March 8 2017 11:28 AM

Digital antennas catching on as a way to beat cable costs

Pictured: A 306-degree omnidirectional antenna that is frequently installed by The Antenna Men.
Courtesy photo
When Lansing resident Meegan Holland calculated her cable bill in the summer of 2015, she realized she was paying $184 a month. That’s when she understood she needed a change.

“I was unemployed at the time,” Holland said. “I thought ‘You know what, this is ridiculous, even if I do get a job it’s ridiculous,’ which I did shortly thereafter actually, but it was definitely a cost-saving thing. When I called to cancel (AT&T U-verse) they said, ‘Oh we’ll work with you,’ but I said, ‘Too late, I’ve already invested in an antenna.”

The antenna that Holland is talking about is a digital antenna that is tailored to receive local channels that Holland actually wants to watch, and watches more frequently. In fact, the quality tends to be better than through a cable provider, because the broadcast isn’t compressed.

“I’m watching TV from about a half dozen channels,” Holland said. “I do have Netflix and I do have Amazon Prime, so I’m not hurting for movies and TV shows.”

And Holland is not alone in this transition, which allows viewers to receive as many as 40 or so broadcast channels in mid-Michigan.

Mike Heinze owns The Antenna Men, which is keeping busy installing digital antennas in the Lansing area and beyond.

“Back in 2008 there was something called the digital transition, when the broadcast TV stations went from analog to digital. What happened with that is a large percentage of the TVs were digital already, so a lot of people got coupons to get digital converter boxes,” Heinze said. “My son needed a job, so we thought that this was an opportunity to make a little money selling converters and upgrading antennas. We initially started in Ingham and Eaton County and over the last eight years we’ve expanded into about 20 counties, which is about a 60-mile radius of Lansing.”

The short-term job opportunity flourished into something sustainable and now, it’s a matter of expansion.

“We have four employees and we need to keep them busy to make a living, so we keep expanding to markets like Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, etc.,” Heinze said. “What has driven our business is access to high-speed Internet. What people are looking for now is they don’t want to pay for 400 channels when the only watch 12, so they want to just pay for what they watch.”

Still, Holland warns that even with the ability to cut down on overall costs, “the upfront investment isn’t to be taken lightly.”

“I think the actual digital antenna is $300 and my DVR is right up around there too.” Her DVR is a Channel Master. “I can’t say I’m fully happy with it,” Holland said. “It’ll pixelate in the weather. When it pixelates really badly, I turn off the DVR and run the signal right from the antenna to the TV. If you love DVR, you might want to consider TiVo, but that’s a monthly cost I didn’t want.”

(Other customers report having better success with the Channel Master DVR.)

Heinze does agree that cost and reception can be a barrier for many, but the digital system has “definitely increased quality” of channel transmission overall. Heinze estimated that it would cost between $400 and $500 to get an antenna through the company.

“People say, ‘Well that’s a lot of money,’ but if you’re spending $100 a month for your entertainment vis a vis cable or the satellite company, it’s only five months of payments,” Heinze said. “If you don’t have the cash on hand you can put it on a Visa or MasterCard, make the payments, pay a little interest but at the end of the day at month six you’re free. The average person can save $1,200 or more a year by going this route.”

It certainly seems that the cost is not outweighing the demand. Denny Duplessis, co-owner of Denny’s Antenna Service in Ithaca, Mich., which mails antennas out nationwide, said there is no shortage of buyers.

“Probably the biggest states are Wisconsin, Illinois, Florida, Texas, Washington state, California, we do a lot of Colorado sales. It’s all over,” Duplessis said.

And as far as demographics go, Duplessis said that interested buyers range from 25 to their 80s.

“Younger and younger people are having their first home and they decided they don’t want cable and they have a widescreen 60” TV and they know that ‘hey, I can get great picture on this thing and watch football,” Duplessis said.