high quality movies. Then came digital cable and suddenly we could fit many more channels onto the same wires – with the only downside being the need for a cable box. Eventually, we needed even more channels and data so the new cable boxes themselves became more of “digital streamers.” Time Warner Cable years ago stopped supporting analog and digital channels on their system, using all of their “bandwidth” to instead deliver video via Internet-based protocols such as MPEG, MP4, and HTTP. So essentially, your cable box is now just an Internet streamer which can only receive signals from your cable company, and that you pay monthly to rent. So even though it might look complicated and daunting, for a small investment in hardware and a minimal investment in time to research and install, it’s now more easy than ever to “cut the cord” and watch TV in the Ithaca area for less than what cable charges once their introductory pricing expires.
Over the Air Antenna
Unless you live on one of the hills, or in surrounding higher ground like Trumansburg, where we live, you’re just going to be out of luck receiving any signal. But if you’re higher up, and can point your antenna northeast towards Syracuse, you can actually get a wide variety of channels. At my home, I get 11 stations (see sidebar) including NBC, Fox, and PBS. (you can get an estimate of reception at your address here) For many this is a perfectly serviceable TV situation. And the cost? Somewhere around $50 for a decent roof-mount antenna. (Those patch type indoor antennas that are currently fashionable will get you maybe 1 or 2 channels, and a spotty connection at best.)
Another advantage of an antenna is that you get a much nicer image than the cable system provides. In order to cram more stations into their systems, cable and satellite providers digitally compress the signals on their systems, which affects the image quality. If you used to have “rabbit ears” and an old TV, you might associate antenna TV with static and less-than-ideal image, but this was back when signals were analog (think channels 2-13) and would worsen in quality as the distance to the transmitter increased. Newer TVs have digital tuners, and digital signals will look as good 1 mile or 100 miles away from the transmission tower. Whereas the old signals gradually degraded, newer digital ones will just look great until they finally drop off and then you get nothing.
The next challenge of an antenna is getting the signal to all of your TVs. If you just have one and it’s near where you mount the antenna, you’re all set. But if you have a few TVs in multiple rooms, then things are going to get more complicated, running coaxial cable around the house. (Pro tip – if you disconnect the local TV provider’s cable from where it enters your home, you may be able to use some of that existing interior cable to distribute the antenna within the house.) Of course, the more you split and send the signal around the house, the more the strength will degrade, and you might start losing channels.
Another challenge is that not all TVs have tuners in them any more, particularly some of the lower-cost new large-screen TVs. For these, you would need a tuner adapter that would tune signals, and then send the signal via a connection like HDMI that the TV already has. You would need one of these for each TV, and they’re around $40. (They were briefly offered for free, when the “digital transition” happened several years ago, so you might know someone with a spare in a closet.)
For the more industrious among you who have an Internet connection (necessary for the TV guide), Silicon Dust has a product called the HD Homerun which for $70 can connect to your antenna, tune in two broadcast channels at once, and stream them on your local network to computers, tablets, phones, and some TV playback devices such as the Amazon Fire TV ($70). This way you can watch the over-the-air broadcasts on your portable screens, and even on some TVs that are so equipped (my Samsung Smart TV can do it). The only drawback to this hardware is that it can’t broadcast your TV channels outside of your home network without some pretty serious power-user modifications (whereas the more expensive Slingbox AirTV can). But for at-home antenna watching, this is a great alternative to running a lot of wires around the house.
We didn’t want to go this route, because it involves getting more things installed and more proprietary set-top boxes, and for our system it would be overly complex. But with 1 or 2 TVs, this is still a very viable option. DISH Network and DirecTV offer several low-cost basic packages for TV, and AT&T wireless customers can even bundle the offerings and get unlimited cell data and some on-the-go viewing. Another advantage of the satellite offerings is that they carry the local (Syracuse, Binghamton, etc.) networks (see sidebar) so you can enjoy these without the need for a separate antenna as discussed previously. This could also be an option if you live in the Ithaca Flats and can’t get regular antenna reception. You do need line-of-sight to the southwest at a 35 degree angle to the sky to receive satellite signals in Ithaca, and some landlords won’t allow renters to install them. But, for many, this is a viable option, with prices starting around $30 a month.
