All About Over-The-Air Antennas (OTA)

What to know before you buy one

You can use an Over-the-Air (OTA) antenna to receive broadcast television from nearby TV stations. In order to use an antenna, your television must have a built-in TV tuner, or you must have an external tuner connected to the antenna and television.

There are lots of different types of antennas, so be sure you choose the right one for your needs.

Digital or HD Antennas

There really is no such thing as a digital or high definition antenna. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) says that anyone owning an antenna that is capable of receiving analog signals should be able to use that same antenna to receive digital signals.

As a result, it's a good idea to try using your old antenna before buying a new one. If your current antenna doesn’t work then you might need one with amplification, which helps the antenna pick up a better signal.

Amplified Antennas

Amplified antennas electrically increase the ability to receive a weak signal. These antennas are ideal for people living in rural areas because the incoming signal might need a boost. An amplified antenna may also be useful in setups involving long cable runs or splitters between the antenna and TV, which can weaken the incoming signal.

Indoor vs. Outdoor Antennas

One could argue that a $20 indoor antenna works just as well as a $100 roof-mounted antenna. It depends on where a person lives, as well as the strength of the signal coming from the broadcast towers.

According to Antenna Web, a site managed by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), good antenna selection is not just based on distance from the transmitting station. It's also based on accurately characterizing signal conditions and selecting an antenna that works for the situation.

Indoor vs. Outdoor

Antennas are either indoor or outdoor. Indoor means the antenna is inside the residence. Outdoor antennas, meanwhile, are mounted on roofs, the sides of houses, or in an attic.

Rooftop television antenna
Jan Stromme / Getty Images

Both types of antennas' ability to receive a good signal depends on the distance from the transmission tower and any obstacles that lie between the antenna and the tower. Outdoor antennas are usually more powerful than indoor antennas, so they are generally more reliable.

UHF and VHF

UHF (Ultra High Frequency) and VHF (Very High Frequency) are similar to AM and FM in the world of the radio. Most antennas will receive UHF, VHF, or both types of signals. If you desire channel 8 then you’d want to get an antenna that receives VHF. The same would hold true for UHF and channel 27.

The Federal Communications Commission says that the VHF band is between channels 2 and 13, or frequencies 54-216 Mhz. UHF signals cover channels 14 through 83, or frequencies ranging from 300 to 3,000 Mhz, though the higher numbers may be reallocated with the digital transition.

There is a common misconception that all digital or high definition signals fall within the UHF bandwidth. While UHF may contain many of the digital signals, there are digital and high definition signals on the VHF band. That is why we recommend using the antenna selection tool at AntennaWeb.org.

Antenna Web

Antenna Web is operated by the Consumer Electronics Association. The site is designed to help people locate the best antenna for their area based on their address or zip code. The only downside is that Antenna Web will only recommend outdoor antennas for your area.

Indoor Antennas

It’s critical to consider the distance from the transmission tower and any obstacles that lie between the antenna and the tower. These factors also affect outdoor antennas, but it is more critical to pay attention to these details since indoor antennas are rated equally by the Consumer Electronics Association.

Television with Antenna
Bryan Mullennix / Getty Images

Distance From Transmission Tower

There isn’t a specific mileage that determines if an indoor antenna will work for you. If you live within the city limits of the television station then you will likely be able to use an indoor antenna.

For example, if you live in a medium-sized market and use an indoor antenna, you will likely get all of the OTA broadcast stations in digital high definition without issue.

Obstacles Between Antenna and Transmission Tower

Obstacles can be mountains, hills, buildings, walls, doors, people walking in front of the antenna, etc. These create havoc with TV signals and impact the reliability of signal reception.

Therefore, when comparing indoor to outdoor antennas, indoor antennas typically:

  • Have a shorter reception range
  • Install easier
  • Cost less

Indoor Antenna Rating System

Indoor antennas are rated the same by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) but that doesn’t mean they all perform the same. This is because indoor reception can be inconsistent.

Low Angle View Of Television Aerial Against Clear Sky
Eduardo Grigoletto / Getty Images

When an indoor antenna is approved for consumer use by the CEA you should see a CEA checkmark logo on the product packaging that CEA’s disclaimer stating that the antenna "meets or exceeds CEA performance specifications for indoor antennas."

Will an Indoor Antenna Work for You?

An indoor antenna can work for you, but you should use caution because it may not pick up all the stations in your area, or it may require frequent adjusting depending on the desired station.

Our advice is to go to AntennaWeb.org to see which type of outdoor antenna they recommend for your specific address. Then you can compare the outdoor antenna recommendations with what’s available in an indoor model, or at least get an idea of where the transmission towers exist compared to your residence. This should help you decide if an indoor model is right for you.

Directional vs. Multi-Directional Outdoor Antennas

Outdoor antennas come in two varieties, directional and multi-directional. Directional antennas must point toward the transmission tower to receive a signal, while multi-directional antennas can receive signals when not pointing toward the transmission tower. This is a point to remember when selecting an antenna, because if you choose a directional antenna and need multi-directional then you will not receive some stations.

Chimney and television aerial in sunset
Andrew Holt / Getty Images

Outdoor Antenna Rating System

Antenna Web rates outdoor antennas with a 6-color rating system. These ratings should appear on the outside of a CEA-approved product:

  • Yellow — Small Multi-directional
  • Green — Medium Multi-directional
  • Light green — Large Multi-directional or Small Multi-directional with pre-amp
  • Red — Medium Directional
  • Blue — Medium Directional with pre-amp
  • Purple — Large Directional with pre-amp

The colors are designed to help select an antenna without having to compare specifications between models. In other words, yellow-coded antennas should perform consistently with each other. The same holds true for green, blue, etc.

Instructions for Using Antenna Web

Antenna Web makes choosing an outdoor antenna within the United States quite easy. After entering your details, you’ll be directed to a results page. The page will display a list of antenna types and stations picked up in your area along with the type of antenna recommended. You have the option to sort by all, digital, or analog-only TV stations. We recommend sorting by digital.

TV Antennas against Blue Sky
Jim Wilson / Getty Images

The list of antennas has some important fields to review, like frequency assignment of the station and compass orientation, which is the best direction to point your antenna to receive that particular station. You can also view a map of your address that shows the direction toward which to point the antenna.

The CEA states that the stations listed in its services is limited and that, depending on the specifics of your installation, you may be able to receive many more stations that do not appear in the list.

Benefits of Using an Antenna

Even if you subscribe to satellite, you can use an antenna to receive local broadcast stations. Benefits of using an antenna include not having to pay for premium high definition service, and receiving a reliable signal during severe thunderstorms.

Low Angle View Of Television Aerials Against Sky
Jeff Smith / Getty Images

By using an antenna you get access to your local broadcast TV station’s free broadcast signals in high definition (HD). Another benefit is that in some markets you may be able to receive local channels that are not offered by your cable or satellite provider.

An antenna can provide the peace of mind knowing that you have access to programming even if your cable or satellite reception fails. Receiving over-the-air signals is also free, which means you don’t have to subscribe to your cable or satellite provider’s HD package to watch local channels in high definition quality.