While somewhat outside the norm of what I typically write here, I thought I would share the outcome of my work to (mostly) cut-the-cord.
Between my monthly cable bill reaching $230 (cable TV, internet, and phone) and the realization that my kids watch only Netflix and the Disney/Boomerang apps, I decided it was time to explore cutting cable. Of the 200+ channels on our bill, my wife and I watched no more than a dozen beyond local channels. The cost simply no longer made sense.
My goal was to continue to have TV, internet, and phone service, albeit at a lower monthly cost. Of these, TV was the most complicated to solve, but with so many people cutting the cord, there are a number of good options. What follows is a review of my goals and end approach in providing each of these home services.
Goals: Access to all local and a handful of cable stations (e.g. ESPN, HGTV, DIY, TBS, and BTN) with DVR. Support for iOS and AppleTV.
Living just outside of a major city, I found via AntennaWeb that we have easy access to a fairly large number of broadcast television stations (e.g. CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox) as well as a number of independent stations. Based on recommendation of The Wirecutter, I picked an Antennas Direct Clearstream Eclipse indoor antenna to receive those broadcast stations. While the 35-mile model would likely suffice, because of positioning and availability, I chose the 50-mile, amplified model. With the antenna hanging on the wall of a second-story bedroom, we pick up roughly 55 stations.
To broadcast local channels within the house, I chose the HDHomeRun Connect Duo. Setup is simple, connect the coaxial cable from the antenna to the HDHomeRun box and an ethernet cable to our home router. With only a small hiccup (see below), all supported devices on our home network can now receive local broadcast channels via the HDHomeRun or Channels app.
Cable Stations and DVR
While neither tech nor media companies have quite cracked the “skinny-bundle” yet, a number of services are now offering over-the-internet television at lower monthly costs without contract. Among these are SlingTV, DirecTV Now, PlayStation Vue, and Hulu. YouTube also recently launched a live TV service. Depending on the channels you want, all range between $35–65 per month with varying services.
In the end, we chose PlayStation Vue because it best met our desired criteria (Hulu was the runner-up but does not offer DIY):
Over roughly two weeks of use, PS Vue is solid, though the AppleTV app leaves something to be desired. My primary gripes: (1) interface structure / navigation is challenging, (2) 10-second skip ahead is finicky and should be longer, and (3) no preview while fast-forwarding. That said, the DVR functionality and delivery of content has been flawless. PS Vue also supports Apple SSO, making is (slightly) easier to use the apps that support it for sign-in (e.g. USA, HGTV).
With both local and cable service, we needed devices that would support both PS Vue and HDHomeRun as none of our TVs have built-in clients. We already had two fourth-generation AppleTVs, which supports both and I decided to buy a FireTV Stick and FireTV 4k for the remaining two, due to their lower cost. This ended up being the one challenge in my quest to cut the cord.
My first attempt to test the HDHomeRun was with the TV connected to my new FireTV Stick (2nd generation). The video was extremely choppy and audio out-of-sync, unwatchable. Discouraged, I turned to the Silicon Dust (maker of HDHomeRun) support forums to find that the latest FireTV devices lack hardware acceleration and struggle with MPEG-2 encoded video as a result.
Pressing forward, I tried viewing local content via HDHomeRun using the excellent Channels app on an AppleTV. Both picture and audio were perfect. Exchanging the FireTV for a third fourth-generation AppleTV, my device setup was complete (I kept the FireTV Stick for a small office TV, it’s good enough given the price. HDHomeRun also recently updated the app to help overcome some device shortcomings).
Goals: Low monthly cost for local and national service. Support for service such as Nomorobo to block unwanted calls.
Although our phone is primarily used by telemarketers trying to reach us (not with Nomorobo), I still wanted a home phone to compliment our mobiles. Not at the $45 per month offered by our internet (nee-cable) provider though. While we once use Vonage, I decided to try Ooma as $13 per month (premier features / call blocking + taxes) is palatable for a complimentary phone.
Goals: Maintain level of service, same or better speed.
Despite the high cost of our “triple-play” package, our existing provider has long provided us with good service and improving customer service, so we had no desire to leave. Internet service alone, same speed tier, was $75 per month in my initial research.
Having solved for both TV and phone, I was left with the hard part … officially cutting the cord with my cable company. In the end, it wasn’t overly hard and they were quite pleasant. They offered a $65 per month (for 12 months) plan that included local TV and Showtime in addition to internet. That cost jumps to $89 after the initial 12 months, but there was no mention of a contract (guess we’ll cross that bridge next fall). I also kept the CableCARD in my TiVo and have access to HD local channels.
Three weeks in and we have thus far survived. HDHomeRun has been perfect for football and PS Vue DVRs the shows we love. But let’s talk numbers…
Upfront, my costs were as follows:
Total upfront cost of $450. That was a little higher than anticipated due to replacing a FireTV ($79) with an AppleTV.
Each month, our costs are as follows (note: I am not including Netflix and HBO as these were costs while on cable as well):
In total, our monthly cost is now $133, a savings of roughly $100 per month. Given the upfront costs, the payback period is five months. Additionally, we have more flexibility in our monthly costs.
As we primarily use AppleTV, the experience is good though not seamless. I would love to see Apple allow apps like Channels to have access to the TV app. We also need to be conscious of leaving PS Vue running (eats into 1TB bandwidth cap), but the app is set to deactivate after two hours of inactivity.
Is this the future of TV / entertainment? I doubt it / hope not. We have lots of bundles or point solutions and the cost of those services all add up. I do feel good about saving money each month and having more control over where that money goes. If one of the tech and/or media companies were to offer a streamlined / consistent UI and a selection of channel options, I would be sold. Until now, back to my HDHomeRun.