ATSC 3.0: The next-gen TV update explained
ATSC 3.0 is the future of broadcast TV, and we have all the details
You might not have heard about it much yet, but in the coming years, you’re sure to hear the term ATSC 3.0 a lot, and with good reason: It’s a massive overhaul for antenna-based TV, also known as over-the-air (OTA) TV. If you think the days of paying attention to broadcast TV are over, you should read on.
ATSC 3.0 may sound like the name of a new Star Wars vehicle, or possibly a standardized test required to get into grad school. But in fact, it’s a major upgrade for antenna TV, designed to allow for 4K resolution and even a major sound upgrade to broadcast TV. The switch could be as significant as the transition from analog broadcasts to digital HD — except this time it’s going to be a whole lot easier. Follow us below to find out all you need to know about ATSC 3.0.
WHAT IS ATSC 3.0?
ATSC 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. Unlike the current standard, ATSC 3.0 makes use of both over-the-air signals and your in-home broadband to deliver an experience closer to cable or satellite.
If you’re wondering what happened to ATSC 2.0, it was basically outdated before it had the chance to launch.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 rare to find when it comes to OTA TV — the new standard allows 4K UHD broadcast. That’s not all either. 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. The standard also allows for possible extensions later on, which could enable additional benefits to picture quality, possibly including 8K resolution.
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.
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 geo-targeting, which means advancements like the ability to broadcast evacuation routes to areas that need that information.
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. Fortunately, due to the way that the newer standard works, you would only need one converter box no matter how many devices you’re watching on, meaning it won’t be nearly as much of a hassle as the move from analog to digital.
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. If this doesn’t bother you on the web, it shouldn’t bother you on your TV, but it is something to be aware of.
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 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.
An ATSC 3.0 tuner will have two connections: One to your antenna, and another — either via Wi-Fi or Ethernet — to your Wi-Fi router. The benefit here is that you’ll only ever need one antenna in your home, since other set-top boxes, smart TVs, and mobile devices in your home will receive the TV signals over Wi-Fi. This is somewhat similar to the way master DVR and satellite boxes are employed by cable and satellite companies, only without the need for specialized equipment.
AM I GOING TO NEED A NEW TV?
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. That’s if you want to receive ATSC 3.0 signals at all. This time, it’s your choice.
The switch from analog NTSC video to digital ATSC video was a mandatory one, with a plan for a full switchover and a deadline for that switch from very early on. When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved ATSC 3.0, it did so in a way that allowed stations to broadcast in the new format on a voluntary basis. This is not a mandatory switch. 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.
That said, newer TVs that include ATSC 3.0 tuners will be able to make use of all the benefits of the new standards by default. If your current TV doesn’t support 4K or HDR, you’ll need to upgrade to view that programming. Then there is the matter of the future. As mentioned earlier, unlike ATSC 1.0, the new version allows for extensions, which could mean eventually you may need to upgrade to an 8K TV to take advantage of everything the standard has to offer.
WHEN CAN WE EXPECT ATSC 3.0 TO ARRIVE?
Various television stations have been conducting test broadcasts of ATSC 3.0 since 2014, but this was before the standard was even fully finished. In October 2018, 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 entitled “Monetizing the Future.” Voluntary rollouts are expected to begin in 2019, but it will likely be a while longer before the new standard is anything resembling common.
Is anyone already broadcasting in ATSC 3.0?
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 in 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 will begin broadcasting in March of 2019.
Outside of the U.S., the standard is already being adopted. The three major local broadcasters in South Korea — MBC, KBS, and SBS — began broadcasting ATSC 3.0 in May 2017. The 2018 Olympic Winter Games in South Korea was broadcast using the new standard.
So when will I be able to use it?
We won’t begin to see many broadcasters initiating voluntary rollouts beginning in 2019, despite the fact that the standard was accepted by the FCC over a year ago. There were no TVs shown at CES 2019 with built-in support for ATSC 3.0, which means at this point, the first models to support it won’t appear until 2020. Once it starts, expect support for ATSC 3.0 to trickle out slowly at first. The earliest adopters will likely be able to start watching ATSC 3.0 signals sometime in 2020. For the rest of us, it could be a good deal longer.
As for a full switchover, that will be a long time if and when it even happens. Since this isn’t a mandatory switch, broadcasters can continue to use ATSC 1.0 for as long as they like. Even on a station-by-station basis, with the mandatory five-year period that stations must offer ATSC 1.0 signals, a station that started broadcasting the new standard in 2018 wouldn’t be able to drop ATSC 1.0 entirely until 2023.
The standard is also getting a rough ride from some of the industry’s most powerful players. Both the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), and the American Television Alliance have expressed serious concerns with some of the FCC’s ATSC 3.0 plans, including the lack of provisions for giving broadcasters greater control of freed up spectrum. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai has said the regulator is working to resolves these complaints and has opened up the full application process to get things moving.
Of course, there is always the possibility that something else may come along and replace ATSC 3.0 before it gains a foothold. This has happened before as described above with ATSC 2.0 which was superseded by ATSC 3.0 before it even had the chance to be finalized.
Your first ATSC 3.0-compatible device may not be a TV. Depending on how recently you bought your last TV, your next phone might be the first device that lets you watch broadcasts in the new standard: 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.
Assuming it does take over, the adoption of ATSC 3.0 will likely be a slow one. If you’re jumping at the chance, you don’t have to wait for too long, but if you’re put off by the idea, it’s something you can safely ignore for at least a few more years.