Over the Air Digital TV
and How to Get it

How It Works | Digital Televisions | TV and RF Channels | Antennas | Site Calculators

Get free TV with just an antenna. Pickup major networks, local stations, and a growing number of entertainment channels. Over 100 TV channels are available near large cities, over 70 channels near mid size cities, and over 30 channels near small cities. The number of Over the Air networks keeps on growing.

How Over-the-Air TV Works
Typical Tower Map

A TV station will transmit up to a 1000 kilowatt signal over the air (OTA) from a broadcast tower. The station's tower antenna is typically mounted 300 to 2000 feet above the ground. Coverage range varies with tower antenna height and power. Range varies from around 30 miles or more for low power stations, to over 80 miles for full power stations. Towers are often concentrated in or near a city. Television transmitters are on an FCC licensed Radio Frequency (RF) channel in either the VHF or UHF Frequency Band. Each RF channel can contain multiple TV channels.

- Over-the-Air
- Radio Frequency
- Federal Communication Commission

TV Broadcast Tower
You need - an Antenna
- a Digital Television
- or tuner / viewing device
Get - Major Networks
- Local TV Stations
- Entertainment Channels
Resolution - Ultra High Definition (UHD /4k TV)
- High Definition (HD)
- Standard Definition (SD)
Audio - Multi Channel Surround Sound
- Stereo
- Mono
Data - Program Guide
- TV Channel, Callsign, Network
- Closed Caption (CC)

Most RF/TV channels are broadcast using a High Definition signal (ATSC 1.0). A few stations broadcast an Ultra High Definition (UHD) signal (ATSC 3.0), a 4k UHD television is needed for reception. A few UHD TV channels are encrypted and required an Internet connection, see 4k UHD Televisions below. Most stations that broadcast a UHD signal also simulcast an HD signal on a different RF Channel and usually from a different tower. The TV channels (displayed) stay the same. Currently the number of UHD broadcast is small, and not growing very fast.

ATSC 1.0
UHD (4k TV)
ATSC 3.0
TV Channels 16,000+ 368
Market Cities 500+ 82
As of Feb 2023.
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Digital Televisions

Televisions that get over-the-air broadcast will have an ATSC 1.0 tuner for HD signals, or an ATSC 3.0 tuner for UHD and HD signals. The television will also have a coax connector labeled "RF In" or "Antenna". You will need to setup your television for over-the-air (antenna) reception after you connect an antenna.

1 - In the TV menu set Channels to: Air or OTA
2 - Then select Scan or Scan for Channels.
Test Pattern

All Digital TV's receive a perfect picture or no picture. A signal that is weak but above the TV minimum has the same picture as a strong signal. Signal power just below the televisions minimum the picture starts to pixilate. Just a few decibels (dB's) below the minimum the picture disappears.

See TV Minimum Signal .

Picture resolution is as good as or better than cable or satellite TV. Cable and satellite operators often compress local channels before re-broadcasting. The compression reduces picture quality. Compressing signals opens up more bandwidth and allows providers to squeeze in more channels nobody watches.

ATSC 1.0 Standard for OTA Broadcast
High Definition (HD) televisions will have a resolution of 1080 or 720 ppi (pixels / inch). Broadcast HD TV channels are in HD (1080 or 720), or Standard Resolution (480 ppi). The TV will adjust a broadcast HD resolution to the TV's resolution. An SD TV channel will display in SD resolution.

ATSC 3.0 Standard for OTA Broadcast
A 4k Ultra High Definition (UHD / 2160 ppi) television is needed to receive a UHD (or HD) broadcast. A UHD broadcast has 2 to 3 times higher resolution compared to High Definition. It also has enhanced audio and better reception. A screen size less than about 40 inches diagonal will not see much if any difference between a UHD and HD picture.

There are 3 types of UHD broadcast. Two types are encrypted (Lock) and require an Internet connection to get a decryption key to view the broadcast.

1.) Free and Open Reception
All you need is a 4k UHD television connected to an antenna. Some UHD broadcast can be (optional) synchronized with an Internet connection to stream in real-time additional content and video. Some UHD broadcasters are moving to a DRM system which requires an Internet connection.

