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Later this year, you're going to start hearing more about a new over-the-air TV standard, the first major jump in broadcast TV since the transition to all-digital signals (aka DTV) back in 2009.
Technically called ATSC 3.0, the new broadcast standard is—thankfully—being more generally billed as "Next-Gen Broadcast TV."
There are a few big differences between our current ATSC 1.0 broadcasts and the new ones we'll receive as part of ATSC 3.0. A key one is that the new standard is IP (internet protocol)-based, which means it can carry internet content alongside traditional TV broadcasts. The broadcasts can also include 4K video and high dynamic range (HDR) content—the two biggest selling points in TVs right now.
Currently, none of that is true. If you're watching TV using a broadcast antenna, you can get regular HD shows in real time, but that's it.
Why Do We Need a New Standard?
When our current over-the-air broadcast standard was developed more than two decades ago, few envisioned a world where higher-than-high-def TV signals would become commonplace, and people would expect to get the same content on smartphones and tablets that they did on a TV at home.
ATSC 3.0 is designed to bring over-the-air TV broadcasts into this future. It's being developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), the same international group of broadcasters, TV manufacturers, and other tech companies that established the HDTV standards in force today.
A major impetus for a new over-the-air standard is to help local broadcasters offer new services, such as video on demand, as well as more targeted ad campaigns to advertisers.
But this change should also bring some clear benefits to consumers.
What's in It for You?
Let's start with 4K.
Right now, you can't get 4K video via over-the-air broadcasts. That will change with ATSC 3.0 because the new standard uses a more efficient video format, called HEVC or H.265, the same one used by streaming services such as Netflix. That will allow broadcasters to send data-heavy 4K video over the airwaves, along with other picture enhancements, such as HDR, which yields brighter images with greater contrast and highlights and richer, more saturated colors.
You'll also be able to get higher-quality "immersive" audio—so-called 3D multichannel sound—from content that supports it.
And because the new signals follow the internet protocol, they'll support movie and TV show metadata, so you can get plot summaries, poster thumbnails, and actor bios, just like you do with online streaming services.
In addition, ATSC president Mark Richer says, the ATSC 3.0 signals will be "more reliable" than current over-air broadcasts, "which were designed 25 years ago for living-room viewing with an outdoor antenna." Reception should beat what you get with the current system, even if you're using a less powerful indoor antenna.
ATSC 3.0 has been designed from the ground up to support mobile uses, so you'll be able to receive signals on smartphones, tablets, and other portable devices, even deep inside buildings, or in cars speeding along streets and highways.
And, Richer says, next-gen TV is compatible with so-called single-frequency network systems, which work like cell-phone networks. Without getting into the technical details, that means they can be used to fill in coverage in urban areas or hilly regions where interference and obstructions make traditional broadcast reception spotty.
Last, next-gen TV will enable enhanced emergency alerts, so consumers will receive more precise, localized warnings during natural disasters or fast-moving weather events.
When Will It Happen?
There's no definite timetable, says Myra Moore, president of Dallas-based market research firm Digital Tech Consulting (DTC), but she expects ATSC 3.0 to be "rolled out over the course of several years."
The move to ATSC 3.0 is voluntary for broadcasters. That wasn't the case with the DTV transition, when they were given a firm deadline for stopping analog broadcasts. This time around, each company gets to decide when to make the move—or not.
The ATSC is still finalizing some elements of the new standard. The FCC, which is overseeing the effort, has said it wants to be ready to authorize the rollout by the end of the year.
Even before the rules are finished, some broadcasters are pushing hard to prepare. "WRAL, an NBC affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina, has been testing ATSC 3.0 broadcasts since last year," Moore says. "And Sinclair, the largest owner of TV stations in the U.S., seems pretty aggressive about next-gen TV."
Other stations will move more slowly while they cope with another technological change, she says. They need to "repack" their stations to new frequencies in the aftermath of a government spectrum auction, which is freeing up more room for wireless broadband signals.
As a result, it's unlikely that 3.0 broadcasts will be widespread until later in 2018 and early 2019. And it could take far longer than that before the transition from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0 is completed.
During this time, consumers will still be able to receive the ATSC 1.0 over-air signals they've been using for years.
What's the Catch? There's Always a Catch
Things get tricky when it comes to the hardware in your TV.
ATSC 3.0 isn't going to be compatible with ATSC 1.0 broadcasts. Because all current TVs have ATSC 1.0 tuners, they won't be able to receive the new signals.
However, your current TV won't become obsolete overnight—or even within the next couple of years. Remember, the experts say there will be a fairly lengthy transition when ATSC 1.0 broadcasts will remain available even as more stations start broadcasting next-gen TV signals.
During the transition, broadcasters will probably have to agree to share a common ATSC 1.0 channel in each market, at least for the foreseeable future. That will allow older TVs to continue getting over-the-air reception, albeit without any of the new features enabled by next-gen TV.
But Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, says that some consumers could lose the ability to get some ATSC 1.0 signals if the host station is located farther away than their current broadcaster.
"Our position is that next-gen TV can and will be beneficial to consumers if implemented by the FCC in a measured and conscientious manner," he says. That could include making sure the current coverage areas are preserved as much as possible, not allowing broadcasters to downgrade the quality of ATSC 1.0 broadcasts from high to standard definition, and providing consumers with education on issues such as the timing of the transition and what new equipment they may need.
And at some point, enough stations will be broadcasting in the new standard that a cutoff date could be set to end ATSC 1.0 transmissions. Once that happens, older TVs will need some type of external tuner—either a settop box or maybe an HDMI or USB stick—to receive next-gen local TV broadcasts.
At NAB, LG showed a networked wireless antenna in the home that received ATSC 3.0 signals and then sent them to TVs and mobile devices through the house via WiFi.
However, TV manufacturers may have a tough time deciding when to start building ATSC 3.0 tuners into their sets. I asked several major TV brands how they'll handle the situation, and all agreed that at some point most HDTVs will probably come with both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 tuners.
No TV maker would say just when that would begin, but LG already is including both ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 receivers in new TV it's shipping to consumers in Korea, the first country to begin ATSC 3.0 broadcasts.
Will Everything Still Be Free?
Over-the-air broadcasts have always been free—buy an antenna and you were done, unless you wanted additional services such as Netflix or HBO. But that could change with the advent of ATSC 3.0.
"The ATSC 3.0 standard does include an optional ingredient of conditional access—as did ATSC 1.0—to give broadcasters the flexibility to introduce new business models," ATSC's Richer says. "That could include video on demand and other features that viewers commonly use today."
In other words, broadcasters could encrypt at least part of their programming, and require users to create an account and pay for access to certain features. No details are available on how this would work from the consumer's point of view.
Consumers Union and other groups say they will insist that consumers continue to have access to free over-the air high-definition TV reception. That fits the overall push to ensure that the FCC holds broadcasters to the same public interest obligations with ATSC 3.0 broadcasts they had with ATSC 1.0.
"We need to make sure that as this voluntary transition moves forward, consumers and competitors are not forced to bear the costs," says Schwantes. "Consumers should be able transition in just as voluntary a manner as the broadcasters themselves."
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