Cutting the Cord: How to Live Without Cable
One of the most exciting new trends in home entertainment is the phenomenon known as "cutting the cord." Cord cutters are viewers who are ditching the traditional cable setup and leveraging today's connected technologies to get their TV and movies through other channels (both literally and figuratively). In simple terms, cutting the cord is used to describe the act of watching the majority of your programming over the internet, instead of cable. It's become possible due to a combination of widespread broadband internet, services like Netflix and Hulu, and internet-enabled devices like the Roku player and Smart TVs.
The most common reason for cutting the cord is a desire to save money. Recent figures show that the average US viewer will pay around $100 a month for their cable TV package
. And this price is for channel programming only, not including the broadband internet that may be part of a bundled package. For a viewer who doesn't watch much TV, that's a tough price to pay for access to a few favorite programs. Cutting the cord has the answer, but it does
require a little bit of tech know-how and the slight inconvenience of having to use multiple devices. Here's what you'll need to know to get started.
Getting Started: Internet Requirements
The foundation of any successful cord-cutting lifestyle is a robust internet connection. Because most of the media will be delivered via the internet, it's important that your connection is both fast—to keep up with data-heavy streams—and strong. A wired connection is best, though a good wireless connection will work as well (iffy Wi-Fi will lead to a dropped signal and a not-so-fun viewing experience).
According to the FCC, a minimum download speed of 4 Mbps
(Megabits per second) is suggested for adequate streaming of HD content with no interruptions and minimal buffering. Netflix recommends a minimum download speed of 5.0 Mbps in order to stream HD content. The average cable or DSL internet connection should be able to provide these speeds at a reasonable price. If you're not sure what your average internet speed is, you can check it at Speedtest.net.
If you're someone who watches a lot of TV, or has an entire family that will be watching across multiple devices, you'll also probably want an internet plan with a very high data cap or no limit at all. Streaming an hour of video will require anywhere between 0.7 and 3 GB an hour, depending resolution and quality of the encoding. Combining your total video usage with the bandwidth used from regular internet tasks, it's a reasonable possibility that you could break even a high data cap like 250 GB per month.
With a suitable internet plan decided upon, it's time to figure out which services you'll need in order to get all of the content you want to watch. Cord cutters get their content one (or a combination of all of three) ways: Over-the-air broadcasts, streaming services with monthly subscription fees, or pay-per episode digital downloads.
Over-the-air (OTA) broadcasts are exactly what they sound like: tuning in channels "over the air," with a home antenna, like all households used to do before HDTV became the standard. Many consumers don't realize that this is even still an option, but it's a great way to get your local stations. Most viewers in the USA are within range of broadcast towers, and should have no problem receiving broadcasts of ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, PBS and more channels. And not only are these broadcasts in high definition, a lack of compression often gives these sources a slight edge in picture quality compared to cable signals.
The only piece of equipment you'll need to receive OTA broadcasts is a simple antenna (though if you're watching on a computer, you'll need to add an HDTV tuner card to your system). Viewers in areas with strong signals can pull in channels with a simple set-top antenna (aka bunny ears), while those farther from the broadcast towers may need to upgrade to a rooftop antenna. You can find out a little more about what channels are available in your area and how strong there signals are by using the FCC's DTV reception map
This simple antenna can still tune in your local channels, like CBS, ABC, NBC, and many others.
So an antenna can get you your favorite network shows, but you have to watch them live. What if you're a fan of cable programming or are used to watching DVR'd shows on your own time? That's where streaming services come in.
The two major streaming services are Netflix and Hulu. The both function the same way: you pay a monthly fee (between $8 and $12) and receive unlimited access to hundreds of thousands of hours of content to watch whenever you want, wherever you want, on any kind of internet-connected device.
