Paying Too Much for Cable or Satellite TV?

Nothing is more frustrating than opening a bill to find an unexpected rate increase, finance charge or some other unexpected fee that breaks your budget. How does this make you feel? Do you contest the bill or just pay it?

Over the years I’ve spent hours on the phone disputing various charges. If after several attempts to rectify a bill the service provider continues their unscrupulous practices, I will seek an alternative company. Several years ago after our cable TV company was acquired by another company, we were double billed several times so we switched to satellite TV. This change resulted in a savings of $30-40 per month.

What I do not understand is why businesses raise their rates when the economy is sluggish? For example, our satellite service increased from $57.68/month to $92.24/month in six years while our original subscription package was downgraded. This amounts to a sixty percent increase or equivalent to an annual rate hike of about 8.15%. This exceeds both the Consumer Price Index and rate of inflation for that time period by $26.24/month according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator. It seemed absurd to me to pay an extra $34.56/month for less service.

I wish the cable and satellite service plans were a la carte so we could just pay for what we use. And then it hit me, what if we could watch our shows on the Internet? So, I researched our options and tried some experiments.

Option 1- FTA Satellite or HDTV Antenna

The first option was to abandon paid satellite altogether and try a Free-to-Air (FTA) Satellite system or an HDTV Antenna. The FTA option also seemed wasteful as there were only a handful of programs we watched. So we bought an HDTV antenna instead after receiving several recommendations from friends.

Result

I can say that after installing the antenna we received one hundred channels of snow which meant either the antenna was defective or we were experiencing a poor signal. I tried just using a coat hanger which also failed. I promptly returned the unit to the store.

Option 2- Go Without

Just go dark and find other ways of occupying your time. This was not a realistic option as my family would have protested heavily. It is also important to realize that change is most successful when it occurs subtly over time.

Option 3- Purchase a Media Center

Since we had already downgraded our satellite plan there were no further options to save money unless we cut the service. This meant we had to invest in some equipment, such as an off-the-shelf media center such as an Apple TV, Boxee, Google TV or Roku. These devices plug into your TV and within minutes you are able to watch TV, movies and more through their service. An excellent review of each of these devices is available through PCWorld as is a comparison chart.

We already had an Apple TV but it strained when delivering web broadcasts from Hulu and other services. Its platform is somewhat closed which limits upgrades and custom configuration. This capability was critical to our adoption as we wanted a device that would not be obsolete next year and could be expanded to accommodate new technologies and services. We also have a Mac Mini that I thought about repurposing. However, it is a first generation unit with a G4 processor and somewhat limited video card which struggles to deliver heavy Flash content and HD video, so it was removed from the list.

Having built numerous computers and media devices over the years I drafted a set of criteria for our media center. The primary capabilities I wanted were:

  • Internal hard drive to store media
  • Firewire or USB connectivity for external storage and backup
  • Web browsing capability
  • Upgradability of internal components
  • Processor and graphics card capable of handling at least 720p HD video
  • Does not require a subscription service

This list effectively eliminated all of the off-the-shelf devices which was fine with me as I am a geek at heart so I opted to build my system.

Option 4- Build a Media Center

This is the option we selected which meant dropping our current satellite service, home phone and internet service and subscribing to a local only internet bundle from one of the cable providers. At the same time we setup our own media center. Why build? None of the off-the-shelf devices offered internal storage and since I am an avid photographer and videographer, I thought it would be nice to store my content in one place and share it with friends. Also, keeping with my minimalist mindset I don’t want to purchase several devices or store hundreds of DVDs. I would rather post them to the media center, throw away the cases and store the DVDs in a book. This saves an enormous amount of space.

My other reason for building over buying is both configurability and expandability. I wanted a somewhat open system that would let me use a variety of services such as Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube and also allow me to upgrade hardware over time keeping pace with technology shifts instead of becoming obsolete.

The Host

Instead of ordering parts and assembling everything, I opted to use a Mac Mini as the host system and configure it to meet our needs. I like its small footprint the reliability of the hardware and software and the quality parts. I found a great price on a used Mac Mini at the Mac Toy Store in West Palm Beach. The total cost for the unit was $502.56 or a savings of roughly $200 over buying new. Besides the cost savings, the older Mac Minis architecture is a bit more open whereas the new units have soldered processors so upgradability is very limited. Now you might be thinking this is considerably more costly than purchasing a pre-built media center but it offers all of their advantages and is a computer as well so it is money well spent.

The Savings- $98.26/mo

Before Cost After Cost
Satellite Service $92.24/mo Cable Service $59.47/mo
Phone Service + Internet $67.16/mo Magic Jack $1.67/mo
Total $159.40/mo Total $61.14/mo

The investment is recovered in 5 months.

Configuration

So how did I do it? The setup took roughly an hour from unpacking to connecting and installing a series of third-party tools. Here is what I installed:

The Outcome

{{img:Home Entertainment System After}} It was frustrating at first as there seemed to never be anything on television with our basic channels. Then again, when we had 200+ channels there always seemed to be limited quality programming, so I guess there was not a huge change after all. What I have noticed is we are doing more things as a family, such as getting out and walking, shooting hoops, roller blading and other activities. Then, if we need some physical or mental downtime, we watch a television program after 8:00 p.m. So was it worth the investment of a new system? Absolutely!

Resources for the Ultimate Mac Mini Media Center (HTPC)

Solid State Drives & External Hard Drives

Used Mac Mini’s & Reviews

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