Will 5G replace over-the-air broadcasting?

It’s an interesting question. A lot of layers there. Will we see traditional, over-the-air broadcasting totally eclipsed by cellular? Will the idea of free broadcasting completely disappear?

Let’s first admit that it’s not impossible.

I think we have to look at the example of landline phones. A generation ago it would have been impossible to imagine a future without them. And then, we started seeing developing countries deploying cell towers instead of running cables. Here in the US we’re seeing homes being built without traditional phone jacks in the walls.

Is it legal to even build a home without phone jacks? In most cases it is. Most cities and towns require that there be some sort of phone service available. It can come in over the internet connection, though, and builders aren’t required to prewire homes for it.

Landline phone is pretty much gone now, and you know it.

Will over-the-air TV go the same way?

I doubt it. Take a look at this article from 2017. The number of homes who use TV antennas is actually growing, not shrinking. This site projects that antenna TV will grow by about 7% per year for the next five years. Does that sound like an industry that’s primed to disappear?

At Solid Signal, we’re bullish on antennas. That’s why we offer so many of them. We’ve seen the antenna market grow consistently. People want a way to get their local TV for free. After all, they’re entitled to it. Over-the-air broadcasting is authorized by the US government and it’s supposed to be free to use. It’s only been in the last few decades that cable companies have fooled you into thinking you have to pay for it. Some cable companies even charge a separate fee for their local channels.

Cable companies pay for local channels but you don’t have to

A bit more about the subject of cable companies before I get into the meat of the article. There is a federal rule which says that a broadcaster has two choices when it comes to dealing with a cable company. They can DEMAND that the cable company carry a station, in which case they have to offer it for free. Or they can OFFER the cable company the opportunity to carry it, in which case they can charge for it. They can also negotiate whether or not the cable company has the right to insert their own commercials over the broadcast ones. Pretty much every broadcaster chooses the second option.

When it comes to you though, there are no options. A broadcaster MUST make its signals available to everyone in its target market for free. This doesn’t mean they have to supply an antenna. It doesn’t mean that they’re responsible if you can’t get the signal indoors. It means their signal has to cover a certain area and they can’t charge for it.

Comparing over-the-air with 5G

It seems like it would be easy to compare 5G and over-the-air broadcasting. After all, when 5G is fully implemented it will be more than fast enough to handle all your local channel needs. You could connect a 5G modem to your smart TV and stream all the video you want.

But, this is definitely a case where two things that seem the same, aren’t. Over-the-air broadcasting is free. Cell service isn’t. This is where the comparison I made to landline going away doesn’t hold up. Landline service wasn’t free. When you turned off the land line and went to cellular only, you were just trading one cost for another.

So, 5G isn’t a real replacement for over-the-air broadcasting.

But will broadcasters simply stop putting out a signal and start streaming instead?

I think this is the real question.

In order to broadcast a signal, you have to get all sorts of licenses, then you put up a big tower which you pump thousands of watts of energy into. On the other hand, pretty much anyone can live stream with their phone. Even if you wanted to be completely independent of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, or some other large platform, you could build some servers and buy some bandwidth and it would still be cheaper than broadcasting.

So will local broadcasters just give up the tower and serve people through streaming only?

I guess the answer is, “maybe, but not for a long time.” I don’t want to hide my head in the sand. It wasn’t that long ago that people thought newspapers and live TV news were the most important things in the world. Now the world gets its news online. We watch more and more TV online. Things have changed. But, we’re still at a point where the broadcast infrastructure is important. If there is a change to a streaming-only system, I think it won’t involve 5G. It will involve 6G or 7G or whatever, because it’s not coming for a while.

In the meantime, here’s a better answer.

We’re starting to see some growth in ATSC 3.0 (also called NextGen TV.) This is the next generation of television broadcasting. The government hasn’t fully endorsed it yet, but if they do, it will blur the line between streaming and over-the-air. By connecting both an antenna and an internet connection to your TV, you’ll get customized ads, richer menus, and even streaming content right alongside over-the-air. If it’s done right you won’t even know when you’re streaming and when you’re not. The basic content will still go out over-the-air but you’ll be able to get on-demand programs right alongside the live TV signal.

Some TV makers are already doing something like this, offering a Universal Guide which shows streaming channels alongside over-the-air ones. But for now, over-the-air channels are totally over-the-air and streaming channels are totally streaming. ATSC 3.0 offers the possibility that one channel could deliver over-the-air content as well as streaming content.

So, it looks like the real answer is that 5G isn’t going to take over for over-the-air, instead they’re going to be a seamless partnership. That will be good for everyone. In the meantime you don’t need to worry that over-the-air TV is going away. It’s stronger than ever, and it’s going to stay strong for a long time to come.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.