Cutting the Cord - Selecting an OTA Antenna

Selecting an OTA Antenna

Selecting the best OTA (over the air) TV antenna for your needs

Which type of antenna you will need for ideal reception is determined by distance, location, signal strength, and interference factors. Important things to consider are described below, and at the end of this article is reference to a tool that can also help in your selection process.

Distance and location – different types of antennas are needed based on the general distance between your receiving antenna and the broadcast tower. Both size and design style come into play when selecting the best antenna for your distance and location. While considering many factors, distance alone can play a pretty large role in this decision. Shorter distances of 0 to 20 miles tend to have similar and less-demanding expectations than distances of 25 to 50 miles or more. Closer distances tend to require smaller antennas, and the longest distances tend to require larger antennas. Distance is not the only factor, but it's a good place to start.

Omni-directional antennas tend to work best in locations that are closer to the TV signal, and possibly located in between multiple close signals from different directions. In the right circumstances, these types of antennas can pick up many channels in a metropolitan area for instance. Multi-directional antennas are similar, but may be used for signal locations that are from two distinctly different directions. They may be the better approach for suburban, but not country, locations. Directional antennas work best when you are a greater distance from a signal and therefore really need to focus in on it. With directional antennas, it's sometimes necessary to either have some type of rotating motor or to have more than one antenna to focus on more than one distant signal in a different direction. A directional antenna might be more common in a country setting that is many miles from the transmitter.

Non-amplified antennas work best in areas that are about 20 miles or less from the TV station’s transmitter. Amplified antennas, on the other hand, tend to be better for picking up signals from a distance greater than 25 miles. These simply have some type of electronic amplifier with a power source either built-in or attached to the antenna for improving distant signals and reducing unnecessary background interference.

Other interference, such as high-density structures, hills and valleys in the land, or nearby electronic interference of any kind can reduce otherwise typical distance expectations. A straight and level line of sight with no interfering factors will always allow for the greatest reception, but it also is not typical.

Indoor vs outdoor – some antennas are designed to work better outdoors, mounted to a pole and high above the ground. Some outdoor antennas can be mounted to the side of your house and therefore are closer to the ground. Finally, some antennas are designed to be used in an indoor environment, sitting next to your TV on a bookshelf or possibly mounted to a nearby wall or window. Antennas that are designed to be used indoors at a location that is physically closer to a TV transmission tower tend to be much smaller and compact in size – sometimes these antennas are surprisingly small and thin, yet they can do a great job. Antennas that are designed for outdoor use to pick up more distant signals can range from small to huge once all factors are considered.

Guidelines for correct expectations for your location – the FCC has a great resource that can help you understand in general terms what you might expect to receive from OTA television based on your specific location. When using this tool, the more specific the information you provide, the more accurate it will be. Also, it's important to understand the assumptions that are listed when using the tool, mainly that you are using an outdoor antenna that is 30 feet above ground level. You can find the FCC TV antenna tool here: https://www.fcc.gov/media/engineering/dtvmaps

For best results with the FCC reception tool:

  1. Enter a specific and exact address then click GO!
  2. Wait several seconds for the tool to calculate your results
  3. The results will display on the screen along with a map of the location
Expected signal levels are color coded based on typical factors:
  • Green would anticipate a strong signal (probably will get these stations)
  • Yellow would anticipate a moderate signal (may or may not get these stations)
  • Orange would anticipate a weak signal (probably will not get these stations)
  • Red would anticipate no signal (very unlikely to get these stations)
If you click on the callsign of the resulting TV station(s) it will draw a line of sight on the map between your antenna and the transmitter location, and, it will display additional information about that particular station including general direction and signal strength
  • Remember, the tool makes assumptions based on known and typical conditions only – other factors could still potentially interfere with the anticipated results from this tool

Now that you have evaluated the above information as it applies to you, visit Micro Center for your OTA TV Antenna:
SHOP Antennae


This article is part of a series on Cutting the Cord. Read more:

Streaming Media Devices

Cutting the Cord - Smart TVs

Wireless Routers & Access Points

Terminology & Acronyms