What’s so bad about VHF-Low?

VHF-Low, or as regular people call it, TV channels 2-6, used to be prime real estate for TV watchers. All the good channels were there. It’s where you wanted to be, whether you were the CBS channel in Los Angeles or the ABC channel in Philadelphia. It was a coveted address in the 20th century.

After the digital transition in 2009, VHF-Low became a little bit of a problem. See, we were all told that stations would stop broadcasting in VHF and that we could all have these little petite antennas that would be easier to put up and work with our condo board rules. It didn’t work out that way.

Station owners took a lot of pride in their old-school channel numbers, not realizing that people could and would adapt. The government even baked in a system called PSIP after station owners complained that they didn’t want to be on channel 36. PSIP lets you tune to channel 4 using your remote but the TV silently tunes to channel 36 for you if it needs to.

Apparently that still wasn’t enough. Some really big names out there kept their original channel assignments after 2009 and that means that in some of the country’s largest cities you need a VHF antenna. What’s more in some cities like Philadelphia you need a VHF-Low antenna.

VHF-Low shouldn’t be a bad thing, except in order to get those low frequencies below 88MHz you need a BIG antenna. That’s because the lower the frequency the longer the actual broadcast wave, and the longer the “wavelength” the longer an antenna needs to be to get it. A proper antenna for channels 2-6 has to be well over six feet long, while an antenna for channel 36 only needs to be under one foot. Seems like a raw deal for consumers, but what can you do.

Unfortunately it’s about to get worse. As I told you a few months ago, I told you that in order to make space for more cell service, the FCC is getting rid of channels 36 and higher. So anyone who did move up there will be moving back down. Some of them will be moving to VHF-Low channels. That means there will come a time in the next two years where you have to rescan for channels, and you may lose some unless you have a big honkin’ antenna on the roof.

Station owners don’t seem worried about this move. Many of these channels are available over cable or satellite, and there is a cost saving to broadcasting on a lower frequency because it takes less power to get the same coverage.

The good news, as you can read in the link above, is that the number of channels moving down that far isn’t very big, in most cases it’s no more than one per city. Those channels also tend to be non-network channels or foreign-language ones, so the impact to many people will be fairly low. Still, it kind of stinks that you may need a larger antenna than you did before.

VHF-Low isn’t a very good channel range for cellular but it is good for first responders and other local broadcasts. Maybe first responder radios will move down there from some of the higher channels they have in the 400MHz range and then that higher range can be reallocated for cellular in the next round. At least it would be a good use of the frequencies, although it’s not going to help you use a smaller antenna to get the channels you want.

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.