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ATSC 3.0: Everything You Need to Know About the Broadcast Industry’s ‘NextGen’ Technology Standard

(Image credit: ATSC)

Turns out we’re not done with broadcast television, not by a long shot

The so-called “NextGen” broadcast technology standard, widely known is ATSC 3.0, is here. Capable of 4K and HDR picture resolutions, as well as advanced Dolby audio wherewithal, among other features, ATSC 3.0 is the first major overhaul to the Advanced Television Systems Committee’s standard for sending and receiving over-the-air (OTA) signals since the group first introduced ATSC 1.0 back in 1996.

You may have remembered ATSC 1.0. That was the technology that finally took hold in 2009, ushering in the switch from analog to digital television. Capping out at 1080p high-definition resolution, ATSC 1.0 was progeny to the National Television System Committee (NTSC) standard, the antiquated analog television TV viewing experience introduced in 1941, patterned at a time when sitting in front of the TV set to watch broadcasts when they were scheduled was the norm. 

ATSC 2.0 never was able to get off the launch pad—it was skipped altogether. But some of its upgrades, however, made it into the ATSC 3.0 standard. 

ATSC fits right into the cord-cutting era, in which OTA television is frequently part of an ensemble, multi pronged solution in the modern television home, And the ongoing, collaborative rollout of ATSC 3.0, the codified new standard for over-the-air digital transmission allowing for two-way interactivity and multi-screen, promises to revolutionize the broadcast industry, working both over-the-air and digitally in tandem with internet connections.

“America’s broadcasters are on the cusp of a revolution in television,” proclaimed Gordon Smith, NAB president in 2019, trumpeting ATSC 3.0. “The many companies invested in TV broadcasting are committed to better television service for both our viewers and for our advertisers.”

ATSC 3.0 – Reshaping the Modern TV Experience

From the RF (radio frequency) transmission through presentation to the viewer or listener--and all the necessary items in between—ATSC 3.0 is a hybrid broadcast and IP-based delivery standard considered the biggest technological update to antenna TV since the transition to high definition digital signals in 2009.

Specifically, ATSC 3.0 offers 4K resolution and HDR content for over-the-air broadcasts, taking everything about the initial switch to digital TV broadcasting and upgrading it. 

ATSC 3.0 uses Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplex (OFDM) modulation as opposed to the 8VSB modulation used by ATSC 1.0. We won’t get too far into the weeks with that. We’ll jus say that OFDM has the reputation of being more spectrally efficient and less susceptible to multi-path interference (which can cause ATSC 1.0 signals break up, or not be received at all).

Among the expected improvements with ATSC 3.0 are better sound quality with less interference; higher picture resolution (with the potential for an 8K picture in the future); the availability on more mobile devices (like phones and tablets as well as in cars); more channels in higher quality without the need for a large antenna; and what is anticipated as the seamless combination of broadcast TV with the Internet.

If your TV does not support ATSC 3.0 and you want to receive ATSC 3.0 signals, you will be able to use an external converter box.

The Plan for 2020

ATSC 3.0 will be broadly launched by individual broadcasters this year, concurrent with the anticipated introduction of consumer TV products equipped to receive ATSC 3.0. The coverage goal for ATSC 3.0 in 2020 is 61 markets by the end of the year, reaching an estimated 70% of the country. 

Twenty different TV models from three manufacturers—LG, Samsung and Sony—will be available with built-in tuners. Standalone tuner boxes that you can connect to any TV are in the planning stages. And some local TV stations across the country will be changing their over-the air broadcast frequencies (meaning individuals who watch free over-the-air television with an antenna will need to rescan their TV set each time a station moves to continue receiving the local channel).  

The regions served by the roll-out will have access to interactive digital television being broadcast in a new standard that’s capable of this 4K/HDR or full UltraHD and multi-channel audio.

Station groups involved in the deployment of ATSC 3.0 include Fox Television Stations, NBCUniversal owned-and-operated outlets, Nexstar Media Group, Univision, Pearl TV, Tegna Inc., Telemundo stations Univision, and Spectrum Co. (which includes Sinclair). Sinclair, in particular, has jumped on the ATSC 3.0 bandwagon via the recent introduction of ad-supported streaming service STIRR, which utilizes this technology.

“A big challenge was whether the big owners of valuable spectrum could work together, commit resources, and stick to the game plan,” said Jack Abernethy, chief executive officer at FOX Television Stations at NAB 2020 about ATSC 3.0. “Done, done and done,” he enthusiastically proclaimed.

The bottom-line: Designed to accommodate new viewing behaviors, ATSC 3.0 is the new unified standard for broadcasters and OTT providers to deliver a next-generation content experience. Being able to view content on any device, at any time, from any location is now something consumers are accustomed to. And, if Pay-TV, linear TV, and OTT adapt and collaborate, viewers in the “when you want, where you want” programming platform of today will now be able to use this ATSC 3.0 platform to view all content, no matter the source.