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ATSC 3.0 explained: How NextGen TV will deliver 4K HDR broadcasts for free

(Image credit: Sony)

The name might sound meaningless: ATSC 3.0. But behind that opaque acronym is a world of improvements to over-the-air TV that will bring 4K picture, premium sound and interactive features into your home for free.

The Advanced Television System Committee (ATSC) is an industry group that determines the technologies used for broadcasters nationwide, and the ATSC 3.0 standard is the newest version of over-the-air TV.

NextGen TV – the Consumer Technology Association's (CTA) remarkably anodyne marketing name for the new ATSC 3.0 standard – may not mean much to most people, but it's coming to the U.S. in 2020, and will play a big role in reshaping the modern TV experience.

Even if you have heard of it, chances are good that you're not sure what it means. Broadcasting standards are full of technical jargon and industry terms that won't mean much to the average TV viewer, but the end results will be huge in the coming years. We're here to clear up the confusion and help you understand how the new broadcasting standard will change your TV viewing experience in 2020 and beyond.

Here are the highlights: NextGen TV is a huge upgrade for traditional broadcasting, offering 4K resolution and HDR content for over-the-air broadcasts, along with dramatically better sound, interactive features and the ability to broadcast to more than just TVs. It's better, smarter broadcast TV for the era of smart TVs, phones, homes and cars. And it will be the exact same price as current broadcast TV – free.

Some background: Analog signal and ATSC 1.0

Do you remember back in 2009, when anybody using a TV antenna had to switch to the new digital system? That was the change from analog UHF and VHF channels to ATSC 1.0, which shifted TV broadcasts from a raw signal that was fed straight to the TV, to a digital one that allowed for compressed video and additional data. That, in turn, allowed broadcasters to offer an over-the-air signal while using less spectrum, and introduced some features we now take for granted, like full-HD (1920 x 1080) resolution and digital-closed captioning.

(Image credit: Vizio)

But that digital switch over was based on standards developed back in 1995, and the world of media consumption is drastically different than it was 25 years ago. Today, video is much more than traditional broadcast TV, with online streaming, smart TVs running apps and people viewing movies and shows on a wide range of devices.

The switch to ATSC 3.0 is the first major upgrade to broadcast standards since that 2009 switch, but unlike the move to digital, which introduced minor changes to the actual content and viewing experience, ATSC 3.0 opens the door to several significant changes and enhancements.

What is ATSC 3.0?

The new ATSC 3.0 standard takes everything about the initial switch to digital TV broadcasting and upgrades it. Among the improvements offered by NextGen TV are:

  • Better signal quality with less interference.
  • Higher resolution, with 4K picture and potential for 8K in the future.
  • Combines broadcast TV with broadband internet.
  • Available on many more devices.

It also could present the first major shift in the one-to-many model of broadcast distribution. With connectivity allowing interactive features, customizable content and addressable advertising, the broadcast world is about to look a lot more like the streaming world, and that will shake things up considerably on the business side.

But let's look at what it means for viewers first.

Better signal with less interference
One of the biggest issues with ATSC 1.0 is that the digital signal is fairly fragile. The VHF band used is prone to interference from buildings and trees, weather and even passing cars, and the digital data it sends is easily corrupted, which shows up on your TV as a blocky, unwatchable picture, or even just a "no signal" message.

With ATSC 3.0, broadcasters are switching back to UHF and moving to orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), the same technology behind the latest Wi-Fi and mobile wireless technologies. It's a much more robust method for transmitting digital information, and when combined with the switch back to UHF, it will let local TV stations offer a clearer signal with broader reach and fewer interference issues.

Better picture and sound
The new standard also packs much more data into the broadcast signal, ramping up from the single static 19.4 Mbps bitrate of the ATSC 1.0 standard to a variable bitrate of up to 57 Mbps using the same airwaves.

It pairs that efficiency with modern video formats. The same H.265 and MPEG-H Part 2 codecs used by online media companies like Netflix can now be shared over the airwaves, letting TV stations broadcast in 4K.

Ultra-HD 4K resolution TV programming is planned for the 2020 rollout, and even 8K resolution is a possibility within the new standard. In addition to higher resolutions, the new broadcasts can also support higher frame rates, up to 120 frames per second – twice the rate that the common 60Hz refresh rate can handle.

(Image credit: Sony)

The 3.0 standard also adds wide color gamut data and high dynamic range (HDR) metadata, which will make for better viewing, with a deeper picture that has bright highlights, rich shadows and a wider range of colors to work with. This widespread availability of 4K, HDR-enabled content will also allow more people to take advantage of current 4K TVs, where full resolution media is mostly limited to Blu-ray disc or a handful of streaming sources.

Audio quality is being improved, with support for Dolby AC-4 and MPEG-H 3D Audio formats. These are both multichannel audio formats, with support for surround-sound multi-speaker setups and even 3D object-oriented sound for a much more immersive audio experience. The older ASTC 1.0 standard supports 5.1 surround sound, but the 3.0 NextGen TV system allows for up to 7.1.4 channel support and formats like Dolby Atmos can be offered over the air.

