ATSC 3.0 - NextGen TV Broadcasting

Changes Are A Comin' To TV Broadcasting - Find Out How It May Affect You

Official ATSC 3.0 Logo
Official ATSC 3.0 Logo. The Advanced Television Standards Committee

TV In The Good Ol'Days

Are you old enough to remember when TV viewing was really simple? All you had to do buy a TV, connect some rabbit ears, or outdoor antenna, turn the TV without using a remote, choose one of maybe 4 or 5 local channels, and you were set to go.

However, receiving TV programs began to change in the early 1960's with the introduction of cable and pay-per-view TV, which offered more channel selection and program viewing options, but also required an external box (along with extra fees). Then, in the mid 1990's satellite TV became available, which offered another option for receiving TV programs (also requiring additional fees).

However, despite extra costs for the viewer, both cable and satellite TV eliminated the need for those rabbit ears or outdoor antenna, thus became a popular antenna alternative, especially for those that lived in poor reception areas.

Also, even for those that lived in good reception areas, the increased number of cable- and satellite-only channels providing niche programming content, made the decision to take down that old antenna even easier.

On the other hand, although no longer a majority, there were a large number of viewers that still received at least part of their TV programming via an antenna - and, for those viewers, things were going to change also.

The Digital TV Transition

In the mid-2000's, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) announced that on June 12, 2009 all TV broadcasting would convert from analog to digital. This meant that millions of TVs in use were no longer able to receive TV broadcast signals over the air, without the addition of a external analog-to-digital converter box. Although dedicated cable/satellite subscribers were not affected initially, those viewers that used an antenna to receive at least a portion of their TV programs were.

This also meant that the "DTV Transition" provided consumers the "opportunity" to buy new TVs that not only enabled reception of the new digital TV signals, but also enabled the ability to access and watch TV programs in High Definition on a 16x9 aspect ratio screen.

The Need For More Change

The Digital TV broadcast system, which adheres to specifications established and maintained by the ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) and implemented by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) have been solidly in place since 2009. However, less than 10 years after its adoption, it is now in the process of being replaced.

Current ATSC standards provide TV broadcasters with the ability to transmit TV programs digitally in up to 18 different resolutions from 480i to 1080p. However, although all the tuners built-into HDTVs and 4K ultra HD TVs since the DTV transition has been in force have the ability to receive TV broadcast content in all 18 resolutions, only 720p and 1080i are actually used on regular basis by local and network stations for transmission.

While this is fine for those that own 720p or 1080p HDTVs, owners of current 4K Ultra HD TVs are getting shortchanged.

This is due to the fact that there is a growing amount of native 4K TV and movie content available being supplied via dedicated streaming, cable, satellite, and now Ultra HD Blu-ray discs/Player sources.

However, when in comes to TV programs from the major networks, local channels, and most cable channels, even on a 4K Ultra HD TV, viewers are still actually receiving either a 720p or 1080i signal (as mentioned above), even if those signals are relayed via cable or satellite. In other words, what you actually see on the screen from most broadcast, cable, and satellite channels is upscaled to match the number or pixels available on a 4K Ultra HD TV screen.

Enter ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV

To keep pace with cord-cutting trends and the advance of 4K Ultra HD TVs and 4K content, the ATSC, after several years of development, is now finalizing the next step in TV broadcasting, currently referred to as ATSC 3.0 (also referred to as "NextGen TV", which is intended to replace the current system.

ATSC 3.0, when implemented, is expected to include one, or more, of the following features:

  • Over-the-air transmission of TV programming in 4K resolution, as well as HD and SD (digital) simulcasting capability.
  • Inclusion of HDR and Wide Color Gamut.
  • Compatibility for up to 120fps video transmission.
  • Ability to transmit Immersive Audio, multiple language tracks, and other audio enhancements.
  • True native 3D transmission capability.
  • Integration of over-the-air and broadband transmission of programming and supplementary content to mobile and internet-enabled devices. In other words, primary image and sound transmission may be done over-the-air, while additional features associated with the content may be provided by simultaneous broadband access. This may give broadcasters the ability to add "second screen" and other experiences when viewing some TV programs.
  • Improved Emergency Alert System for weather, natural disasters, or other important events.

ATSC 3.0 Advantages

If all of above proposed features are included, it would definitely be a big advance for TV broadcasters in terms of both video and audio quality, as well as convenience features. This would put them on par with other forms of 4K and Internet streaming-based content delivery currently available through some content providers.

