ATSC 3.0 — NextGen TV Broadcasting

Changes are a comin' to TV broadcasting — Find out how it may affect you

TV Transmitters and Communications Towers

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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, which offered more channel selection and program viewing options but also required an external box (along with extra fees). In the mid-1990s satellite TV became widely available, which offered another option for receiving TV programs (also requiring additional fees).

Despite extra costs for the viewer, both cable and satellite TV eliminated the need for those rabbit ears or outdoor antenna, especially for those that lived in poor reception areas.

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

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

The Digital TV Transition

On June 12, 2009, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) having adopted standards created by the ATSC (Advanced Television Standards Committee), implemented the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting. This meant that millions of TVs in use 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 tuners built-into HDTVs and 4K ultra HD TVs since the DTV transition have the ability to receive all 18 resolutions, 720p and 1080i are the most commonly used.

While this is fine for those that own 720p or 1080p HDTVs, owners of current 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, when it comes to TV programs supplied by the major broadcast networks, local channels, and most cable channels, 4K Ultra HD TV owners are still receiving either a 720p or 1080i signal (as mentioned above). This means that what you see on the screen from broadcast, cable, and satellite channels is 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 is 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. This means 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.
  • Digital Watermarking/Secure Copy-Protection for content owners and providers.

ATSC 3.0 Advantages

If all of the above features are included, it will be a big advance for TV broadcasters. 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. With 4K and other features offered by ATSC 3.0, cord-cutting will 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, 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 (ATSC 1.0) will continue to be used for transmissions for a period of time, so current TV(s) will not become obsolete for a while, 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 past the cut-off date.

Where ATSC 3.0 Is In Use

South Korea has been at the forefront of 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 destined 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.

In addition, periodic testing is being conducted by select stations around the country, most notably in Cleveland, Ohio and Phoenix, Arizona.

Although consumers don't yet have access to these initial transmissions, as there are no ATSC 3.0 equipped TVs or converter boxes available for sale (as of late 2018), it is giving TV broadcasters and TV set manufacturers the opportunity to test content transmission features and fine-tune reception/decoding hardware/firmware to be incorporated into Ultra HD TVs that will be sold to consumers.

If all goes well, you may see a slow roll-out of ATSC 3.0 in both TV stations, and TVs, by the end of the decade (2020). However, as to when the current ATSC system will switch over entirely to ATSC 3.0, no hard date has been established.

The Bottom Line

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

Challenges for broadcasters include major costs and logistics issues. 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 as they 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.

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

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 indicated that it will be providing TVs ATSC 3.0 capable tuners for the U.S. market during the official transition period. It is expected that other TV makers will follow suit.

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 an 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.

ATSC 3.0 standards, features, and implementation timelines are subject to change. As additional information that affects consumers becomes available it will be added to this article.

Don't get too comfortable with ATSC 3.0 — there are also forces at work that want to make the jump to 8K!