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

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(Image credit: ATSC)

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

The "NextGen" broadcast technology standard, otherwise known as 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 remember 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 was never able to get off the launch pad—it was skipped altogether. But some of its upgrades 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. 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 applications, 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," said Gordon Smith, NAB president back 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 weeds with that. We’ll just 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 and Beyond

ATSC 3.0 will be broadly launched by individual broadcasters over the next few years, concurrent with the anticipated introduction of consumer TV products equipped to receive ATSC 3.0. The coverage goal for ATSC 3.0 is 62 markets, reaching an estimated 75% of the country. 

As of July 2021, ATSC 3.0 was on the air in 38 markets with another 9 markets scheduled to launch over the summer. The most recent launch was Hartford, Connecticut, with Tegna’s  WCCT-TV and WTIC-TV, Meredith’s WFSB-TV, and Nexstar Media Group’s WTNH-TV participating. 

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, Telemundo stations, Univision and the Spectrum Co. (which includes Sinclair). Sinclair, in particular, has jumped on the ATSC 3.0 bandwagon via the introduction of ad-supported streaming service STIRR, which utilizes this technology.

Evoca, a virtual pay TV service based on ATSC 3.0, launched in Boise, Idaho, in September 2020. The service then expanded to nearby Twin Cities, Idaho, and announced plans to move into the Phoenix market. At launch, Evoca said it had 1,000 subscribers. The company also recently announced it is working with CommScope to develop a hybrid set-top that blends Android TV with ATSC 3.0.  

“A big challenge was whether the big owners of valuable spectrum could work together, commit resources and stick to the game plan,” Jack Abernethy, chief executive officer at Fox Television Stations, said at NAB New York in 2018 about ATSC 3.0. “Done, done and done,” he said.

More Than TV

ATSC 3.0 technology is also being used to provide internet to areas that might not have access to traditional broadband.

In August, SpectraRep brought EduCast, the company's broadcast internet remote learning service, to Washington, D.C. SpectraRep teamed with Sinclair Broadcast Group's One Media 3.0 and One Media's D.C. station WIAV-CD to deliver EduCast.

“When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country and students and teachers were sent home, we saw the negative impacts on remote learners without access to adequate broadband,” said Mark O'Brien, president and CTO of SpectraRep. “Issues like homework gaps and equity in education became even more acute, and we quickly realized we could help to bridge the digital divide through our technology and the enhanced advances offered by ATSC 3.0, in the same way we’ve supported public safety and law enforcement customers.”

SpectraRep plans to launch EduCast using NextGen TV in more markets. The service is currently available via ATSC 1.0 in 12 states.

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.