ATSC 3.0: Free 4K HDR Broadcast TV Is Finally Coming and Here’s What it Means for You
Stephan Jukic – July 12, 2019
It’s been years in the planning and making, but it seems that the ATSC 3.0 standard for next generation broadcast TV will finally start being rolled out for public use on broadcast TV networks, and this rollout could mean a lot of cool things.
Promises of next generation ATSC 3.0 capability for free open-air TV broadcasts have been floating around for at least a couple years and we here at 4K.com have posted on them in the past. Now however, the new technology has finally been kicked off by several U.S TV stations and it means the capacity to deliver 4K ultra HD resolution at up to a very robust 120Hz along with HDR mastering and wide color gamut (a part of HDR basically). Best of all though, and this bears repeating, this whole package of new technology is going to be free, just like the current generation of ATSC 1.0 HD over-the-air TV broadcasts. All that consumers will need is either a 4K TV with ATSC 3.0 support or a tuner with ATSC 3.0 functionality and any tuner-supporting 4K TV. Neither of these exist yet of course, but we’ll get back to that soon.
What ATSC 3.0 means for the market
Proponents of the new broadcast standard are also claiming that it will deliver better reception across the board, meaning that it should enter devices more strongly indoors or outdoors in moving objects, which could include mobile devices.
This is where a couple of major and minor catches come into play:
First of all, the new standard also comes with a certain degree of smart technology that existing broadcast TV lacks. In effect this means that broadcasters will now be able to monitor the viewing habits of their free OTA (over-the-air) consumers just like other media companies for streaming content or social media delivery can do now with digitally connected customers. In other words, your reruns of old Star Trek episodes and late-night infomercial viewing vices are going to be tracked, and used to deliver you targeted advertising content.
There’s a second major catch and it’s that no current 4K TVs actually support ATSC 3.0, so for millions of consumers who bought a UHD television and will soon (possibly) finally be able to use it for a truly broad range of free 4K content, obstacles still exist.
A solution to this is on the way though. because by 2020, new 4K TVs will almost certainly be coming out with ATSC 3.0 compatibility. And for many older TVs, we might even be able to expect firmware updates that close the gap. Either way, external compatible tuners will start going on sale that can decode the new ATSC broadcasts to a TV without built-in compatibility. These are the promises and expectations to expect for next year, even if right now, in mid-2019, you still can’t buy either tuners or TVs that have the above capabilities.
For both consumers and 4K TV makers, there’s no rush yet anyhow though, because while ATSC 3.0 signals are already being broadcast by some U.S stations, most don’t yet even have their licenses for the new standard ready. Stations operating in the largest several dozen U.S broadcast markets in urban areas have already “committed” to broadcasting by the time 2020 ends but this is still a year or more down the road.
In other words, next-gen ATSC seems to finally be on the way with a definitive entry date that makes things much less speculative at this point.
The bottom line about all of the above is that ATSC 3.0 will make a lot of 4K UHD HDR content completely free on any 4K TV with the right technical specs or external tuner, and that will really have the potential to move massive amounts of new 4K content forward in the U.S market. Ultra HD content that today remains limited mostly to streaming, VoD and satellite service providers on a paid basis will be distributed on a mass public level, and even with HDR integration. This means new incentives for the creation of 4K HDR content on a scale not yet seen, and the development of a broadcast TV landscape much that much more dynamic than what exists today.
Regulatory and Technical Details
On a slightly more technical level, providers of ATSC 3.0 will still support all sorts of broadcasts in lower resolutions, and deliver them to both 4K and non-4K TVs that accept the new standard. For owners of 4K TVs this means the usual internal (in the TV) upscaling of content that has been delivered over either broadcast technology and for owners of non-4K TVs it means that they’ll still get their content as usual. Furthermore, the developers of ATSC 3.0 have promised better reception indoors and in dense urban areas. The reason for this is that the new standard uses OFDM broadcast technology in place of the older 8VSB system for existing distribution. The result is a stronger delivery of signals.
As for how the ATSC 3.0 standard will manage to deliver all that data-intensive detail of 4K resolution, the most fundamental reason is that it incorporates the HEVC H.265 content compression process used in most other sources of 4K movies and content through streaming and other sources. This means limited bandwidth increases in existing stations despite the larger data loads and more importantly it means that stations across the U.S can more cheaply adopt ATSC 3.0 to quickly accelerate its rollout.
There are however still some obstacles to the rollout of ATSC 3.0 working behind the scenes. For one thing, unlike during the switch-over from analog broadcasting to digital TV in the early 2000’s when a full change to digital was mandated by the FCC, the same forced shift isn’t happening now. In this case, due to this being a switch from one digital standard (ATSC 1.0) to a new one instead of to a whole new medium, ATSC 3.0 is completely voluntary for broadcasters who can stick to ATSC 1.0 or go for both, with no obligation to shift over to it being considered by authorities at this time.
As a result, there does exist at least a possibility that many stations simply decide to not bother with ATSC 3.0 due to its additional costs and the need to share transmitters that could simply be used for ATSC 1.0 HD broadcasts. However, as we already noted, a large number of stations in 40 U.S markets have already pledged to start giving customers ATSC 3.0 content with 4K and HDR and some are already broadcasting now on an experimental basis.
