Finding decent HD options in Montreal not an easy task

Looking for simple pricing and easy to understand HD programming options from Canada’s Cable and Satellite providers? Good luck. After living the last few months with my all-u-can-download high-speed internet and a $20 antenna that picks up HD feeds of CBS, NBC and PBS from south of the border, I decided to take a look at my options for getting some more HDTV. Being in Montreal, my options are limited: Bell, Videotron, and Shaw Direct (née StarChoice), a company that seemingly doesn’t even advertise in Quebec anymore.

I really couldn’t care less about SD channels. Once you go HD, it hurts your eyes when you watch them. So I called all of my Montreal options up directly, and told them what I wanted: A package which gets me as much HD content as possible, at a reasonable price, and I couldn’t care less about SD channels. Here’s a rundown of what I was offered:

What’s amazing about Videotron is that despite going out of their way to serve English customers, (Their terrific english website lists a contact phone number that puts you through directly to an English-speaking customer service rep) they continue to provide the most paltry offering of English HD content possible. The wonderful CSR – who I won’t name so I don’t get her fired! – was very frank. She told me she gets tons of calls about this, that Videotron is trying to negotiate deals to provide more HD offerings, and that if I wanted HD programming, Videotron wasn’t the right choice for me – at least right now. Videotron offers just 35 HD channels, many of them French specialty channels whose programming consists mainly of upconverted SD crap and dubbed episodes of House. And since I spent the last three years with Videotron, I’ve seen first hand how slowly they’ve added HD channels. So I didn’t bother asking for pricing, it’s just not an option. I should also note that Videotron’s channel grid is a complete mess. Channels are ordered in a completely non-sensical manner, a holdover from Videotron’s traditional analog cable past. Videotron is certainly a great option for Quebeckers who don’t mind a limited HD selection and want to bundle services like internet and home phone – it’s just not the right choice for HD fanatics.

Moving on to the company that is somewhat under the radar, Shaw Direct. Shaw boasts that they have the nation’s largest selection of free HD channels, but costs do seem to add up quickly when trying to create a package. If you’re focused on getting as many HD channels as possible, you’ll need to pony up an extra $4.99 for the HD Extra pack, $2.99 for TSN and Rogers Sportsnet, and $3.99 to get RDS/RIS (read: Habs games). Add those extra costs to the seemingly decent $54.99 Digital Favourites package and you’re looking at over $75 after tax. Upgrade to a more expensive Platinum Choice plan and you’re going to spend a Robert Borden ($100) a month.

In their defence, Shaw allows you to add another satellite and receiver (for your country home, RV, or Florida winter pad) for a one-time fee of $99, doesn’t charge to suspend your subscription for up to six months, and requires no contract. I just wish they offered clearer, more concise options when it comes to HD programming.

Where do I start with Bell TV. I’ve told you about my experiences with the company. I’ve shown you detailed accounts from whistleblowers in the company that highlight all of their anti-consumer practices. So it goes without saying that it would take a lot to convince me to sign a service contract. Having said that, I still called Bell, just to see how they were screwing their customer this time what they were offering. It pains me to say it, but Bell offers the simplest HD plans, conveniently called HD Basic ($13), HD Essentials($49), HD Extra($70), and HD Max ($85). Be warned though, in typical Bell fashion, the company is raising monthly rates by $2-4 as of January 1st. As well, Bell wants to get you into a two-year contract, although if you’re willing to pay $99 for installation, you can avoid that.

Some other options to consider:

If you are lucky enough to be able to, get a good outdoor antenna and point it south towards Mount Mansfield in Vermont. You should be able to get CBS, NBC, PBS, and FOX this way in uncompressed high-definition. ABC’s signal is apparently not strong enough to reach us. American channels are now digital-only, so you’ll need an HDTV with an ATSC tuner to receive these signals. You can also buy a converter box from the U.S. and connect that to an old tube TV if you’re super keen.

VDN also offers cable service and HD channels, but it isn’t available in many areas of Montreal. They do good business in large apartments and condos, so head to their website and punch in your postal code to see if it’s available.

Oh, and what about Look TV, the company with the funny microwave antennas? They stopped providing service on November 15. As someone who had Look TV about a decade ago until I bought my first HDTV set just over three years ago, I kinda felt sad for about 12 seconds when I learned the news. Maybe if the company had invested in HD, it would have survived.