Why not all 5G is created equal and what that means for Freeview

Q: Why are Freeview channels being moved to "make way for 5G services", when there are already 5G services available where I live?

A: Not all 5G is created equal. Mobile network operators have launched 5G in the UK on a range of relatively high frequencies in the 3.4-3.6GHz band - a long way from where TV services operate.

So why is Freeview affected?

The frequencies in the 3.4-3.6GHz range can carry high levels of traffic - ideal given all the different devices that need an internet connection these days, but their coverage is extremely restricted: the higher the frequency the less range it has and the less able it is to penetrate walls and buildings. That's why there's been talk of many more 5G masts needing to be built on lamposts and other structures to secure sufficient coverage.

To ensure widespread coverage, and for services such as 5G Broadcasting, another set of frequencies is needed. And that's where the frequencies used by Freeview come in. They are ideal for reaching more people and devices, especially in rural areas and they are better at penetrating buildings. They just don't carry as much data, so aren't ideal on their own in heavily congested areas where there's a lot of mobile data users like airports, railway stations or sporting venues.

So in order to make 5G more widely available in the future, Freeview has got to move.

Freeview has already had to move once, following digital switchover, when the airwaves above 800MHz were reallocated to 4G services. The final clearance took place in mid-2013.

Less than 18 months later, in late 2014, Ofcom confirmed there would be a further clearance, with all TV services having to move out of the 700MHz frequency band for 5G.

Between 2017 and 2020, on a region-by-region basis, Freeview services are moving. Viewers will need to retune after their relevant local retune day; some viewers will need to retune more than once, as in some areas, frequencies can't be cleared all in one go, as it would cause interference to TV services. Engineering work is taking place at a number of TV transmitter towers and masts to get ready for the change, which also impacts when a region goes through frequency clearance.

Ofcom is preparing to auction off the 700MHz frequency band soon, with all of the UK's main operators hoping to gain: whoever secures a good block of frequencies will be well placed to provide good 5G coverage.

Arguably, at some point mobile network operators are going to have to look at their services: to some it may seem decadent to have so many frequencies available to them in order to run 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G services while broadcasters are forced to make do with less.

Will 5G affect my TV reception?
This will depend on how close the TV frequencies and 5G signals operate in your area, and the type of aerial you have. Filters will be available to block out 5G frequencies, as there are already for 4G,  should it become an issue in your household.

Could Freeview have to move again in the future?
The remaining frequencies used for Freeview are secure until 2030. Beyond which, we may see a move to internet-based streaming or 5G broadcasting instead of the current system of terrestrial TV broadcasts.  That's still 11 years off, but note that 11 years before digital switchover completed, people were saying they couldn't see analogue TV ending!