It’s also worth mentioning that satellite Internet plans are not anywhere near as good as cable connections. Their download speeds max out around 10Mbps, which is 1/10 the speed of Spectrum for around the same price, so streaming video becomes very challenging (with lower quality video), and multiple streams are definitely out.
So, if you “cut the cord” but keep high speed internet ($65 for a 100Mbps connection from Spectrum), you will have a lot more options for watching TV. At this price, the “modem” is included, but you’ll need to provide your own wireless router ($30-$400) if you don’t want to run Ethernet all around your house. Or you can pay Spectrum $5 a month and they will activate the wireless features of their modem for you, but beware they probably won’t have the range or configurability as a decent separate wireless router.
Once you’ve got your wireless network set up, you can use various services and devices to watch content. The good news here is the price savings. When I downgraded my cable/Internet bundle to just Internet, I saved $113 a month. This frees up some cash to start replacing the services I lost.
Network Websites and Apps: If you used to have cable, you may be familiar with these. Visit the NBC website or app, enter your cable service name and password, and you can stream live and prerecorded shows right from the source. The bad news for cord cutters: most of these services only work if you have a cable or satellite (DirecTV NOW included!) subscription, so these are going to stop working for you.
Streaming Services (on demand): These are subscription plans designed to replace cable, and have monthly costs. (see comparison chart)
- Netflix ($10.99 a month for 2 screens, $13.99 a month for 4 screens and UHD 4k) is the original and probably the most versatile, and a great bargain. You get tons of movies and TV shows (though few current shows, and no live TV). Netflix is also producing their own original content, so shows like “House of Cards” can only be seen here.
- Hulu ($7.99 a month, $11.99 a month with no commercials) has current TV shows from most of the networks (CBS is a notable exception, as they are trying to push their All Access service, $5.99 a month with commercials). This is a great supplement to Netflix, as you can keep up with many of the current shows you watch. And they are all on-demand, so you don’t need to watch at a certain time or record them on a DVR, you just select and stream. Hulu is also producing original content such as “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which you won’t find anywhere else.
- Amazon (Free with Prime): If you have a Prime subscription, you already have this service. It includes TV shows, movies, and some original content such as “Man in the High Castle.”
- YouTube (free): Plenty of stuff on YouTube to watch, but not usually new movies or TV shows. You can upgrade to “Red” for $9.99 a month to enjoy it commercial-free, and they have recently started selling and renting movies.
Streaming Services (Live): On demand works for a lot of people, but if you like sports or news, you’re going to need a live streaming service. The antenna options above will work for major network televised sporting events and scheduled news programming, but if you want to watch certain teams, sports, and live 24-hour cable news, you’ll need to go with a live streaming service.
- Sling TV – Not to be confused with the previously mentioned “Slingbox” that allows you to stream your antenna or cable TV to portable devices outside the home, this is a standalone TV streaming service. Sling fashions themselves as “a la carte” TV, which means you get a basic plan (Orange $20/mo, Blue $25/mo) which includes up to 46 channels, and then you add other packages with some more custom choices including more news, sports, lifestyle choices. If you want to watch foreign channels, this is by far your best choice, with a wide variety of options. As with the other options, this plan restricts the number of screens that can be streamed to simultaneously (this is separate from your Internet speed restriction, which can also affect how many shows your household can watch at once). For Sling Orange the limit is 1 screen, for Blue 3 screens. So for instance if you have Orange, your household would have to watch the same show on the same TV – probably not an issue if you live alone, but very much an issue if you have multiple family members.
- PlayStation Vue – This unfortunately named service is live TV, and doesn’t actually need a Sony PlayStation to subscribe or use. With 5 simultaneous screens included, this is the most generous in terms of multiple users. Do be warned though that these have to be 5 specific screens, you need to register the app in each slot, and then de-register it if you want to watch on a different device. This is different than the Sling limit, which even at 1, allows it to be installed on unlimited devices as long as only one is being used at once.
