Feature: Is 5G Broadcast Really the Future?

There has been an increasing amount of attention given to 5G broadcast, with many speculating that this method of transmission could replace terrestrial TV and radio broadcasts. However, is this really a solution to an existing problem?

5G broadcast is being developed alongside 5G mobile phone networks. Unlike with conventional streaming, where the data needs to be duplicated for each individual user, 5G broadcast involves multiple users linking to a single data stream to download data. This reduces congestion on mobile phone networks, enabling greater efficiency and faster download speeds. There are no regular 5G broadcast services currently operating in the UK. However, the BBC conducted trials using 5G broadcast to transmit radio services to Orkney, back in 2019. The technology does appear to work, but without any widespread adoption, it is unclear whether there is demand for such a service or not.

5G broadcast has been largely tipped as a replacement for the existing terrestrial TV network of transmitters, largely due to mobile phone networks and TV signals competing for frequencies. Terrestrial TV has already lost frequencies for mobile phone networks, with the 800 MHz and upwards band cleared for 4G services, with 700 MHz and above cleared for the roll-out of 5G. As there are a limited number of frequencies available, re-allocating frequencies from terrestrial TV to mobile phone networks will help to improve mobile phone networks with 5G broadcast then taking the role of terrestrial TV.

This would lead to efficiency savings, as only one transmitter network would be required, serving both mobile phone and broadcast aspects of 5G. Existing TV transmitters could be repurposed to broadcast the new 5G networks. Costs theoretically would reduce, and it would be possible for 5G broadcast services to remain free of charge like terrestrial TV.

However, despite several positives, it could be argued that 5G broadcast isn’t as good as it would seem. Advances in encoding techniques such as DVB-T2 (for terrestrial TV and predominantly HD services) and DAB+ (for digital radio), mean that existing digital signals become more efficient and require less space. The conversion of the remaining terrestrial TV multiplexes (bundles of channels on an a single frequency) to DVB-T2, would allow for a multiplex to close. This in turn would release additional frequencies for 5G, whilst maintaining the existing TV channels. This also would allow for the removal of duplicate channels such as old standard definition versions of BBC One, ITV, etc., meaning that further new channels could be accommodated.

Both a switch to 5G broadcast and DVB-T2 would mean a requirement for consumers to invest in new equipment. However, DVB-T2 is already in widespread use, having become the standard for new equipment. Switching to 5G broadcast would lead to all existing terrestrial viewers to upgrade equipment, and would also render relatively recent equipment redundant. This would create a significant amount of waste, and place an additional cost burden for viewers. With streaming services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix becoming increasingly more popular, viewers are unlikely to be willing to switch to a completely new TV platform.

Perhaps the above view is a tad pessimistic, but before jumping to any conclusion on the implementation of 5G broadcast, it is vital that the new technology is adequately consider to ensure it is truly beneficial. There is no point in investing in new technology if the benefits are minimal, and it simply creates expense and waste.