A clearer picture

Country Roads

You may be hearing the phrase “cutting the cord” more frequently these days. As the cost of cable television and the satellite options continues to rise, many Americans are cutting the cord and relying on free over-the-air television.

The advent of digital television and its sub-channels provides most of us with a wealth of television channels available at no charge with an appropriate antenna. When I got fed up with our satellite TV service last summer I installed a small electronic antenna on the house. When I did a channel scan I was shocked to receive 42 channels including about a dozen from two low-power TV stations serving the Des Moines metro. What a change from the days of watching three channels.

As an old guy who can remember those three-channel TV days I have long had an interest in television broadcasting and reception.

If you’re old enough to remember the lousy reception many rural viewers experienced in the early days of television, you can sympathize with John Walson, an appliance store owner in the small town of Mahony City, Pa., in the late 1940s. Walson, according to the Pennsylvania Cable and Telecommunications Association, had difficulty selling the new-fangled television sets because reception in his area was so poor. His town was located in the mountains some 90 air miles from the TV transmitters in Philadelphia.

The ingenious businessman solved his reception problem by placing an antenna on top of a large utility pole and installed it on the top of a nearby mountain. He ran the twin-lead antenna wire down to his store and when folks saw the highly improved picture sales picked up quickly.

Soon Walson was using coaxial cable and homemade signal-boosting amplifiers to bring the signal from the mountain top into his customers’ homes. Thus, in June 1948, the forerunner of modern day cable ̶ Community Antenna Television (CATV) ̶ was born.

In the early ’50s Walson experimented with microwave transmission to bring in signals from more distant cities. It wasn’t long before his customers were receiving independent stations from New York City and Philadelphia along with the network affiliates. The greater offering of channels made cable more attractive and the concept moved into cities as well.

Nearly 50 years ago a new phenomenon created another surge in cable popularity. In November 1972 Service Electric offered Home Box Office (HBO) to its cable customers in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., creating the first successful pay cable service of its kind in the U.S.

Cable TV services have expanded over the years and today most cable companies also offer on-demand movies along with Internet service.

Twenty-five years ago cable operators predicted that 500-channel cable systems would be common within a few years. Many cable operators scrapped their plans for this upgraded service when they learned it would cost an estimated $500 per household to implement.

In the 1990s 18-inch satellite dishes provided stiff competition to the cable industry. Though larger satellite dishes had been around for a couple of decades prior, the small dishes were less expensive and easier to install. The 18-inch dishes are still around but the prices for programming have increased significantly.

Meanwhile, some of Iowa’s small independent telephone companies are offering television programming. Many of these companies have installed fiber optic cable to their customers’ homes. Fiber optic cable offers significantly more bandwidth and reliability than the original copper pair phone wires so the companies can offer their customers telephone and Internet services along with full “cable” television service.

When we got rid of our satellite service last summer, we subscribed to an Internet streaming service which provides premium channels at less than half the cost of satellite and cable service.

TV reception has come a long ways since those snowy TV pictures of the late ’40s and early ’50s. Now if we could just get Andy, Barney, Opie and Aunt Bea back in prime time.

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