- “Dishless” – DirecTV has a “DirecTV Now” service which lets you sign up for streaming without needing the dish itself. 60 Channels for $35 a month, or 120 for $70 and allows for 2 simultaneous screens. Note these unfortunately do not include the live “local networks” or many “regional sports networks.” DirecTV competitor DISH Network has a “DISH Anywhere” plan to stream outside the home, but it still requires that you have an actual dish at home and compatible set-top boxes.
- Hulu with Live TV – This is our choice for live TV. 50+ Channels for $39.99 which includes the traditional Hulu service (+$4 to go commercial-free for non-live channels). You get to use the same app as the regular on-demand Hulu, and it just adds in all of the live channels. And for live channels that are not available “on demand,” there is a built-in DVR service so you can still record and play back these shows. Some highlights: you get networks (CBS live, and ABC, NBC, PBS on demand), you get 24-hour news (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), sports (NBCSN, ESPN1+2+3, FS1+2, Golf, YES, Olympic Channel), kids channels (Boomerang, Cartoon Network, Disney, National Geographic), and plenty of entertainment (A&E, Bravo, E, Food, HGTV, Lifetime, Oxygen, SyFi, TBS, TCM, History, Travel). Hulu provides 2 screens simultaneously, but for $15 more you get unlimited. Before you wonder why you would need this, here’s an example. You live in a household with 2 parents and 2 kids. The kitchen TV is on the news. Kids are watching on tablets, but there is also a TV going in the living room. And the kids have a friend over with a phone. And now one kid goes into their room and turns on the TV. A parent is at work, and streaming a show there. Now you’re up to 7. And you don’t want to have to sign out two of the devices just to make this happen. Or you’re Elvis and you need to watch all 3 networks at the same time. You can get a 7 day free trial here.
Love sports? We’ve got some good news and some bad news.
The good news: all of the major leagues offer their own streaming passes, which often include all games. And they generally run in the $100 range per year per sport. So not much per month if you’ve ditched cable and love watching lots of games of one particular sport. (see comparison chart)
The bad news: these streaming services exclude games that are blacked out in your area, and this means any teams that are “local” to New York. Not so good!
What to do? Here’s where the broadcast networks, sports channels and regional sports networks come into play. Many games are just on plain old antenna TV (see previous section) but unfortunately none of the streaming services mentioned above carry the broadcast networks. If you can’t receive these channels with an antenna, the only replacement to cable is an actual satellite dish service.
For the national sports channels, the outlook is much brighter. Many of the popular cable sports networks are available on the streaming services, such as ESPN, FS1, NBCSN. They won’t have all the games, but they do have a lot of them without blackout restrictions.
Regional sports networks are also available on some of the plans, with channels such as YES, CBS Sports Network, and Fox Sports Network. Unfortunately we could not find a plan that includes MSG, and you can’t subscribe to it individually, so watching teams like the Rangers will become more challenging. *UPDATE 12-28-17 – DirecTV NOW just added MSG and MSG+. We think they read this article!*
Frankly, it’s so complicated that you’ll need to see the chart at the end of this article, and then visit the individual sites and put in your zip code to see which channels will actually be available to you.
For local college sports, it’s a bit simpler. You can watch for free any of the Bombers games that Ithaca College Television (ICTV) broadcasts, right on their website. Our sources at the Park School of Communications also tell me they are working on a Roku app for the channel, so that would provide an easy way to watch on a TV.
If you’re a fan of the Big Red, you’ll be glad to hear Cornell is part of the Ivy League Digital Network, formed a couple of years ago to offer reliable online video coverage across several sports for all of their member schools, for a paid subscription fee. You can buy a day pass or subscribe for just Cornell ($10 for 1 month), or to watch all of their Ivy League sports coverage, and once in a while, a particular game like last month’s Red Hot Hockey at Madison Square Garden, is free! Watch in a web browser on your computer, download their iOS or Android app to your phone or tablet, or install their Apple TV or Roku app on those devices.
