ATSC 3.0: Everything you need to know about broadcast TV’s next big thing

You might not have heard about it much yet, but this is the year that ATSC 3.0 begins to reshape the TV landscape in the U.S. It’s a massive overhaul for antenna-based TV — also known as over-the-air (OTA) TV — but its impact could extend well beyond the realm of TV reception. If you think the days of paying attention to broadcast TV are over, you should read on.

ATSC 3.0 (formally known by the more catchy “NextGen TV” moniker) upgrades our existing antenna TV system by establishing a new technical framework for how those TV signals are created, broadcast, and received. It supports higher resolutions like 4K and possibly 8K, along with much better sound. It’s also intended to work hand-in-hand with internet access, to provide a richer, more interactive experience.

Here’s what you need to know about ATSC 3.0.

What is ATSC 3.0?

NextGen TV ATSC 3.0 Logo

ATSC 3.0 is the latest version of the Advanced Television Systems Committee standards, defining how exactly television signals are broadcast and interpreted. OTA TV signals currently use version 1.0 of the ATSC standards, which were introduced all the way back in 1996, initiating the switch from analog to digital TV that was finalized in the U.S. in 2009.

The switch to digital that ATSC 1.0 delivered, improved picture and sound quality, but it also laid the groundwork for a vast new world of broadcast content and interactivity. ATSC 3.0 makes these experiences possible by changing the way these digital broadcasts are created and delivered, and by adding internet-based content to form a flexible and expandable platform for what we see on our TVs.

If you’re wondering what happened to ATSC 2.0, it was basically outdated before it had the chance to launch. All of the changes that were added in ATSC 2.0 have been integrated into ATSC 3.0, which is now close enough to launch that ATSC 2.0 was essentially skipped.

What are the benefits?

The first major benefit is picture quality. While the current ATSC 1.0 standard caps out at 1080p — and even that is hard to find when it comes to OTA TV — the new standard allows 4K UHD broadcast. Other picture quality upgrades, including high-dynamic range (HDR), wide color gamut (WCG), and high frame rate (HFR) are all part of the new provision. ATSC 3.0 is also future-proofed to a degree, allowing for future upgrades, possibly including 8K resolution.

Currently, the only way to get 4K HDR content is via streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Disney+.

ATSC 3.0 also includes benefits for reception, meaning you should be able to receive more channels in higher quality without the need for a large antenna. Audio quality is increased as well, using Dolby AC-4 instead of AC-3, allowing for broadcasts of up to 7.1.4 channel audio to support object-based sound formats like Dolby Atmos and DTS:X. AC-3 is limited to just 5.1 channel surround. Cleverly, AC-4 can adapt to your gear, so if your TV or A/V receiver can support 5.1.2 Dolby Atmos, and it’s available on the movie you’re watching, that’s what you’ll get — but lesser components still get a version they can reproduce, too.

In addition to the picture and audio improvements, ATSC 3.0 also makes it possible to watch broadcast video on mobile devices like phones and tablets, as well as in cars. Advanced emergency alerts are also part of the standard, including better geotargeting, which means advancements like the ability to broadcast evacuation routes to areas that need that information.

More than TVs

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Given that more and more people now use their phones as their primary video device, it’s no surprise that ASTC 3.0 has been designed with mobile in mind. ONE Media 3.0, a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group — big backers of the ATSC 3.0 standard — introduced new mobile receiver chips in January 2019, which it intends to provide on a subsidized basis to smartphone manufacturers.

So, will your next iPhone be ATSC 3.0-compatible? Probably not. Given its investment in its own paid streaming platform, Apple TV+, Apple doesn’t have a lot of incentive to provide customers with a free, high-quality broadcast option. But Android devices, especially those made by Samsung, Sony, and LG — the leading adopters of ATSC 3.0 in the TV world — could very well include the new standard in future models.

A new internet?

For years, it’s been known that ATSC 3.0 can push huge volumes of data over its broadcast signals. That’s how it can scale picture and audio quality up to 4K HDR, and Dolby Atmos. But it turns out, that same bandwidth could be used to deliver internet access too. In theory, every home within reach of an ATSC 3.0 signal could get up to 25 Mbps of internet access, even if their existing internet access is limited to dial-up speeds.

