This week, the FCC began accepting (and quickly approving) applications from TV stations to start switching to ATSC 3.0, a new set of standards for OTA (over-the-air) broadcasting. There are a host of changes involved, but the one that has cord-cutters buzzing is the support for 4K video. Free 4K content on local channels — the same ones that air things like NFL, NBA, and MLB games, awards shows, and local and national news — would be an unequivocal game-changer.
Unfortunately, even though the FCC is already approving applications for ATSC 3.0 this week, there are a couple roadblocks still in place that might prevent this from becoming a reality for a while. For one, there are currently no TVs that support ATSC 3.0. Even at CES 2019, that bacchanal of TV gadgetry, ATSC 3.0 was nowhere to be found.
“You’re a year or so early,” John Taylor, senior vice president of public affairs for LG USA, told TV Technology. “We’re trying to time the introduction of the product with the critical mass of Next-Gen TV broadcasting, and the whole industry seems to be moving toward a 2020 product launch.”
Even if manufacturers start producing ATSC 3.0-compatible TVs in 2020, these stations still aren’t producing much 4K content yet. Even the NFL — by far the most popular sport in America — has yet to broadcast any of its games in 4K. Like 5G internet, while the technology is being put into place now, it might be a while before it bears fruit.
What is ATSC 3.0?
ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) is an international nonprofit devoted to developing standards and best practices for digital television. ATSC 3.0 is the latest update to its collection of standards (20 in total) for television broadcasting. It will enable TV stations to transmit more information through their 6 MHz channel, with the greatest improvements coming in video quality.
“Increased data rates to support new services such as Ultra HD are a priority,” ATSC says. “For video coding, UHD and HD enhancements are a key initial goal, with 4K support at the start and 8K support possible later via extensibility.” Indeed, the new standards read like a 4K TV user manual: 4K resolution, 120 fps, wide color gamut, high dynamic range, and Dolby audio will all be supported.
The FCC proposed allowing ATSC 3.0 in the U.S. all the way back in February 2017, but it’s taken more than two years for it to start accepting applications from TV stations. Because the transition is voluntary — unlike the digital transition from NTSC to ATSC 1.0 in 2009 — the FCC is not requiring updated tuners to be included in new TVs.
You won’t need a new TV antenna, but you will need a new tuner eventually
If you’re already using a TV antenna to get local channels, ATSC 3.0 brings good news and bad news. The antenna is just a conduit that picks up all the signals being broadcast. It’s your TV’s tuner that will need to be updated for ATSC 3.0 receivers, or a converter that will translate the signal to older TVs. If you rely on an antenna for local channels, it might be worth holding off on buying a new TV until they’re updated for ATSC 3.0.
Will I lose my current TV channels when they switch to ATSC 3.0?
Not for a while. The FCC is requiring that any stations that switch to ATSC 3.0 still broadcast in ATSC 1.0 for five years from the time they switch. Since there are no TVs in the U.S. that currently have ATSC 3.0 receivers, you’ll be good with your current setup for a while.
We’ve written a lot about watching TV over the years. Whether you’re new to cord-cutting or a seasoned vet, we’ve put together some resources to help you get the most out of your entertainment budget.