Do you use an antenna to watch TV? Whether you never adopted cable to begin with, or only recently cut the cord you may have noticed some of you TV stations have vanished in the last month. It’s all to make way for 5G, the next generation of cellular networks that promises speeds as fast, or often faster, than anything that comes from a cable snaking into your home. Only the stations aren’t really disappearing. They’ve just moved.
The sudden static on screens in cities such as Washington, D.C., and New York is due to a change of address. Because of forthcoming 5G wireless service, hundreds of TV stations across the country are being reassigned to new broadcast frequencies. Cable and satellite viewers won’t notice any change. But if you’re one of the TV renegades who have cut the cord (or never subscribed to cable to begin with) and are pulling in free over-the-air broadcasts, you’ll probably have to rescan with your TV’s receiver to get some stations back.
It all has to do with the 600 MHz band and above that was being used by some broadcast TV stations. Looking to free up spectrum and make more efficient use of the available radio bands, the Federal Communications Commission auctioned off the space to erstwhile 5G providers—T-Mobile in particular—and then organized a move, in stages, for TV stations using that particular spectrum.
“About 987 stations have been reassigned new frequencies,” Jean Kiddoo, chair for the FCC’s Incentive Auction Taskforce, explained to Gizmodo. “We’re doing the changes in 10 phases,” she said, “and the channels themselves are not changing—channel 2 will still be on channel 2—but TVs need to find the stations on their new frequencies.”
Phase 4 of the channel changes was just completed at the beginning of August. It affected CBS, Fox, and PBS affiliates in New York, for example, including their subchannels (e.g., 4.2 and 4.3 for channel 4). Each reassignment is checked to make it sure it doesn’t interfere with smaller, low-power broadcast stations nearby, and the FCC’s Kiddoo said most viewers shouldn’t lose any stations due to reception changes. All you need to do is rescan.
While in theory, your reception shouldn’t change, the picture won’t be the same for all viewers.
In New York City some stations not only changed frequencies but also moved from the Empire State Building antenna to One World Trade Center. While that is supposed to replicate the same coverage area, in practice it doesn’t in a city with as many tall buildings as New York. Some Brooklynites can receive stations they couldn’t tune in before, and some channels are no longer available in parts of Manhattan.
The cross-country roll out of stations changes has 6 more phases to come, finishing up in July of 2020. If you want to see if your couch potato reveries might be interrupted, you can check what stations in your area are affected by going to the FCC’s site. The coverage map on the FCC page assumes you’re using a roof-mounted antenna, so the results might vary depending on where your antenna actually is. Sites who have had their frequency change will have an “R” in the IA column.
So when will you get that fancy, speed-of-light 5G service that the ancient TV stations are making way for? A lot depends on what market you live in. A T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed that the carrier is following the frequency changes closely and trying to offer 5G service as soon as possible.
T-Mobile plans to launch broad 5G service on its new 600 MHz spectrum allotment by the fourth quarter of this year. It has worked with some stations, such as the NBC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth, to make the transition sooner. In fact, T-Mobile already uses some 600 MHz spectrum for existing LTE wireless service. Using the higher frequency so-called millimeter spectrum, the company said that as of now, it has deployed in 5G parts of 6 cities: New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Cleveland, and Atlanta. Though network performance on that spectrum hasn’t always been as good.
To start streaming TV shows over your phone on 5G you’ll need a new phone, and you’ll probably have to wait until later next year for full coverage. In the meantime, you may have to rescan for over-the-air broadcast stations in your area.
“A good rule of thumb,” said the FCC’s Kiddoo, “is that if people notice a channel has gone missing they should rescan with their TV.”