by Ken Jones

“What is the cheapest way to get communications and TV?” As a telecom/IPTV consultant, I get asked this question a lot.   Espcecially in this economy.  Answering this question provides HTPC fans with an opportunity to get more people involved, but you need to be careful not to mislead folks that a HTPC is for everyone.  I will provide a US-centric answer to this question below.  And, I live in Chicago in the US. Some of the Over the Air parts relevant just to Chicago.


First you have to ask yourself a few questions:

1.            Are you concerned about losing 911 services from a landline?

2.            Are you addicted to any Pay TV programming?  Most commonly these are:

a.            Sports?  Do you need to see Big Ten football? Hockey?  Baseball games that are not on broadcast TV?

b.            Premium Channels?  HBO shows? Sci-Fi?

c.             Comedy?  Do you have to see John Stewart or Colbert Report immediately?

d.            Various lifetime or reality TV? 

3.            Do you use Netflix? Do you get around to watching your films?

4.            Are you a Mac person who absolutely cannot operate/stand Microsoft products, no matter how simple or reliable?

5.            Do you need a high-def picture? Are you within 15 miles of TV transmission towers?

6.            Do you have a desktop computer sitting around? Would you be willing to spend a little money upfront to save money over the next 2-3 years?

7.            Are you looking to economize and save money? Or is convenience worth a premium?


I will address all of these questions as I describe to a set up that I believe is the most economical, highest quality solution.  It also offers the greatest variety that is acceptable to most people.  Finally, it taps into a trend in Web content that has cable providers and AT&T quivering in their boots.


In a nutshell, here is what I recommend

             Cut your landline phone service (POTS). Keep your mobile phones for local and long distance.

             Order “naked/dry” or “unbundled” DSL that is mandated to be offered by the federal government.

             Use a PC voip service for the occasional international call.  E.g. Skype.  Plus, get into video telephony. 

             Use Microsoft Vista’s Media Center running on a PC with over-the-air tuner cards for free, high-definition broadcast TV.  This is a Home Theatre PC (HTPC) set up that acts as a Tivo on steroids, but is free.

Media Center Recorded TV Interface

             Use Netflix to 1) stream movies to your  HTPC and watch on your TV and 2) rip mailed DVD’s to your HTPC so you can time-shift, watch them when you want to

             Access all your music, photos, home videos, and internet radio/podcasts on the HTPC

             Tap into some very cool applications and view web content on the big screen


On the whole, here are the monthly costs:


“Unbundled” DSL = $28/month for 3Mbps service (this is plenty fast for 95% of folks)


Mobile phones for 2 adults = $100/month for 1000 shared minutes (more minutes than we can usually use).  Add $25/month if you need mobile data.  T-mobile is the cheapest national carrier.  If you do not travel, look to a regional (US Cellular) or even local (Cricket) carrier.  You might also consider T-Mobile’s @Home service.  It is pretty cool and requires another explanation


PC VoIP – I buy $10 at a time from Skype or Truphone.  That usually lasts me several months.  And at $.025/minutes to most of Europe and USA, you can’t go wrong


Netflix – $9/month for one movie at a time


Total: $147/month after taxes for practically unlimited telecom and media entertainment. 


Most people who are paying for comparable satellite DishTV + mobile + internet bundles from AT&T are paying $200-250/month.  Depending on how savvy you have been in the past, you will probably saving $100-150/month.


Lots of potential for savings here, but will this work for you?  Let’s walk through the questions.

1)            911 services.  Here are the facts about 911.  When you dial 911 from your home phone, by federal law, it is correlated to a database and provides your listed address to the 911 operator.  Nevertheless, most 911 operators are trained to ask and confirm your location – after all, that is the most important info.  The same federal law requires mobile phone operators to provide the ability to identify user’s location within 100 meters.  In practice, they can usually do this to within 5 meters.  So, by cutting your landline, are you putting your family at danger?    It depends on whether you can find your phone in an emergency and it is charged.  And, can your children do the same?  Also, are you in an area prone to prolonged mobile outages from hurricanes or storms?  Here in Chicago, I have dialed 911 3 times, but it has never been for a threat like a fire.  I know plenty of folks without landlines (mostly under 40 years old).  They are not dead yet.


2)            PayTV programming.  This is a real catch for most people.  I have not had cable for 20 years now. I thought I was missing something.  But every time I get an opportunity to watch Cable/Satellite, it consists of 100 channels of content that I can get free or idiotic programming. 


a)            There are some exceptions.  Sports fans seem to be willing to pay the premium for every single game of their favorite team.  So baseball fans, this may not be for you.  Or, then again maybe it is. premium is $110 for the entire year. You can get this streamed to your HTPC in pretty high quality.  You will pay for this extra feature in 2-3 months.  Plus you get all sorts of extra fan stuff.


b)            Premium Channels  HBO and Showtime are the real action here.  Shows like Sopranos and Weeds have a well-deserved following. Do you need to watch these as they come out so you can understand the talk around the water cooler? If so, then this HTPC set up is not for you.  However, almost all of these shows are available on DVD or streaming via Netflix.  (See below)


c)            Comedy.   John Stewart and Colbert are great and very topical.  If you need to hear John Stewart skewer in real time, then the HTPC set is not for you.  However, almost all this content is available on a one-day delay on line. (  This works for me. 


d)             Various lifetime and reality TV.  I don’t watch this stuff, so I am not on top of all of them.  But, more and more of this is available via Hulu or various streaming sites.  Bookmark the below page that will lead you to various online-network programming.