Because ATSC 3.0 uses Internet Protocol (IP) to deliver its signals, each device that receives those signals must possess an IP address. The only thing missing is an actual connection to the internet itself. That connection would have to be furnished by the broadcasters because they are the entities that have been given a license to broadcast ATSC 3.0 signals.

A possible hurdle to “broadcast internet” is that broadcasters may not want to get into the internet-delivery business. After all, it’s a very different business than the one they’ve traditionally operated.  To encourage them, the FCC is considering easing its ownership rules which currently restrict which arrangements can exist between broadcasters and third parties. Such a change could effectively let broadcasters lease their bandwidth allotment to other companies, which would then provide internet access.

What are the downsides?

ATSC 3.0 is not backward compatible with ATSC 1.0, which means that if your TV doesn’t include an ATSC 3.0 tuner, you’ll need an external converter to make use of those signals. However, you may only need a single ATSC 3.0 tuner for every TV in your house. Current ATSC 1.0 tuners like the Tablo or Fire TV Recast can redistribute HD OTA signals over your home network — via Ethernet or Wi-Fi — and there’s no reason why ATSC 3.0 tuners couldn’t do the same thing.

One other possible downside, depending on how you look at it, is that the same geotargeting that allows for advanced emergency alerts can also be used for targeted ads. This means that the ads you see on TV will start to more closely resemble what you see online. We’re not yet sure how this will play out for major advertising events like the Superbowl, but on the whole, if targeted ads don’t bother you on the web, they shouldn’t bother you on your TV.

How does it work?

As mentioned above, ATSC 3.0 combines OTA broadcast signals with your home internet. At the base level, actual programming like shows and movies are broadcast and received over the air, while commercials, on-demand, and other premium content are provided over the internet. Three different video formats are supported: Legacy HD, which supports resolutions up to 720 x 480; Interlaced HD, which supports signals up to 1080i; and Progressive Video, which supports resolutions from 1080p up to 4K UHD.

What gear do I need?

At a minimum, you will need an OTA antenna — we have a handy resource to help you find one if you don’t already own one — and an ATSC 3.0-compatible tuner.

Setting up an ATSC 3.0 tuner should be as easy as connecting it to your antenna’s cable and either plugging in an Ethernet cable or configuring it to use your home’s Wi-Fi.

Do I need a new antenna?

No, all existing Digital HDTV OTA antennas are already capable of receiving ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. However, the number of stations you can receive will depend on various conditions like weather, your distance to the broadcast tower, and local geography. A more capable antenna might improve your reception.

Do I need internet access?

Even though ATSC 3.0 OTA broadcasts are designed to work hand-in-hand with content delivered over the internet, you do not need an internet connection. Using just your antenna and an ATSC 3.0 tuner, you’ll be able to watch every local station that is broadcasting in the new standard. However, many of the more interesting features of ATSC 3.0, like customized ads, on-demand content, interactivity, and premium content, will require an internet connection.

Despite sounding like a standard that is locked-in, ATSC 3.0 is actually still undergoing active development. This means that new features could be added at a later date. Should that happen, your ATSC 3.0 tuner will need to receive a software update, and that will likely require an internet connection.

Am I going to need a new TV?

LG Z9 88-inch 8K HDR OLED TV
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The short answer is “no.” As explained above, if your TV doesn’t support ATSC 3.0, you’ll be able to get by with an external converter box. However, those external boxes will be hard to come by, at least in the short term. Despite a news release in May 2020 from ATSC.org’s chairman, saying that “the first ATSC 3.0 consumer receivers are now available for purchase,” we’ve only found one — and it’s mainly designed to plug into computers, not TVs.

Why the delay? Processes are slowed down across all manufacturing categories, so that’s one reason. More than that, though, ATSC 3.0 has been a bit of chicken and egg situation. Until manufacturers see evidence that broadcasters are using the system, they know the demand from buyers will remain low.