2.) Digital Rights Management (DRM) Lock
Encrypted -- Internet connection Required
This encryption scheme is also called Content Protection and prevents the viewer from fast-forwarding commercials, recording, and rebroadcasting. A few UHD TV channels are using this scheme, but the numbers are increasing.

3.) Subscription Service Lock
Encrypted -- Internet connection Required
This encryption requires the viewer to pay a fee to receive the channel, or just 1 or more programs. Only one TV channel tried this method but discontinued it. Currently no known TV channels are using this scheme.

Both encryption schemes require an Internet connection and allow the provider to track your viewing habits. However, the number of UHD broadcast is very small and not growing very fast. Encryption will not increase public interest.

Smart TV's (NextGen)
These televisions can be connected to the Internet for streaming video. Many HD TV's and all 4k UHD TV's have this feature.

HD and 4k UHD Televisions
Digital Tuner ATSC 1.0 ATSC 3.0
Broadcast HD UHD
Resolution HD, SD UHD, HD, SD
Smart TV Optional All

-- Standard Definition
-- High Definition
-- Ultra High Definition (4k)
720 or 1080

Also see Television Specifications.

Table top Digital Tuners are available to connect to your computer / network, or monitor. Analog TV's need a Digital to Analog Converter to receive OTA broadcast. See Tuners and Converters.

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DTv Channels
RF 36
Over Air
TV and RF Channels

The early Analog TV stations (1947 to 2009) used their FCC license RF Channel number as their Station TV channel. One TV channel per RF channel. Digital broadcast can contain multiple TV channels in one RF channel and use 2 numbers for TV channel (Station channel - Sub channel (network)), and another number for broadcast RF channel.

Over the Air TV has 2 types of channels, displayed channel and broadcast channel.

TV Channel
Main Channel - Sub Channel
-- MAIN: Station Channel
-- SUB : 1 or more (Networks)
• Also called Virtual Channel.
RF Channel
Broadcast Channel
- FCC allocates RF 2 to 51
• HD or UHD broadcast signal
• Carries multiple TV channels.

Each TV channel has 2 numbers, main channel number, a dot "." or dash "-", then sub-channel number. The main number may or may not (probably not) be the same as the RF channel number. During the transition from analog to digital most stations changed their RF channel but kept their old analog channel number as their station TV channel.

Each broadcast (reception) RF channel has 6 MHz bandwidth and can contain multiple TV channels. The RF channels are in the VHF and UHF Frequency Bands.


Virtually all home antennas are designed to receive UHF signals. Most TV broadcast are in the UHF band. Many antennas get both UHF and VHF signals, 2 antennas are built into one assembly. In some cases a UHF antenna will receive a VHF signal at reduced power, but still strong enough for reception. Nationwide 80% of broadcast are in the UHF band. The band does have more RF channels. Also, the FCC is trying to move all TV broadcast to UHF.

RF Channels Frequency
VHF 02 - 13 54 - 216 MHz
UHF 14 - 51 470 - 698 MHz

Your location from broadcast towers and your antenna placement are the main factors that determine the number of RF Channels you can get. The larger the antenna the more signal captured (gain). The higher the antenna is mounted the greater the signal density.

Reception Range
Antenna Range
Indoor 20 - 25 miles
-- attic mount
-- roof mount
30 - 60 miles
60 - 85 miles
Also see;
-- Antennas.
-- Steps to Get OTA DTv.
Tower Locator

Your antenna should be pointed in the direction of the broadcast towers, and have a relatively clear path to the towers. TV signals are Line-of-Sight, large obstructions (hills, buildings, trees) can reduce or block reception.

Also see;
-- Frequency.
-- Signal Factors.
-- Antenna Installation.

Installing an outdoor TV antenna cannot be restricted by state or local laws, regulations, condominium restrictions, or cooperative associations. Masts higher than 12 feet above the roofline may be subject to local permitting requirements for safety purposes. See Over-the-Air Reception Devices Rule (FCC Website)

FCC Rule 47 C.F.R. Section 1.4000
Prohibits Restrictions that
impair Outdoor TV Antennas
• Use,
• Installation,
• Maintenance.
Applies to;
  • State, Local Laws, Regulations
    -- includes Zoning, Land-Use, Building Regulations
  • Condominium Restrictions
  • Cooperative Association Restrictions
  • Lease Restrictions
    -- drilling holes etc can be restricted.
  • Similar Restrictions

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