Your Mileage May Vary
Of course, there are drawbacks and fine print and caveats for all of these services. The largest one is that none of the options I found offer live broadcast network TV in the Ithaca area, presumably because the Syracuse and Binghamton stations claim we can get service with antenna here because the regional networks are not owned by the networks, they are affiliates. So if you cut the cord the only realistic way to keep the networks is an antenna or satellite dish. Our favorite service lacks AMC, so if you are a fan of the hit series “The Walking Dead,” you’ll have to find other ways to watch (such as downloading individual episodes from Google Play for around $3). Clearly, there are holes in all of the above service offerings, and any one may be a deal killer for you.
Now that you’ve picked your services, you need to have a way to watch them.
Your Computer: Your computer can easily be the hub for all things digital in your home. Laptops especially can be placed near the TV, and most have HDMI out to connect to the TV, or at least an inexpensive adapter to add it. Of course, this means you can’t use your laptop for other work while viewing shows on the TV, so most people opt for some kind of standalone hardware to cross “the last foot.”
Tablets and Phones: These are easy. All of the above streaming services are compatible with these (Apple, Android – including Kindle Fire 7”and Kindle fire 8” ). Most can even stream to them out of the house, so you can watch at work with Wi-Fi, or on-the-go using your cellular plan (data charges may apply).
Smart TVs: Smart TVs often have the apps installed for some of these services, but support definitely varies across platforms. Netflix is everywhere, and usually Hulu – but “Hulu with Live TV” is not supported on older Smart TVs that only support the original Hulu. The satellite and Sling apps are generally not available on Smart TVs, nor is PlayStation Vue.
Streaming Boxes: Lately a number of these “boxes” and “sticks” have come out that allow you to stream content right to your TV’s HDMI port (see comparison chart). Some even run off of the TV’s USB port for power, so can sit hidden behind the TV.
- Apple TV ($179.99). The “Cadillac” of streamers, this one does it all. Hundreds of apps for different networks and services (although as mentioned before the networks usually ask you to log into a cable subscription). If you have Apple devices (iPhones, iPads, Macintosh desktops and portables) you can use a feature called “AirPlay” to wirelessly share your screen right onto your TV. Has a handheld remote, and you can also use your Apple phone or tablet to control.
- Roku ($29-$99) offers a variety of players, and some TVs now even have the hardware built in. Some of the models are bare-bones, some are “sticks,” and some are full-fledged hockey-puck models that support 4K, wired Ethernet, and professional audio formats. Roku has an “app” model like the Apple TV, and has even more apps since the app store process is not as stringent as Apple’s. You’ll find apps for practically every service here (and you can also use virtually any smartphone or tablet to control). Roku can also stream the contents of your tablet or computer to the screen, as long as it’s Android or Windows (sorry Apple fans).
Amazon Fire TV ($40-$70) is a great choice if you use Amazon Fire Tablets in your home, as it can only screen share from those devices. It also has a variety of apps like the other devices, although the choices are a bit slimmer since they all have to work within the Amazon Fire ecosystem. For obvious reasons, this one is well-integrated with the Amazon Video services, with voice searching and some other nice add-ins. Fire TV is also the only of these devices that can stream video from the HD Homerun previously mentioned, so if you want to stream local networks from an antenna, this is a great choice (note the “stick” model was observed to have many visual lags in our testing, so splurge for the full hardware version).
- Google Chromecast ($35) is a bit different than the other offerings. It has a “screen cast only” model, so no apps. Everything you watch has to be initiated from a phone, tablet, or computer. And you’ll often lose use of the device when streaming, so this is only really an option if you have an extra tablet to initiate the show.
Airparrot ($12.99) If you are feeling industrious and have a newish Mac, you can get a piece of software called “Airparrot” which allows you to stream to multiple devices (Apple AirPlay and Google Chromecast) at once. With this model, you can bring up a stream on your Mac (such as a HD Homerun live antenna or Hulu Live Subscription) and then send it to multiple TVs that will stay in sync. This was useful to us on Thanksgiving where we wanted to watch the Macy’s Parade in different rooms, as we were doing other things around the house. With this method, since everything is synchronized, you can have the volume up on all the TVs and they won’t be interfering with one another. People often did this with cable and antenna, but it became more difficult (once DVR’s started coming into the mix as different converters would be at slightly different points in the program), and practically impossible with other streaming services (run Hulu with Live TV on 2 TVs and start at the same time, and you’ll see they are never perfectly in sync).