Still, they are coming. SiliconDust, makers of the very popular HDHomeRun line of OTA tuners, launched a Kickstarter campaign for its ATSC 3.0 tuner on April 22 and has so far reached over $380,000 in backing contributions. If the campaign is successful, SiliconDust is claiming it will start shipping the new tuners in August 2020.

Tablo, another popular OTA tuner, says it’s looking at ATSC 3.0 but has yet to formally announce a product that supports it. We reached out to Amazon to see if it had any plans to update its Fire TV Recast tuner/DVR for ATSC 3.0, but we were told the company does not comment on future product road maps. We also reached out to TiVo, but the company had not responded by the time we published this guide — we will update it when we hear back.

If you happen to be in the market for a new TV and you want to future-proof yourself, several TV makers, including LG, Sony, and Samsung, are selling  ATSC 3.0-compatible TVs for the U.S. market this year. LG, which has been actively involved in the development of ATSC 3.0, will sell six compatible models including the GX Gallery Series 4K models, the WX Wallpaper 4K model, and ZX Real 8K models.

What if I don’t care about ATSC 3.0?

It’s worth mentioning that if you have no interest in the benefits of ATSC 3.0, you can simply stick with existing ATSC 1.0 broadcasts. Unlike the switch from analog NTSC video to digital ATSC video, which was a mandatory one, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved ATSC 3.0 in a way that allowed stations to broadcast in the new format on a voluntary basis. More to the point, stations that do voluntarily broadcast in ATSC 3.0 must continue to offer ATSC 1.0 signals for at least five years after the switch.

So, if you’re content with the status quo, there’s nothing forcing you to change, at least not in the near future.

When can we expect ATSC 3.0 to arrive?

Technically speaking, ATSC 3.0 is already here.

In the U.S., test markets have begun rolling out using the finalized version of the standard. In November 2017, the National Association of Broadcasters was granted a license to begin operating a “living laboratory” in Cleveland, broadcasting ATSC 3.0 at full power. Similarly, seven broadcasters are preparing to launch a “model market” in Phoenix. More recently, a single station has begun broadcasting the standard in Chicago, and another four-tower installation in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas began broadcasting in March of 2019.

Major station groups, including Fox, NBC, Tegna, and Nexstar Media Group, announced their support for a 2020 rollout of ATSC 3.0 at an event tellingly titled “Monetizing the Future.”

By then end of 2020, we can expect up to 40 markets across the country to get ATSC 3.0-broadcasting stations, according to ATSC.org. These include Fox television stations, NBCUniversal Owned television stations, Univision, SpectrumCo (whose members include Sinclair Broadcast Group and Nexstar Media Group), and others. “The coverage goal for ATSC 3.0 in 2020 is 61 markets by the end of the year, reaching an estimated 70% of the country,” according to industry publication NextTV.

Is ATSC 3.0 available in my area?

June 2020 is looking like it will be the turning point for ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. That’s when simulcasts of all the major networks in the new standard are slated to be on-air in Las Vegas and Portland, Oregon. In the following months, launches in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Nashville, Tennessee; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Charleston, South Carolina, are expected, with other big markets including Seattle, San Antonio and Austin, Texas, and Tampa, Florida scheduled to turn on in the second half of the year, ATSC.org claims.

We’ll keep this article updated as more markets announce their ATSC 3.0 launches.

Keeping expectations in check

As enthusiastic as we are for all of the benefits that ATSC 3.0 will bring, we don’t expect to see them immediately. In Portland — one of the very first markets to begin 3.0 broadcasting — video resolution will be restricted to HD initially, and it likely won’t look any different than current ATSC 1.0 signals.

According to the ATSC, “Later in the year, the 3.0 hosts could eventually offer 1080p 60 HD with high-dynamic-range (HDR), pending available content from the networks, and maybe even 4K UHD,” but the dream of a full roster of channels broadcasting in 4K HDR around-the-clock is probably years away. Even sports content, which will be among the first 4K HDR feeds, will be slow out of the gate, largely due to the effect that recent events have had on the entire industry. The 2020 Summer Olympics would have been the perfect showcase for ATSC 3.0, but with its postponement to 2021 (and possible cancellation), it is unknown when the first 4K HDR OTA broadcasts will happen.

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