Another important thing to point out, is the increased interest in "cord cutting" by consumers. "Cord cutting" frees viewers from paying for cable and cable and satellite services they don't want and relying more on the internet and free over-the-air local and network programming sources for TV viewing. By adding 4K, and other features offered by ATSC 3.0, cord-cutting may become even more attractive.

ATSC 3.0 Implementation Obstacles

Although ATSC 3.0 implementation promises to deliver a better, and more flexible, TV viewing experience going forward, it also means another big transition for consumers in terms of how their current TVs will work.

On the upside, as ATSC 3.0 comes into use, the current DTV/HDTV broadcast system will continue to be used for transmissions for a period of time, so your current TV(s) will not become obsolete for awhile - you just won't be able to access the advanced features offered by ATSC 3.0. A similar process was employed for analog TV signals for several years before the previous DTV transition date was finalized.

However, after it is deemed that there are enough TVs in use that incorporate built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners, a date-certain will be set where only ATSC 3.0 standards will be in use.

Once the cut-off date is reached, this would mean that owners of remaining analog, HD, and any non-ATSC 3.0 enabled Ultra HD TVs still in use at that time will need to have external tuners (perhaps as either stand-alone box or stick via HDMI connection) in order to receive network and local TV programming over-the-air.

The external boxes or other plug-in adapters would have to receive and downscale ATSC 3.0 transmissions for those that own analog, 720p, or 1080p TVs, but, hopefully, would offer a native-4K resolution output for owners of 4K Ultra HD TVs that may not have a built-in ATSC 3.0 tuner of their own.

In addition, cable and satellite providers may still need to provide down-conversion compatibility for their subscribers that don't own compatible TVs a little longer.

Where ATSC 3.0 Is In Use

South Korea has been on the forefront of ATSC 3.0 adoption. They began full-time testing in 2015, and as of May 2017, has announced that its three major TV networks are ready to transmit ATSC 3.0 full time in several cities. For added support South Korea-based TV maker LG, will make TVs available with built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners.

For The U.S., things are progressing slower. In 2016, ATSC 3.0 took the first step out the lab with full time field testing by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC.

Trivia Alert! WRAL-TV was also the first TV station to broadcast in HD back in 1996 - 13 years before the 2009 DTV Transition.

Although consumers don't have access to these initial transmissions, it is giving TV broadcasters and TV set manufacturers the opportunity to test both content transmission features, as well as the reception/decoding hardware/firmware that will be needed to be incorporated into Ultra HD TVs going forward.

If all goes well, you may see a slow roll-out of ATSC 3.0 in both TV stations, and TVs, beginning late in 2017. However, as to when the current ATSC system will switch over entirely to ATSC 3.0 be formally set - that is anyone's guess - perhaps about 2020.

The Bottom Line

The switch-over from current HDTV broadcasting to ATSC 3.0 is definitely a major undertaking that is will greatly affect both TV broadcasters and consumers.

Challenges for broadcasters include both major costs and logistics issues. For example, during the transition phase, most TV broadcasters will be faced with having to simultaneously broadcast in both the current and new systems, which will require different transmitters and channels. As part of the transition, many stations will have to change to a different channel.

For consumers, things may get very confusing during the transition period.

During this process, consumers will be faced with the situation in markets that have several TV stations as some stations may be in process of migrating to the new system, while others may still be on the current system.

Also, TV broadcasters are not required to employ all of ATSC 3.0's features. They can select which features they feel best serve their viewers and fit their business model.

For example, unlike current standards, TV makers are not required to incorporate tuners into new TVs to receive ATSC 3.0 transmissions. However, it is anticipated that competitive market pressure will enforce compliance. For its part, LG has has indicated that it will be incorporating ATSC 3.0 capable tuners into its new TVs for the U.S. market during the transition period.

To aid in this transition, TV set-top box makers have indicated that outboard add-on tuners will be made available to consumers that need them - However, there will not be any FCC sponsored coupon program as was done with the 2009 analog-to-digital TV transition.

In addition, logistics still need to be worked out as to how cable and satellite providers will integrate with the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast system into their content services.

NOTE:The information in this article regarding ATSC 3.0 standards, features, and implementation are subject to change. As a result, as additional information regarding standards and implementation, including when local TV stations will start offering ATSC 3.0 broadcasts, and the availability of TVs equipped to receive ATSC 3.0 signals, becomes available, this article will be updated.

Bonus Feature: Don't get too comfortable with ATSC 3.0 - there are also forces at work that want to make the jump to 8K! For all the details, read my report: 8K Resolution - Beyond 4K.