We’re gradually transitioning into the next generation of over-the-air broadcasting, known as ATSC 3.0 or “Next Gen TV,” but there’s still a lot of mystery about what that truly means. And while we continue to monitor how, exactly, the new standard will develop over 2020 and beyond, we’ve put together a few key takeways for anyone aiming to learn more about this next wave in broadcast TV.
ATSC 3.0 is the Next Big Step for OTA Broadcasts
At its simplest, ATSC 3.0 is the latest version of the standards developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee and used by over-the-air broadcasters. Those standards govern how signals are transmitted to our homes and this latest version ushers in a whole host of new features and capabilities. The plan is to replace ATSC 1.0 with this new standard. And if you’re wondering what happened to version 2.0, well, the short version is that 2.0 was out of date before it could be deployed to the public and so the industry is basically carrying those improvements over, bundling some new features, and calling this next version 3.0.
You might remember the switch from analog to digital that happened back in 2009, and the move to ATSC 3.0 is the first big step for OTA broadcasting since that time period.
ATSC 3.0 will also leverage broadband connections, in addition to over-the-air broadcasting, to deliver content. That will enable features like geo-targeted emergency information that can provide location-specific instructions like evacuation notices or alerts to affected areas.
That ability to cater messages to specific areas also opens the door for other possibilities, which we’ll get into in a moment.
We’ll See a Big Boost in Picture and Sound Quality (Eventually)
Some of the biggest headline-grabbing improvements with ATSC 3.0 have to do with picture and sound quality. Whereas current ATSC standards allow for OTA content in 720p and 1080i resolution, 3.0 enables up to 4K quality over the air. That’s four times the resolution of 1080i and nine times what 720p can offer.
Other improvements include support for high dynamic range (HDR) for more vibrant colors and bigger contrasts between dark and light sections of the screen, and improved multi-channel audio — going from 5.1 channels to up to 7.1.4 channels.
If you’re wondering what that means: Basically, the current ATSC standard supports 5.1 sound channels so you get left and right front channels, a center channel, left and right rear channels, and a subwoofer that represents that “.1” part of the spec. The newer 7.1.4 standard adds two more left and right surround channels and that “.4” refers to four overhead speakers mounted, say, in your ceiling. So if you have a very fancy speaker setup, ATSC 3.0 offers support.
And it’s not just TVs, either. ATSC 3.0 opens up more possibilities for OTA content on mobile devices as well. That combo of over-the-air and broadband has also led to some potential plans for what’s being called broadcast internet. Specifics and rules are still being hammered out, but the idea is to allow broadcasters, or even groups of broadcasters teaming up, to provide an estimated 25 Mbps connection via OTA. Again, this possibility is still in planning stages, but it could potentially be an alternative to internet access via cable, satellite, and others.
One more thing: that ability to offer geo-specific information we mentioned earlier? It could also be used to offer up more targeted advertising through your TV. So that sensation when you’re browsing the internet and you spot an ad that seems specifically aimed at you and your interests? ATSC 3.0 could allow for a similar experience depending on how that feature is implemented.
You’ll Probably Need Some New Equipment
For the most part, yes, you’ll need an ATSC 3.0-compatible tuner to access content on the new standard. And that tuner could be built into a TV or offered as an external device. And while older ATSC tuners are not compatible with this new version, support is coming to a handful of new TVs from LG, Samsung, Sony, and more.
Meanwhile, your old TVs won’t become obsolete overnight. You’ll just need an external converter device to receive ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. Hardware makers like SiliconDust are starting to offer ATSC 3.0 external tuners to fill that need as well.
And while we’re still discovering how exactly different broadcasters will implement the new standard, it’s possible you’ll only need one converter box for your household.
Also keep in mind that if you’re already using an antenna for OTA broadcasts, it should still work fine for ATSC 3.0.
But You Don’t Need to Upgrade Right This Second
Coming out of CES in January, aggressive plans were in place to launch ATSC 3.0 in dozens of locations, including the top 40 markets across the country. But the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has slowed progress down considerably. As of mid-May 2020As of mid-May 2020, there are six markets in the country with at least one station using the new standard, with four others prepping for launch later this year.
Beyond the delays caused by the pandemic, the ATSC 3.0 rollout itself is actually voluntary, unlike the mandatory digital television transition back in 2009. So just because broadcasters can flip the switch to ATSC 3.0 this year, doesn’t mean they necessarily have to just yet. And even after a station makes the transition, they’ll still generally need to carry ATSC 1.0 content for another five years.
In other words, even if you’re in a market that launches ATSC 3.0 stations this year, you’ll still have time, which is good news for consumers as it gives more TV makers and other hardware companies a chance to bring compatible devices to the market and, ideally, drive costs down.
And there’s one more reason why it might be OK to wait a bit before splurging on new hardware, and it deserves its own section.
More 4K Content is Coming, but It Won’t Happen Overnight
That’s the other part of the equation. After all, just because broadcasting standards can support 4K video, that doesn’t mean all content will suddenly and automatically jump to 4K resolution. Recent years have brought us more live sports coverage in 4K, including the most recent Super Bowl, but even that was a mixture of mostly 1080p cameras upscaled to 4K. The Tokyo Olympics could have been a key showcase for OTA 4K this year, but it’s been moved to next year at the earliest. So it could still be a showcase for ATSC 3.0’s capabilities; it just won’t be this summer as planned.
Overall, it’ll take some time for native 4K content to become the norm. That’s also true for HDR content. Upscaling and conversion can help some, of course, but like the upgrade from standard definition to HD, this won’t be an overnight thing.
In the end, if you’re itching to invest in a fancy, high-end TV right now, it’s probably worth ensuring it’s ATSC 3.0 compatible. But unless you’re among the earliest of early adopters, you’re not likely to miss out on much by waiting things out and seeing how and when ATSC 3.0 launches in your neck of the woods.
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