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

This is the year that ATSC 3.0 will reshape the TV landscape in the U.S. It’s a massive overhaul for antenna-based TV (also known as over-the-air, or OTA, TV), but its impact may 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 catchier 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. There’s even the potential for ATSC 3.0 to replace some uses of mobile data, especially within the automotive world.

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. By leveraging the same underlying protocols as the internet, ATSC 3.0 makes these experiences possible.

Wondering what happened to ATSC 2.0? Yeah good question. It was basically outdated before it had the chance to launch.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.

What are the benefits?

The first major benefit is picture quality. While the current ATSC 1.0 standard caps out at 1080i, the new standard allows for 4K UHD broadcasts. 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.

Right now, ATSC 3.0 uses the H.265 HEVC codec for video delivery because of its efficiency gains over the much older H.262 MPEG-2 codec used in ATSC 1.0.

ATSC 3.0 isn’t married to a single video format. Over time and through upgrades, it will be able to adopt new codecs like the recently finalized H.266 VVC codec, which is the leading candidate to usher in 8K when that time comes.

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. While ATSC 1.0 uses Dolby AC-3 — an audio format that is limited to 5.1 channel surround sound — ATSC 3.0 uses the newer Dolby AC-4, for broadcasts of up to 7.1.4 channel audio and support for object-based sound formats like Dolby Atmos.

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.

TV on wheels

NextGen TV could also find its way into your next car. A working group within the ATSC organization is starting to evaluate how ATSC 3.0 can be used to transmit audio, video, and other data to moving vehicles.

The possibilities run the gamut, including in-car advertising, over-the-air software updates, mapping, and driverless vehicle automation — ATSC 3.0 could even act as a backup or replacement for GPS technology. It’s all in the early stages as carmakers and companies that own large vehicle fleets explore the options, but it’s clear from these discussions that ATSC 3.0 can be much more than just a way to get high-quality TV shows into your home.

Datacasting: Delivering more than audio and video

The automotive discussion hinges on the fact 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. However, it turns out that the same bandwidth can be used to deliver a wide range of digital information that goes well beyond the ones and zeroes needed for television.

Since ATSC 3.0 uses Internet Protocol (IP) to deliver its A/V signals, it can broadcast any other kind of IP-based data, too. In theory, every home within reach of an ATSC 3.0 signal could get up to a 25Mbps IP data download, independent of their existing internet access.

Some have characterized this ability as Broadcast Internet, but that’s a misleading label. Unlike an actual internet connection, ATSC 3.0’s datacasting is one way only, which means it can’t act as a substitute for your home or mobile internet data plans.

Still, the possibilities present with IP-based datacasting are intriguing. Almost 20 years ago, Microsoft unveiled a system called MSN Direct, which used FM frequencies to send small amounts of data to devices like SPOT-equipped smartwatches. News headlines, sports scores, weather, and even personalized information like MSN Messenger texts and calendar reminders were all part of the platform.

Datacasting over ATSC 3.0 could massively expand these scenarios, without the corresponding 4G LTE data fees that most of us pay for this kind of mobile data delivery.

A possible hurdle to the datacasting feature is that broadcasters may not want to get into the IP data delivery business. After all, it’s a very different business than the one they’ve traditionally operated. To address this, the FCC is considering easing its ownership rules that currently restrict which arrangements can exist between broadcasters and third parties. Such a change could effectively let broadcasters lease portions of their bandwidth allotment to other companies, which would then provide these data services.

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 (here’s a complete list of every TV that supports NextGen TV), you’ll need an external converter to make use of those signals. You may only need a single ATSC 3.0 tuner for every TV in your house, however. 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 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 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 × 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. 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. But 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. That campaign successfully raised over $600,000 from over 2,700 backers. SiliconDust claims it will start shipping these 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.

Want a quick guide to guide to the transition? We’ve rounded up everything you’ll need to prepare for switching to ATSC 3.0.

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?

ATSC 3.0 is already here.

In May 2020, a group of four stations in Las Vegas owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group switched over to ATSC 3.0. Five Nashville stations began broadcasting the new standard on June 23, joining three stations in Pittsburgh that turned things on a week earlier.

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 was a turning point for ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. That’s when simulcasts of all the major networks in the new standard went 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.

For an up-to-date look at the markets where ATSC 3.0 is available and which regions are on-track for future deployments, check out this handy map from ATSC.org.

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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