What Is ATSC 3.0 – NextGen TV?

Changes are coming to TV broadcasting — Find out how it may affect you

From the late 1940s, through the 1960s all you had to do to watch TV was connect some rabbit ears, or outdoor antenna, turn on the TV without using a remote and choose one of maybe 4 or 5 local channels.

How TV Broadcasting Has Changed

Receiving TV programs began to change in the early 1970s with the widespread availability of cable and pay-per-view TV. This offered more channel selection and program viewing options but required an external box (along with extra fees). In the mid-1990s satellite TV became widely available, offering another option for receiving TV programs (also requiring additional fees).

Despite extra costs, cable and satellite TV eliminated the need for an antenna, especially for those that lived in poor reception areas. For those living in good reception areas, the increased number of cable and satellite-only channels also made the decision to take down that old antenna easier.

The Digital TV Transition

This meant millions of TVs were no longer able to receive TV broadcast signals over the air, without the addition of an external analog-to-digital converter box. Although dedicated cable/satellite subscribers were not affected initially, those that used an antenna to receive at least a portion of their TV programs were.

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

The Need For More Change

Current ATSC standards provide TV broadcasters the ability to transmit TV programs digitally in up to 18 different resolutions from 480i to 1080p. However, although DTV converter boxes and tuners built-into HDTVs and 4K Ultra HD TVs since the DTV transition can receive all 18 resolutions, 720p and 1080i are the most commonly used. This is fine for those that own 720p or 1080p HDTVs, but owners of 4K Ultra HD TVs are getting shortchanged.

Although there is a growing amount of native 4K TV and movie content available via streaming, Ultra HD Blu-ray, and to a lesser extent via satellite/cable, TV programs supplied by the major broadcast networks, local channels, and most cable channels, are provided in either in 720p or 1080i resolution (as mentioned above). This means for 4K Ultra HD TV owners what is seen on the screen from broadcast, cable, and satellite are upscaled to match the number of pixels available on a 4K Ultra HD TV screen.

Enter ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV

Official ATSC 3.0 Logo
Official ATSC 3.0 Logo. ATSC

To keep pace with the advance of 4K Ultra HD TVs and 4K content, ATSC 3.0 (also referred to as "NextGen TV"), is intended to replace the current system. When fully implemented, it's expected to support the following features:

  • Over-the-air transmission of TV programming in 4K resolution, as well as HD and SD (digital) simulcasting capability.
  • The inclusion of HDR and Wide Color Gamut.
  • Compatibility for up to 120fps video transmission.
  • Ability to transmit immersive audio (possibly Dolby Atmos/DTS:X), 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. The 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 the weather, natural disasters, or other important events.
  • Digital Watermarking/Secure Copy-Protection for content owners and providers.

ATSC 3.0 Advantages

ATSC 3.0 promises to be a big advance for TV broadcasters. It would put them on par with other forms of 4K and Internet streaming-based content delivery currently available through some providers.

Another important factor is the increase in "cord-cutting". 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. 4K and other features offered by ATSC 3.0 may make cord-cutting more attractive.

ATSC 3.0 Implementation Obstacles

Although ATSC 3.0 promises to deliver a better, and more flexible, TV viewing experience, it also means another transition for consumers on how their current TVs will work.

On the upside, as ATSC 3.0 comes into use, the current DTV/HDTV broadcast system (ATSC 1.0) will continue to be used for transmissions for a period of time. This means current TV(s) won't become obsolete for a while, you just won't be able to access advanced ATSC 3.0 features. A similar process was employed for analog TV signals for several years before the previous DTV transition date was finalized.

After it is deemed there are enough TVs in use incorporating built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners, a date-certain will be set where only ATSC 3.0 standards will be used.

Once the cut-off date is reached, owners of remaining analog, HD, and any non-ATSC 3.0 enabled Ultra HD TVs will need to have external tuners (stand-alone box or stick via HDMI connection) to receive network and local TV programming over-the-air.

The external boxes or other plug-in adapters need to receive and downscale ATSC 3.0 transmissions for those that own analog, 720p, or 1080p TVs, but will offer a native-4K resolution output for owners of 4K Ultra HD TVs that may not have a built-in ATSC 3.0 tuner. Cable and satellite providers need to provide down-conversion compatibility for subscribers that don't own compatible TVs past the cut-off date.

Where ATSC 3.0 Is In Use

South Korea has been at the forefront of the ATSC 3.0 adoption. They began full-time testing in 2015, and its major networks are now broadcasting scheduled programming in several cities. For added support, South Korea-based TV maker LG has incorporated ATSC 3.0 tuners in its 4K Ultra HD TVs for the Korean market.

In the U.S., things are progressing slower. In 2016, ATSC 3.0 took the first step out of the lab with full-time field testing by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC which is still going on.

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

Periodic testing has also been conducted by select stations around the country, most notably in Cleveland, Ohio and Phoenix, Arizona.

Consumers will be able to receive to ATSC 3.0 TV transmissions on a limited basis beginning in mid-to-late 2020. At least one station in the 40 largest TV markets (which includes the current testing markets) is expected to participate

If all goes well, more stations will come online during 2021. However, as to when the current ATSC system will switch over entirely to ATSC 3.0, no hard date has been established. Until that time, stations are allowed to broadcast using both systems. 

To aid adoption LG is the first out the gate to include ATSC 3.0 tuners in select 2020 TV models. It is expected that Sony and Samsung will follow. 

Those that already have a 4K Ultra HD or other TVs, will have to purchase an external tuner/converter. These are expected to become available in each market that begins their transition. However, there will not be an FCC-sponsored coupon program as was done with the 2009 analog-to-digital TV transition – Pricing will vary depending on the converter brand/model. 

The Bottom Line

The switch-over from current HDTV broadcasting to ATSC 3.0 is a major undertaking that affects TV broadcasters and consumers.

Challenges for broadcasters include major equipment costs and logistics issues. During the transition phase, most TV broadcasters will have 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 confusing during the transition period as some stations in a specific market may migrate to the new system earlier than others.

TV broadcasters are not required to employ all ATSC 3.0 features. They can select features they feel that best serve their viewers and business model. This means even though they have the ability to broadcast in 4K, it's not required. Some stations may opt to broadcast multiple sub-channels in 1080p or even lower resolutions. 

Also, 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.

How cable and satellite providers will integrate with the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast system into their content services is still being discussed.

ATSC 3.0 standards, features, and implementation timelines are subject to change.

Don't get too comfortable with ATSC 3.0 – there are also forces at work that want to make the jump to 8K (Japan has already started)!