3)            Netflix  – If there is a company that is doing everything right in the last few years, it is Netflix.  Their “Watch Instantly” service is a game-changer.  If you have not tried it, you should.  I could talk for a long time about how amazing the technology must be behind it.  The only downside to Watch Instantly is that it does not carry the entire Netflix catalogue.  But to complement it, keep getting your Netflix mail service and burn the DVD’s to your hard drive.  Is this legal? No.  You need to purchase $40 software that strips the DVD of protection and burns it to your HTPC’s hard drive.  I do not take this lightly.  I have plenty of friends who make their living from music, film, and acting.  You need to make sure not to subvert the intent of content protection and intellectual property.  Therefore, once you have watched the DVD, erase.  I am not a lawyer, but I feel this is proper.


4)            Apple vs. Microsoft. This is one area where Microsoft has a lead on Mac.  For now.  Apple has their Apple TV. By almost all accounts, it has been a flop.  It focuses on streaming video content you purchase/rent from iTunes.  This is a small fraction of what a HTPC is about.  Now, for the most controversial statement you might hear: Vista does not suck.  As an operating system, is it as good as Mac?  Maybe not.  But for the HTPC, we are talking about a single purpose machine. Vista’s Media Center is stable and the interface is very attractive.  Most people who see my setup say “this looks better than my Cable”. 


What is Media Center?  That is a long story.

It puts a 10-ft interface on your PC such that you can put your couch and operate with a remote control.  Media Center brings together TV, pictures, music, home video, DVD’s, radio, and streamed content in this interface.  I love looking at all of my pictures on a 37” screen.  Media Center includes an online guide (just like cable, satellite, or Tivo).  It has an excellent DVR so you can record, pause, rewind, fast forward. You can buy “extenders” so you can access the HTPC from other rooms.  Oh yeah, it is free.  And if you don’t want to use the Media Center interface, you can use the regular PC interface to access the internet.


New content is streamed to Vista Media Center every month.  The Olympics had some great content.  NCAA March Madness is offering some interesting content.  And much of the online content streamed content from places like Hulu is starting to be seamlessly integrated into Media Center


Finally, Microsoft’s next version, Windows 7 is slated to improve Media Center in a number of ways.


5)             High Definition Over the Air (OTA).  Cable and Satellite will never say this, but the best quality High Def picture you can get is the free Over-the-air broadcast.  Cable and Satellite compress their signal and degrade the quality.  For the HTPC to work, you need to be able to receive a decent over-the-air signal.  Digital is a little different than analog.  With analog, you could get by with fuzzy pictures from poor reception.  With digital, your tuner needs a decent enough signal to lock onto the datastream.  If reception is good enough, the picture is perfect (you are essentially receiving and playing back an MPEG2 file).  However, if your tuner cannot lock onto the datastream, packets are lost and you get no playback.  In my case, Chicago is great for reception.  Flat terrain and signals transmitted from the some of the tallest buildings in the world.  Most folks can use a UHF antenna and receive all of the digital channels (There is no such thing as a “digital” or “high-def” antenna. Do not fall for this marketing scam).  CBS 2 WBBM is the one catch.  They broadcast on VHF frequency 3, which is ridiculously low and requires a big VHF antenna.  However, on June 12, 2009, they will be switching to frequency 12 and doubling their power. 


6)            What is the catch?   An upfront investment in an HTPC. If you can find an older desktop PC (vintage 2006), you can outfit the machine.  There are three important issues here.  One is a CPU and RAM sufficient to run Vista Home Premium edition.  I recommend a 2Ghz processor and 2 2GB of RAM.   Second, a decent video card and >300GB hard disk to record and playback in high-definition to your TV.  And third, tuner(s) to record the OTA TV signal.  On Craig’s List you can get most of this for ~$500.  If you build from scratch, it costs about $750.  If you happen to have some of this sitting around, about $200 of upgrades can get you running.   The payback for this investment is less than 1 year.


7)            Saving money.  Who doesn’t like to save money.  But nothing is truly free. The HTPC approach requires a comfort with PC’s, even though 95% of the time you forget it is a PC and think you are watching TV.  Occasionally, you will need to reboot about once per month.  If you work on a PC during the day and can send email, then you can handle this level of technology. 


I hope this helps you.  I enjoy my set-up immensely.  So does my wife and my daughters.  I built my first HTPC in 2005.  I suspect I have saved $1000 by now. Plus, it is by-far the most fun tech toy I have ever had.  


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