The multiple audio streams will also offer customization options, such as multiple languages and video-description services for the visually impaired.

Broadcast meets broadband
One of the biggest changes coming with ATSC 3.0 is a pairing of over-the-air broadcast and internet connectivity. That connectivity adds an extra dimension to the ATSC 3.0 system, allowing for a dedicated return channel – an active stream of data back to the broadcaster, which makes the new broadcast system a two-way IP-based standard. The opens up a wide range of new capabilities never offered by traditional TV before.

To get a clearer idea of what that means, I spoke to Tom Butts, the editor-in-chief of TV Technology magazine, an industry publication aimed at broadcast and cable professionals (and owned by Tom's Guide parent company Future plc).

"The IP component allows broadcasters to better compete with OTT," Butts said, referring to over-the-top content providers like Hulu and SlingTV, which deliver content with a set-top box (i.e., cable or satellite). It does this, he says, by letting broadcasters "complement their broadcasts with streaming services, offering most of the same capabilities enabled by the cloud including DVR controls, VOD [Video-on-Demand], targeted advertising and more flexible audio options."

(Image credit: Amazon)

For viewers, that may mean that TV stations will offer streams of recently aired shows in a "Catch-up" service that's offered as part of their free broadcast. Or, it could allow for a more intuitive menu-style guide to shows and movies, more like what you'll see on streaming apps like Netflix, and then automatically select between live signal or streaming for a wider selection of shows.

It also lets broadcasters gather far more information about what people are watching, and when. Instead of relying on ratings organizations like Nielsen, which use surveys and closely monitored audience samples, it would provide live information about how many people are actually watching a given show, minute-by-minute.

It also opens the door for addressable advertising, the ability to target ads to different users, even within the same household. That might mean that when the parents are watching the latest sitcom in the living room, they see car commercials and ads for mortgage refinancing, while a teenaged child watching the same show in another room will see ads for gum.

It may also allow for interactive features, like selectable pop-up information that lets you check stock prices when a company is mentioned in the news, or give local businesses a way to offer discounts to viewers in their area.

Beyond just "TV"

According to industry analyst Tim Hanlon, CEO of The Vertere Group, a media consultancy firm, that fusion of broadcast and internet could see some radically new applications, too.

"The possibilities are virtually endless," Hanlon said. "[It enables] potentially a robust array of 'beyond-TV' functions/businesses such as emergency alerts, hard-drive data-caching, consumer electronics upgrade patches, enterprise data streaming (for a variety of industries), smart vehicle/cities data, etc."

What those "beyond-TV" functions will actually be when ATSC 3.0 comes to market has yet to be seen. One of the most intriguing potential features would let local authorities and broadcasters remotely power up your TV to display local emergency broadcast alerts. A feature like that could be useful to alert people about earthquakes or storms in their areas.

"In addition, its capabilities in providing far more targeted and detailed, graphics-rich news and information in emergency situations … could have the greatest impact of all, especially when cellular networks are overloaded," TV Technology's Butts said. "In short, it does what broadcasters are required to do by law: Make much more efficient use of the public spectrum."

What about privacy?

The added connectivity does have some privacy advocates a little spooked about ATSC 3.0, even as the standard makes its first tentative steps into the market.

(Image credit: Amazon)

Even the FCC is concerned. While the FCC approved the 3.0 standard in late 2017, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel offered a dissenting opinion. Among other issues, she wrote that "there are still big questions about this new standard. ... I also think we need to better understand targeted advertising on television and the implications for privacy, the use of encrypted signals, the collection of audience data, and the susceptibility to hacking and malware."

The upshot here is that the new TV standard can gather data only if you provide it with the connectivity to do so. Disconnecting your TV from the internet should let you watch OTA TV completely free from any data gathering. But, as with modern smart TVs, you'll need to be connected to enjoy the full range of features offered by modern devices and services.

The support for higher data density and modern video formats also means that broadcasters could add digital-rights management (DRM) protections to OTA content, restricting users' ability to use home-recording hardware, like DVRs.

So far, there's no evidence that either of these concerns will materialize as real problems as the ATSC 3.0 standard goes mainstream in the coming years. And neither of these issues are any different than those faced by current smart TV users, or anyone who uses online streaming services on other devices. But at the end of the day, it's possible that data monitoring and even limited use of broadcast content might wind up being the inevitable result of smarter technology.

What devices will get ATSC 3.0?

You're probably asking yourself, "Do I need to buy anything to watch ATSC 3.0 broadcasts?" The answer is yes and no. The TV antennas already on the market will still work once the switch is made, since the changes are to the information carried over the air and not the signals that carry it. Whether you have an indoor set of bunny ears or a large outdoor aerial, the antenna you have now will still work after your local broadcasters have switched to 3.0.

(Image credit: LG)

The FCC is actually requiring local broadcasters to continue carrying the current ATSC 1.0 standard alongside the new 3.0 system for a  five-year period. That clock starts when a station begins using ATSC 3.0, so even if your local broadcasters switched today, you would still have several years before you had to switch to new equipment.

