FCC Pushing for ATSC 3.0 Standard for Over-the-Air 4K Broadcasting With HDR

by on February 3, 2017

Stephan Jukic – February 3, 2017

In the U.S, the Federal Communications Commission has taken its first steps to facilitate the eventual commercial development of over-the-air terrestrial (broadcast) 4K TV technology.

For starters, this past Thursday, the agency, which regulates the use of radio, television, wire, satellite and cable communications mediums in the U.S.A, published a proposed regulation (which you can check out in its legal details here) that would allow for 4K TV stations to start releasing broadcasts with the new ATSC 3.0 digital transmission format for broadcast content. Because ATSC 3.0 uses an IP data stream, it offers a much greater degree of flexibility than existing broadcast standards for content delivery. Thus, broadcasters can beam out several video streams of different bandwidths at the same time along with additional data streams via ATSC 3.0 and this in turn means the capacity to deliver broadcast 4K content to consumers.

The FCC document is not itself a complete new broadcast regulation. Instead, it’s what’s called a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) and basically serves as a formal statement by the FCC that the agency is intending a new regulation soon. In other words, the new rule can be modified by factors like technical issues, lobby pressure, public pressure and so forth.

More concretely, the proposed ATSC 3.0 regulation will allow relevant industries to voluntarily use the new IP-based broadcast standard as they see fit. Which broadcasters adapt the standard or don’t will depend on their own choices in the matter as the broadcast content landscape evolves. Thus for example, cable companies can voluntarily apply ATSC 3.0 if they like once its ready.

The same goes for TV and other home entertainment electronics manufacturers. While they will have to update the specs and standards they put into their new TVs for ATSC 3.0 support, the proposed FCC regulation won’t mandate these sorts of updates. It will depend on how manufacturers of TVs react to the potential growth of ATSC 3.0 broadcast systems. That said, some companies are trying to get a head start on this possible trend and LG in particular has already stated that it will sell new 2017 4K and other TVs with ATSC 3.0 tuners, at least for TVs in some markets and we can almost certainly expect the same from other television and set-top box makers down the road once the ATSC 3.0 standard is finalized.

An ATSC 3.0 demonstration from CES 2017

An ATSC 3.0 demonstration from CES 2017

It’s also worth noting that ATSC 3.0 has already featured strongly at CES 2017 and other previous technology conferences, with live demonstrations of broadcasts having been shown off by broadcasters and TV makers, particularly LG on the TV side.

In addition to pushing forward the FCC’s formal NPRM about the ATSC 3.0 standard, the chairman of the agency himself, Ajit Pai, also published an op-ed piece in the website Multichannel News in which he strongly advocates in favor of the TV industry moving into adoption of the standard.

With Pai’s proposal, broadcasters who decide to go for adoption of the ATSC 3.0 standard will be required to offer ATSC 1.0 versions of all their channels so that owners of legacy TVs and related devices aren’t left out in the cold on accessing any ATSC 3.0 content that is developed and distributed across the air waves.

Now, if you’re wondering what ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 even mean, here’s a brief rundown.

The ATSC acronym stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee, which is an international industry group founded in 1992 to establish core standards for digital TV transmission. These standards are used widely in the US, Canada, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, South Korea, Honduras and Guatemala.

One of the ATSC’s first major developments was the original ATSC 1.0 standard, unveiled in 2009, which was designed to transition TV broadcasting from analog to digital in the U.S and other countries. This first standard has been crucial in allowing for the broadcast delivery of HD video in 1080i and 720p resolutions along with Dolby Digital Audio to TVs. As a result, makers of TVs had to include digital tuners in their TVs but the benefit of this switch-over was a far superior level of TV content quality in both visual and audio terms.

ATSC 3.0 is pretty much the same process coming along again but at much more advanced, 4K-friendly level. The new standard, as we said above, is Internet protocol (IP)-based and while still an over-the-air system, offers the same sort of capacity as high-speed, large bandwidth internet technology for video and audio delivery. This of course means the 4K video benefits we mentioned above and at the same time also brings forth the benefit of making broadcast TV programming in 4K or whatever other resolution easily viewable on today’s internet connected smart TVs and other devices. The bottom line here is a tremendous change in how broadcast TV works and how much more capable it becomes at delivering top-shelf ultra HD (and eventually HDR) content.


Some of the new broadcast content enhancements that would come with ATSC 3.0 implementation include the already-mentioned capacity for 4K resolution along with HDR (using new broadcast-friendly standards like Hybrid Log Gamma), higher frame rates for content, wide color gamut and even direct-to-mobile device broadcasts of next-generation over-the-air content.

As far as you the consumer need to be concerned, the TV you have now and any TV you want to buy this year is probably just fine for whatever content needs you’re going to have in the near future. All of these ATSC 3.0 enhancements are still a ways off and while the mainstream 4K TVs of 2017 that are now being released in the U.S don’t have ATSC 3.0 tuners, Televisions will start coming with them in 2018 or later if this new broadcast content standard becomes a consumer market reality. Furthermore, while ATSC 3.0 is not designed to be backwards compatible with ATSC 1.0, external tuners will almost certainly be available for owners of 4K TVs older than whatever models come with the 3.0 standard. This is after all what became available to older TVs when ATSC 1.0 emerged.

LG has already unveiled 4K TVs with ATSC 3.0 integration in the South Korean market

LG has already unveiled 4K TVs with ATSC 3.0 integration in the South Korean market

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