Logitech Harmony Smart Remote Control with Hub ($66). With all of these devices and boxes connected to your TV, you’re now going to have to contend with a slew of remotes cluttering the table. The Harmony hub can learn controls for everything listed here, and automatically set up activities to turn on the TV, select a specific input, set the stereo to a certain volume, and more. It comes with a remote, and you can also use your phone or tablet with the Harmony app to control it (great in dark rooms).
Charter Communications (Spectrum) has a pricing plan and business model that heavily favors onboarding of new customers with great deals, but leaving loyal long-term customers out in the cold when it comes to cable services. “Introductory” pricing for cable starts at $29 but goes significantly higher once that promotion runs out. As a matter of fact, Spectrum deliberately makes it confusing by only showing the introductory pricing on their website. Good luck figuring out your bill once those promotions expire. They have all kinds of unadvertised “packages” and “specials” and it often just seems that you have to call and get them to lower the price every year by switching this and that and the other thing around.
Case in point, we were paying $178 for cable and “high speed” Internet (30Mbps). With some kind of “special package” even though a new customer would get this for around $60. When we called to ask how much it would be for just the Internet, it was very difficult to get a straight answer. Once we were transferred to a “retention specialist,” they did everything they could to try to convince me to keep the cable. Even going to the point where they claimed that my Internet speed would go down from 200Mbps to 100Mbps if I went to Internet only, and that we’d have to pay more later to go up to the 300Mbps plan. When we told the rep that we’ve only been getting 30Mbps (speed tested frequently) and that’s what our plan was, he blamed our modem and said we should be getting the 200 plan (even though our bill said the 30 plan). Confused yet? Since we knew better, we cancelled cable and added a $65 Internet 100 plan. And guess what? Within ½ hour our TV turned off and my internet speed increased to the 100 that we had supposedly been paying for in the past few years (attempts to get a refund for the non-provided services have thus far been unsuccessful).
So, if you think about it, this left us with $113 a month to replace the “cable” services that we had lost. In this case, it was via Hulu with Live TV and no commercials ($43 a month) and less than $100 in hardware (laid out just once) to watch broadcast locals. We already had the Roku boxes etc. to stream to my TVs because I had been using the Spectrum app previously to do that (and regular Hulu and Netflix). This leaves us a $70 a month savings over my original cable plan, we still have our networks, and live sports and news, and channels that we watched previously. Amortize in the $40 we had to pay for the season of “The Walking Dead” and we’ve still saved $800 a year by cutting the cord, and we have a whole lot more content now. We even had enough to splurge to add HBO to our Hulu ($15 a month) and now we can watch my Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies, Curb Your Ethusiasm, and a ton of just-out-of-the-theater movies.
The good news is that most of the streaming services offer a free trial so you can “try before you buy” and really evaluate their offerings and how they work in your particular location. Replacing cable is not for everyone, but with the information and tools provided here hopefully some people will find that they can upgrade their experience and lower their costs by moving into the Internet streaming future.