The answer is slightly more complicated when it comes to decoding the new signal, however. Your antenna may act like the ears that hear the signal, but the TV tuner is what understands the language being spoken, and that's changing. So, yes, you will eventually need to upgrade to an ATSC 3.0 TV tuner. 

And the first TVs with built-in 3.0 tuners will begin arriving in 2020, making this upgrade a seamless part of getting a new TV, no external box required. We've already seen confirmation that at least one of LG's 2020 TVs will come equipped for the new standard, with ATSC 3.0 tuners built in.

But the benefits of ATSC 3.0 may extend beyond your living room and your existing antenna. While new applications are still being explored, the industry is exploring several other uses for the new 3.0 signal, including live TV on mobile devices and a number of novel applications for vehicles.

Wait, I can use it on my phone? And in my car?

Due to the somewhat fragile signal quality of ATSC 1.0, the use and reliability of portable TVs had a sharp decline over the last several years. However, because ATSC 3.0 will introduce improved coverage and signal penetration it should offer dramatically better performance in situations like a moving vehicle.

(Image credit: LG)

And with the right chipset, your phone could receive ATSC 3.0 broadcasts all on its own. Although a lot of people are pessimistic about phone makers putting an option for data-free TV into their phones – carriers make a lot of money thanks to data-hungry streaming services – it's worth noting that major phone makers have been involved in the development of the 3.0 standard.

"Cellular companies are reluctant to offer their customers devices that would support an alternate (aka "free") streaming service that would compete with their services," said Butts of TV Technology. "However, the fact that LG, Samsung and Sony have invested in the development of ATSC 3.0 bodes well for support in their products, which I'm sure we'll see at CES."

This stands to be great news for mobile entertainment, whether it's in the car or in your pocket. And, because many of these devices can gather location data, there's an opportunity for more local advertising – such as gas station ads when you're on the road – and even more novel uses such as sharing map data and local weather and emergency alerts.

What about existing broadcast channels?

Switching to a new standard won't make your current channels disappear, so there's no need to worry about losing your local favorites if you don't buy an ATSC 3.0-capable TV or tuner.

All your favorite shows, including reruns, will also be available. Because NextGen TV offers greater bandwidth, all of the lower resolution content that's already offered on TV can still be shared on the 3.0 system, including all 1080p and 720p content.

And the existing channels, broadcast under the older ATSC 1.0 standard, aren't going anywhere, either – at least not right away. The FCC is requiring broadcasters to continue offering ATSC 1.0 broadcasts alongside the new 3.0 standard for five years from the date of transitioning over to 3.0.

ATSC 3.0 timeline: When will it come to my city?

The first test markets for the new TV standard have opened up over the last few years in places like Phoenix, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., but these have so far been small-scale tests as broadcasters figure out how to implement the new technology. That should begin to change this year, however.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Butts explained, "Earlier this year, broadcasters promised to deploy ATSC 3.0 in the top 40 U.S. markets by the end of 2020 and likewise, consumer electronics companies predicted that new ATSC 3.0-enabled TV sets would be available by the holiday season a year from now."

That sounds like a good first step in bringing ATSC 3.0 to people throughout the United States. But don't get your hopes up too high. 

"This is a promise," said Butts, "and unlike the DTV transition, there is no mandate that they follow through."

Unlike the 2009 switch to digital TV, the move to ATSC 3.0 isn't being pushed forward by government mandates, so the actual timeframe for when the NextGen TV standard goes live in your area is a bit vague.

However, several major TV broadcasting groups have already committed to embracing NextGen TV, including NBCUniversal Owned Stations Group, Nexstar Media Group, Pearl TV, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Spectrum Co. and Univision. Between them, these organizations control hundreds of local broadcasters across the country, and should help shift the industry toward adopting ATSC 3.0 soon.

And what about those 40 cities that will transition in 2020? Here's a list of the largest cities and regions that will be included in these early roll outs:

Dallas-Ft. Worth
Houston
San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose
Phoenix
Seattle-Tacoma, Wash.
Detroit
Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, Fla.
Portland, Ore.
Pittsburgh
Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
Baltimore
Nashville, Tenn.
Salt Lake City
San Antonio, Texas
Kansas City, Kan.-Mo.-
Columbus, Ohio
West Palm Beach-Ft. Pierce, Fla
Las Vegas
Austin, Texas

Should I wait to buy an ATSC 3.0-compatible TV?

The short answer? No. There aren't any on the market yet, and even external tuner boxes are expensive and extremely limited in number. And while 3.0 broadcasts are going to start coming available in 2020, it will be a gradual rollout, over the course of the year. Most people won't really have access to 3.0 signal or equipment until late 2020.

If you're already thinking about buying a TV, there's no reason to wait a whole year just to get on the NextGen TV bandwagon early. However, if the ATSC 3.0 transition moves as quickly as some industry groups want, the likelihood of NextGen TV sets being widespread in the next two or three years is high.

In any case, we'll be keeping an eye on the situation, and will make recommendations accordingly, whether the new standard flourishes or fizzles.