Furthermore, given the stiff competition that broadcast providers get from cable, streaming and satellite entertainment to TVs, ATSC 3.0 is exactly the potential salvation they should come to love, because aside from offering better coverage quality and integrated safety features, it will finally let them evenly compete with other digital media sources on content picture quality and smart features that include targeted advertising capacity in a market increasingly dominated by 4K HDR smart TVs in consumers’ homes.
Smart Features and Privacy Concerns
Moving back to these very same “smart” features that ATSC 3.0 will bring to broadcast home TV, the first is the one just mentioned, by which TVs broadcasting content via this new standard will be able to monitor consumers’ over-the-air TV watching habits and deliver customized advertising based on that. For broadcasters, this is a major selling point of ATSC 3.0 and a technical dream for the increasingly stagnant broadcast advertising industry. A whole plethora of ad deals will be possible for broadcast providers who will now be able to offer new services in which they can potentially target millions of customers based on viewing habits, perceived income and even ethnicity. This has never before existed for broadcast TV and as a result, a steadily growing portion of advertising revenue has shifted from conventional broadcast TV to targeted internet platforms. This trend could now finally slow down or even reverse.
The tradeoff for you as a viewer of broadcast channels in your area is that your one remaining means of watching movies, TV shows, documentaries, infomercials and other content without having your choices monitored will now start to disappear.
The good news for privacy-conscious TV owners here is that in order for these ATSC 3.0 broadcast content viewing habits to be tracked, their TV has to also be connected to the internet so it can send BACK data about the content being broadcast to it over the air. In other words, for consumers who want to avoid this, one possible trick will simply be to disconnect their internet connectivity. Is this impractical for anyone who wants to switch between Netflix and regular channels on a whim? Of course, but that might be the price to pay, for whatever it’s worth considering just how much existing smart TV platforms already track their users.
Other exotic aspects of what ATSC 3.0 will mean for TV owners include the ability by broadcasters and authorities to remotely activate a smart TV hooked to the standard for the sake of emergency broadcasts in a given city or area. As creepy as this detail sounds, it’s being touted as a benefit for natural or man-made disasters, and might just be so.
ATSC 3.0 and 4K HDR Content Beyond TVs
Additionally, ATSC 3.0 could possibly mean free TV watching right on your phone or other mobile device. How? Well, because the same TV broadcasters now investing in ATSC 3.0 adoption know that millions of Americans watch a ton of their favorite content from paid sources right from their phones. Thus, in exchange for having access to even more content completely free of charge, the incentive for consumers could be to want phones with integrated ATSC 3.0 tuners. The still powerful broadcast industry, knowing that ATSC 3.0 to phones means a guaranteed internet connection for letting these broadcasters collect targeting data for ads, will likely also push for phones to emerge with ATSC 3.0 tuners built into them.
Yes, this will obviously get fought by mobile service providers who fundamentally prefer being able to sell data to their customers (much of it in the form of video content) instead of seeing it get delivered for free but ultimately, the market, -depending on consumer demand, broadcaster clout and phone maker agreements with either broadcasters or mobile service providers- will decide what happens with ATSC 3.0 in the phone content landscape.
The possibilities around phones aside, most immediate of all is the nearly guaranteed arrival of this new 4K HDR-friendly free content broadcast standard to the next generations of 4K TVs in 2020 and beyond.
What this means for you as a consumer
This of course brings us to the question that you as a TV owner probably want an answer to: what will this mean for your 4K TV choices and home theater budget?
The likely answer is that not much at all. If ATSC 3.0 really does go live on a major scale from 2020 onwards, owners of 4K HDR TVs from before 2020 will almost certainly be able to quickly and cheaply buy tuners geared for the new standard. At the very least, the FCC has already obligated broadcasters to run the older ATSC 1.0 HD content broadcast standard for at least 5 years after any of them adopt ATSC 3.0. So if you as a consumer will have all that time in which to either replace your TV for a new ATSC 3.0-compatible model or, much more cheaply, just go for an external tuner (assuming your 4K TV offers a tuner input) until you replace your 4K TV for other reasons.
Either way, getting all that free ATSC 3.0 content that we might be able to expect by next year shouldn’t be expensive and definitely won’t mean having to buy a whole news 4K HDR TV just because of this.
Furthermore, in the 4K TV production market, things are almost sure to move quickly: Given how quickly 4K resolution and HDR support have been integrated into digital TVs in just 5 years, televisions with ATSC 3.0 support thrown in are very likely going to pop up on the market right after wider adoption by broadcasters.
This means that any of you who do want to replace your older TV soon anyhow will probably be able to buy a model with support for the new 4K HDR version of ATSC by the end of next year. Does this then mean you should wait to buy a new 4K HDR TV until then just because of this? Well no. Enough digital 4K content from other sources is already available to make waiting for broadcast sources of it into a tedious game, and in any case, ATSC 3.0 tuners are sure to come much earlier for existing TVs.
Whatever the details surrounding the 4K TV, content and regulatory landscape might be next year, 2020 and 2021 will at least be very interesting in terms of how much new 4K content we might start seeing.