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Local Channels Available with antenna on “the hills”
Local Channels with DirecTV and DISH Network (but not DirecTV NOW)
Comparison Chart of Streaming Services
|Price Per Month||# Channels||# Screens||Platforms||Notes|
|1-4||Apple TV, iOS, Roku, FireTV, Chromecast, Xbox One, Android, Windows||Can add lots of a-la-carte channels including many foreign|
(must deregister a device to add a new one over 5)
|Apple TV, iOS, Roku, FireTV, Chromecast, PS 3+4, Android, Web|
|DirecTV NOW||$35-$70||60+||2||Apple TV, iOS, Roku, FireTV, Chromecast, Android, Web||HBO only $5 extra|
|Hulu With Live TV||$38-$42||50+||2 (unlimited home + 3 away add $15)||Apple TV, iOS, Roku, FireTV, Chromecast,
Xbox 360+One, PS 3+4, Android, Web, Wii, TiVo
Comparison Chart of Streaming Boxes
|Price Range||Netflix||Amazon||Hulu||Hulu w/Live TV||PlayStation
|Broadcast Networks||Sling TV||DirecTV now||YouTube|
|✅With antenna and tuner||✅||✅||✅|
|PlayStation 4/Xbox One||$279-$500||✅||✅||✅||✅||✅
(Xbox one only)
* Supported only with tablet or device to stream content to the Chromecast, has no native interface
** Depends on model, check Hulu With Live TV website for revision numbers
*** Unless antenna and local streamer like HD Homerun
**** Chromebook may work with services that have web browser versions, but is unlikely due to its minimal processing power
Sports League Season Passes
Important Note: League specific channels often don’t carry live games for “local” teams because they are blacked out and shown on regional or broadcast networks.
|MLB||MLB At Bat||$84.99 One team season
$109.99 All team season
|Web, PS 3+4, Xbox 360+One, Roku, ATV, Chromecast, Smart Tv’s, Phones & Tablets|
|NFL||Gamepass||$99 / Season||Xbox One, Apple TV, PS4, Roku, Fire TV, Phones & Tablets|
(Single team $111.96)
|Web, Phones & Tablets, ATV, Roku, PS 3+4, Xbox One, Chromecast|
|NBA||League Pass||$28.99/mo all teams
$17.99/mo one team
|Web, Phones&Tablets, Fire Tablet, Fire TV, ATC, Roku, PS 3&4, Xbox One, Smart TVs, Chromecast|
|MLS||MLS Live||$7.99 Yearly||Web, Phones&Tablets, ATV, Chromecast, Roku|
|College||Collegesportslive.com||$9.95 Month or
|Desktop, Laptop, Select iOS & Android Devices (can cast to TV with Airplay or Chromecast)|
Sports Networks by Streaming Provider
Important Note: League specific channels such as NHL often don’t carry live games for “local” teams because they are blacked out and shown on regional or broadcast networks.
|National Sports Networks||Regional Sports Networks||Broadcast Networks|
|Sling Orange||ESPN 1+2+3, ACC Network Extra,|
|Sling Blue||NFL, FS1+2, NBC SN,||NBC, FOX, YES|
|PlayStation Vue||BTN, ESPN 1+2+3, ESPN News, ESPN U, FS 1+2, NBC Golf, MLB, NBA, NFL, Olympic, SEC, Telemundo||CBS, FOX, NBCSN|
|PlayStation Vue Sports Pack||NFL Red Zone, ESPN Bases Loaded, ESPN Classic, ESPN Goal Line, Eleven, Fox College Sports (Atlantic/Central/Pacific), LHN, MLB Strike Zone, NESN, OutsideTV||NBC Sports**|
|DirecTV NOW||ESPN 1+2+News+U, FS1, MLB, NBCSN, SEC, Tennis,||SportsTime Ohio, YES.
MSG & MSG+ (just right package and above)
|Hulu with Live TV||BTN, ESPN 1+2, ESPN College+U, FS1, FS2, NBC Golf, Olympic, SEC||Telemundo, YES, CBS Sports Network, NBC SN||WENY CBS ***|
* Depends on PlayStation Vue plan. These networks are on the “core” plan at $44.99/mo.
** NBC Sports channels include NBC Sports Bay Area, NBC Sports Boston, NBC Sports California, NBC Sports Chicago, NBC Sports Northwest, NBC Sports Philadelphia, and NBC Sports Washington. Channels may be subject to blackouts outside of your area, but some pre- and post-game coverage will be available. If any of the channels listed here are in your Core, Elite, or Ultra plan, you will receive the local feed for that channel, which will have fewer live game blackouts.
*** Generally in Northern Tompkins County, but not Ithaca
**** Based on the “Just Right” Package, $50/mo. CBS Sports Network, Golf, NBA, NHL, Olympic, require the next tier which is $10 more.