The main difference between the two, however, is recency of programming. Hulu is a joint venture between ABC, Fox and NBC, and so it provides almost immediate access to shows from those networks. TV shows will usually be available to view on Hulu the day after they are regularly broadcast. Netflix, however, acts more like TV syndication, acquiring rights to TV shows a set time after their original air date.. Shows are usually available on Netflix a season at a time, a season behind their actual schedule. For instance, the popular TV show The Walking Dead began its sixth season in October 2015; as of that month, seasons 1-5 were available to stream on Netflix. The same principle applies to movies on Netflix, with most making their debut after following the typical On-Demand/Rental/Premium Cable trajectory. This highlights one of the major issues with cutting the cable, the timeline of content availability. If watching a TV show when it airs in real-time is important to you so you can discuss it the next day at work, then cutting the cord may not work for you. Though there are exceptions to that, which we'll look at in just a bit. Still, the main limitation of these services is the lack of current premium cable programming. So how do you get your Game of Thrones fix? There are a couple options.
Lots of us are beholden to cable commitments because we absolutely can't miss one or two of our favorite shows. So, we find ourselves buying an expensive cable package just to enjoy Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Getting quicker—and in some cases immediate—access to those and other popular cable shows can be done one of two major ways. In very recent months, some premium cable channels have begun offering streaming access to their entire collection of content via a standalone application, much like Netflix. HBO Now and Showtime Now are the two major players in that game. Pay the monthly subscription fee ($14.99 for HBO, $10.99 for Showtime) to get unlimited access to each channel's library of movies and original programming.
So with basic network channels and most premium channels covered, there is still a gap in the middle, with programs from many basic channels not available on any streaming service.
One final option for finding your favorite shows—if they're not available over the air, via Netflix/Hulu or a channel's standalone app—is to simply buy each episode at a time. The Google Play Store, iTunes, and Amazon Video all give users the option to buy a TV show as it's airing, either individual episodes or an entire season at a time. A single episode will usually cost $2-3, with full seasons between $25-40 (depending on number of episodes), but the episodes are yours to keep and watch whenever you want, just like if you'd purchased a Blu-ray.
A combination of these three tactics should give you access to every show you'd ever want to watch. Now, that might seem like a lot of things to pay for, but for many users it still adds up to far less than a yearly commitment to a cable company. Let's take a look:
- Netflix: $9.99
- Hulu: $7.99
- HBO Now: $14.99
- Showtime Now: $10.99
That comes to about $44 a month, or less than half of what the average person pays per month for their cable subscription. Over the course of a year, you'll save about $660, while still getting access to literally hundreds of thousands of hours of content that you can watch at anytime and almost anywhere. Even if you purchase five full seasons of programming from iTunes, you'd still be saving $500 a year. That's enough to buy a nice new 4K LED TV for every 2-year cable commitment you avoid.
Media Streaming Devices
If you don't have a Smart TV and don't want to upgrade to one (we're trying to save money, after all) you will need one of the many Media Streaming Devices on the market today. These devices add internet capability to any traditional HDTV. The most popular media player is the Roku line of devices. These are small, low-power computing devices that connect to your TV via HDMI cable. Most cost $100 or less. The devices connect to the internet either with a wireless or wired connection, and allow you to download a variety of apps, like the ones discussed previously. They also run specialized program apps, like MLB TV, the Smithsonian Channel, PBS Kids and many more that will give you access to even more content.
Another option is to take advantage of other devices you might already own, which have the ability to act as streaming media players. Playstation 3 & 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One & Xbox One S, and Nintendo Wii can all act as players for Netflix, Hulu and many other streaming apps. Many newer Blu-ray players also have this capability. Using one of these devices will cut out an additional up-front cost, and keep one more remote out of your cluttered family room.
Putting it all together
With a suitable combination of internet service, app subscription and streaming device, you're ready to cut the cord. As with adopting any other new technology, there's bound to be a learning curve as you get used to this new way of watching. It might not be as convenient as relying on cable, and it you absolutely need to watch your TV shows in real time, it might not be for you. However, many cord-cutters find that they prefer the option of watching their favorite content anywhere, at any time.
The good news is that it's easy to give cord-cutting a trial run, and can even be done for free. Every streaming service mentioned in this article offers a free trial that lasts anywhere from a week to an entire month, giving you plenty of time to test it out. If you happen to already have a smart device, a trial will not cost you a thing. And as always, if you have any questions about any of the services or products needed to cut the cord, please contact us at 888-228-5800.