For years now, the broadcast TV industry has been talking up plans to overhaul over-the-air TV with a new standard called ATSC 3.0.
Also known as NextGen TV, ATSC 3.0 can deliver 4K HDR video, enhanced dialog, on-demand viewing options, and potentially better reception, all for free with an antenna. Stations in 46 U.S. markets are now broadcasting in the new standard, covering nearly half the United States, with dozens more markets to come throughout 2022.
But before you buy into the hype and shop for compatible TVs or tuner boxes, keep in mind that NextGen TV is still bleeding-edge technology, and broadcasters have yet to realize its biggest benefits. As I wrote last year and the year before, most antenna users can safely leave ATSC 3.0 out of their cord-cutting plans for now, even if it’s something to keep an eye on for the future.
NextGen TV’s 2022 updates
ATSC 3.0 is currently top of mind thanks to CES, the annual tech industry trade show where major TV manufacturers announce new products. This year’s big ATSC 3.0 news is that Hisense will include ATSC 3.0 tuners in most of its upcoming ULED TVs, becoming the fourth TV maker to support the new standard, and the first that wasn’t an original sponsor of the standard.
“We’re really excited about Hisense being a new entrant, because that’s a vote of confidence,” said Anne Schelle, the managing director of Pearl TV, a broadcast industry trade group.
Still, ATSC 3.0 remains concentrated in mid- to high-end TVs. While Sony has brought NextGen TV tuners all its televisions, LG and Samsung reserve it for their premium OLED and Neo QLED TVs respectively. Hisense, meanwhile, is omitting ATSC 3.0 from its least-expensive U6H ULED TVs and from its lower-budget non-ULED sets. Other value-oriented TV vendors, including Vizio, TCL, Toshiba, and Insignia, haven’t announced NextGen TV support at all.
A new agreement between Pearl TV and chipmaker MediaTek could help bring ATSC 3.0 to cheaper televisions by streamlining development, but Schelle said that won’t happen until next year at the earliest.
“I think the hockey stick environment starts in 2023, and really ramps in 2024, and we think by 2025 it’ll be really hard to buy a TV without NextGen on it,” she said.
What about external ATSC 3.0 tuners?
In lieu of buying a new TV with ATSC 3.0 support, you’ll need an external tuner to take advantage of the new broadcast standard, but those don’t come cheap, either.
Right now, the most inexpensive option is SiliconDust’s HDHomeRun Flex 4K, which costs $200 and doesn’t plug directly into your TV. Instead, it streams video over Wi-Fi to the HDHomeRun app on streaming hardware such as Roku players and Amazon Fire TV devices.
Nuvyyo CEO Grant Hall said he doesn’t want to discourage cord-cutters from buying Tablo’s ATSC 1.0 DVRs. The company is launching an ATSC 3.0 model largely to satisfy some early adopters and get first-hand experience with the technology as it emerges.
“We weren’t feeling a lot of heat that we had to have a product in the market,” Hall said. “It was more from a thought-leadership position.”
As for cheaper hardware, akin to the cheap converter boxes that helped usher in the digital TV transition more than a decade ago, Pearl TV’s Anne Schelle said those are also another year away. When they arrive, she expects them to cost less than $60.
“One of the issues that’s plaguing us isn’t so much the ability to enable them, it’s the supply-chain issues,” she said. “We’re predicting those to free up in 2023.”
Waiting for more features
If you do pick up an ATSC 3.0-compatible TV or tuner, don’t expect to get 4K HDR video or Dolby Atmos audio at the outset. Those features depend on support from the broadcast TV networks, which have only offered 4K event coverage on streaming devices and cable boxes so far. Even with more 4K HDR content available, broadcasters will need to make additional investments in their own infrastructure to support it over-the-air, Schelle said.
For now, early adopters will get some more modest benefits. Options for dialog enhancement and volume leveling are available with any ATSC 3.0 broadcast, and stations also have the ability to switch on 1080p video support as an upgrade from 1080i (interlaced) or 720p.
As for interactive components, such as on-demand news clips or live weather tickers, Schelle said roughly 20 stations have started dabbling in these kinds of features. Still, she said this will be a year of experimentation as broadcasters figure out what works with viewers.
“Right now, we’re getting what we call the basic set of features out there to start, and over time they get upgraded,” Schelle said.
ATSC 3.0 also has some ability to improve reception, as broadcasters can decide whether to increase signal strength at the expense of capacity. In theory, that would allow a station to dial down video quality so the content can more easily reach viewers.
But again, that kind of benefit might not avail itself right away, as broadcasters still have to conserve bandwidth for their current ATSC 1.0 broadcasts. (More on that below.)
“As ATSC 1.0 takes up less of the overall spectrum availability in a marketplace, you can devote more and more to a 3.0 signal, which can allow you to make the signal stronger or send more data,” said ATSC President Madeleine Noland.
No rush to upgrade
One important thing to note is that ATSC 3.0 isn’t a mandatory upgrade like the analog-to-digital transition was. Even in markets with ATSC 3.0 stations, broadcasters continue to air their channels in the current ATSC 1.0 standard, so you can continue to use your existing TV tuner or over-the-air DVR without issue. That’s not going to change for many years.
For one thing, the FCC currently requires stations to simulcast their main channels in both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 through February 2023, and the commission might decide to stretch that deadline further. With 15 percent of U.S. homes currently watching over-the-air TV with the current standard, broadcasters are also wary of chasing viewers away with new hardware requirements.
“There’s nothing more important to the broadcaster than their audience, and they’re not going to do something that’s going to disenfranchise their audience,” Noland said.
My advice, then, is similar to what it was a year ago: If you’re already planning to buy a new TV or over-the-air TV, and an ATSC 3.0 model fits within your budget, there’s little harm in future proofing. But don’t go out of your way to upgrade to a standard that’s still in its infancy. Your current over-the-air TV setup will remain viable for years to come.
Jared Newman has been helping folks make sense of technology for over a decade, writing for PCWorld, TechHive, and elsewhere. He also publishes two newsletters, Advisorator for straightforward tech advice and Cord Cutter Weekly for saving money on TV service.