UHF channels are being taken away for 5G. Why aren’t they taking VHF channels?

By now, you’ve probably read an article or two about how UHF channels 37-51 are being taken away from over-the-air TV. Heck, it’s the most popular article on the blog as I write this.  We all want faster cell service and we all want it soon. But many antenna enthusiasts have pointed out a flaw in this plan.

VHF channels kind of stink.

VHF broadcasting was the very first television broadcasting. At the time, back in the 1930s, the ability to get a broadcast tower going at 70MHz was pretty impressive. It took a lot of work. But compared to the UHF broadcasts that followed, VHF wasn’t a really great deal.

VHF broadcasts require a big antenna. The lower the frequency, the larger the waves. And, an antenna’s size is dictated by the size of the waves that it is trying to receive.

In fact, a lot of folks though that VHF would just go away.

When TV went digital about a decade ago, antenna makers rushed to sell UHF-only antennas. A lot of channels did go to UHF and that meant smaller antennas that were easier to use. Unfortunately there was usually at least one holdout in every market so those folks with UHF-only antennas missed out.

Today, a bunch of channels that went UHF back in the day are returning to VHF because there are fewer UHF channels. This means if you want to get them, you’ll need a VHF antenna.

Why you can’t just give VHF to cellular

This brings up the question that titles this article. It seems like antenna fans would be better served by taking those VHF frequencies away from TV and giving them over for cellular data. There’s only really one problem with that.

If you did that you’d need phones the size of briefcases again.

Remember that I said the size of the antenna depends on the size of the wave? And that the size of the wave depends on the frequency? VHF waves are much bigger than cell phone and getting them takes a big antenna. VHF-based cell phones would either need big antennas or a lot more towers. 5G will already take more towers than regular LTE, for a lot of different reasons. Using VHF frequencies for cellular, using the same tiny antennas on today’s phones, would mean a tower in every neighborhood. That just doesn’t make sense.

Even the 600MHz frequencies that are being given over to cellular aren’t perfectly suited. Today’s cell phones use frequencies from 700MHz to 2100MHz and that means satisfyingly small antennas that work well. The 600MHz band will need more broadcast power to match what the 700MHz band already gives you. The problem really is that there isn’t a lot of other room to put cellular data…

…will the millimeter wave band solve it all?

Eventually, cell phones are going to start using frequencies up in the 28,000-40,000MHz range. This is called the “millimeter wave band” by cell engineers, because the waves are really tiny. The benefit of using frequencies that high is that there is plenty of room to expand. The problem is that it takes a lot of power to broadcast that high and that means more cell towers.

At the moment it also means phones with big honkin’ batteries and no one wants that. But that issue will probably be solved with new electronics over time, although I don’t know how.

In the meantime

In the meantime, antenna enthusiasts should plan on having a UHF/VHF antenna like one of the many you can find at Solid Signal. We’re the best resource for over-the-air antennas and tons of free advice.

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 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.