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NextGen TV is free 4K TV with an antenna, and it's already here

4K, HDR, 120Hz refresh rates and better indoor reception are coming to US airwaves, no monthly fee required. Here's what you need to know.

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ATSC.org

After years of waiting NextGen TV, aka ATSC 3.0, is here. To watch it you don't have to pay a monthly fee, but you do need either a new TV with a built-in tuner or a standalone external tuner. You also need to live in one of the 24 cities where it's currently broadcasting, such as Denver, Detroit or Phoenix. If you live elsewhere, however, you won't have to wait long. Dozens more stations in markets all across the country, including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, are going live throughout 2021. 

So what's NextGen TV? It's the latest version of over-the-air antenna TV. Like current over-the-air TV broadcasts -- and unlike cable, satellite or live TV streaming -- it's entirely free. Unlike current broadcasts, NextGen TV can carry high-quality Ultra HD 4K video, HDR and wide color gamut, high frame rates up to 120Hz, and more. ATSC 3.0 proponents also claim better reception indoors and on the go, perhaps on your phone or even to your car. And it uses the same standard antennas available today.

Read more: Best TV antennas for cord cutters, starting at just $10

One potential downside? ATSC 3.0 will also let broadcasters track your viewing habits, information that can be used for targeted advertising, just like companies such as Facebook and Google use today. 

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ATSC.org

Here's the top-line info:

  • If you get your TV from streaming, cable or satellite, NextGen TV/ATSC 3.0 won't affect you at all. 
  • The transition is voluntary. Stations don't have to switch. Many have already, however, for reasons we'll explain below.
  • It's not backwards-compatible with the current HD (ATSC 1.0) standard, so your current TV won't be able to receive it. Your current antenna should work fine though.
  • Stations that switch to NextGen TV will still have to keep broadcasting ATSC 1.0 for five years.
  • There are multiple models and sizes of TV with built-in tuners available now from Sony, Samsung and LG.
  • By the end of 2021, roughly 70% of the US population will have access to NextGen broadcasts, including big cities such as New York and Los Angeles. Many small- and midsized cities already have stations broadcasting.  
  • nextgentv-stations
    watchnextgentv.com

How it will work in your home

The simplest description is an antenna connected to your TV gets you free TV, just like most people can get now. That's selling NextGen TV short, however. 

NextGen TV is IP-based, so in practice it can be moved around your home just like any internet content can right now. An example of how this could work is the antenna is connected to a tuner box, but that box is not connected to your TV at all. Instead, it's connected to your Wi-Fi. This means anything with access to your network can have access to over-the-air TV, be it your TV, your phone, your tablet or even a streaming device like Apple TV. There will be traditional tuners as well, of course, but this is a new and interesting alternative.

This also means it's possible we'll see mobile devices with built-in tuners, so you can watch live TV while you're out and about, like you can with Netflix and YouTube now. How willing phone companies will be to put tuners in their phones remains to be seen, however. You don't see a lot of phones that can get radio broadcasts now, for example, even though such a thing is easy to implement. We'll talk more about that in a moment.

'Voluntary'

In November of 2017, the Federal Communications Commission approved ATSC 3.0 as the next generation of broadcast standard, on a "voluntary, market-driven basis" (PDF). It also required stations to continue broadcasting ATSC 1.0 (i.e. "HD"). This is actually part of the issue as to why it's voluntary. 

During the mandatory DTV transition in the early 2000s, stations in a city were given a new frequency (channel, in other words), to broadcast digital TV, while they still broadcast analog on their old channel. These older channels were eventually reclaimed by the FCC for other uses when the proverbial switch was flipped to turn off analog broadcasts. Since that's not happening this time, stations and markets are left to themselves how best to share or use the over-the-air spectrum in their areas.

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Because there's no new bandwidth, broadcasters will temporarily share transmitters. Two or more stations will use one tower for ATSC 1.0 (HD) broadcasts and those stations will use another tower for ATSC 3.0 (UHD) broadcasts. This will mean a temporary reduction in bandwidth for each channel, but potentially a limited impact on picture quality due to the better modern HD encoders. More info here.

ATSC/TVTechnology.com

While not mandatory, many broadcasters seem enthusiastic about NextGen. At the beginning of the roll-out, then executive vice president of communications at the National Association of Broadcasters Dennis Wharton told CNET that the improvement in quality, overall coverage and the built-in safety features mean that most stations would be enthusiastic to offer ATSC 3.0.

John Hane, president of the Spectrum Consortium (an industry group with broadcasters Sinclair, Nexstar and Univision as members), was equally confident: "The FCC had to make it voluntary because the FCC couldn't provide transition channels. [The industry] asked the FCC to make it voluntary. We want the market to manage it. We knew the market would demand it, and broadcasters and hardware makers in fact are embracing it."

Given the competition broadcasters have with cable, streaming and so on, 3.0 could be a way to stabilize or even increase their income by offering better picture quality, better coverage and, most importantly, targeted ads.

Ah yes, targeted ads…

Broadcast TV will know what you're watching

One of NextGen TV's more controversial features is a "return data path," which is a way for the station you're watching to know you're watching. Not only does this allow a more accurate count of who's watching what shows, but it creates the opportunity for every marketer's dream: targeted advertising. 

Ads specific to your viewing habits, income level and even ethnicity (presumed by your neighborhood, for example) could get slotted in by your local station. This is something brand-new for broadcast TV. Today, over-the-air broadcasts are pretty much the only way to watch television that doesn't track your viewing habits. Sure, the return data path could also allow "alternative audio tracks and interactive elements," but it's the targeted ads and tracking many observers are worried about.

The finer details are all still being worked out, but here's the thing: If your TV is connected to the internet, it's already tracking you. Pretty much every app, streaming service, smart TV and cable or satellite box all track your usage to a greater or lesser extent.

Return data path is still in the planning stages, even as the other aspects of NextGen TV are already going live. There is a silver lining: There will be an opt-out option. It also requires Internet access, but if this type of thing bothers you, just don't connect your TV or NextGen TV receiver to the internet. You will lose some of the other features of NextGen TV, however.

That said, we'll keep an eye on this for any further developments.   

Free TV on your phone?

Another point of potential contention is getting ATSC 3.0 tuners into phones. At a most basic level, carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are in the business of selling you data. If suddenly you can get lots of high-quality content for free on your phone, they potentially lose money. Ever wonder why your phone doesn't have an FM radio tuner? Same reason.

T-Mobile made a preemptive strike along those lines all the way back in September 2017, writing a white paper (PDF) that, among other things, claims, "In light of the detrimental effects that inclusion of ATSC 3.0 can have on the cost and size of a device, the technology trade-offs required to accommodate competing technologies, and the reduced performance and spectral efficiency that it will have for other mobile bands and services, the decision as to whether to include ATSC 3.0 in a device must be left to the market to decide."

"The market" determined you didn't need an FM tuner in your phone, and in the few phones that had an FM tuner, if you bought it through an American provider, it was almost always disabled.

TV broadcasters, on the other hand, are huge fans of ATSC 3.0 on mobile phones. It means more potential eyeballs and, incidentally, a guarantee of active internet access for that return data path. Hane feels that tuners in phones is "inevitable," and feels that international adoption of ATSC 3.0 will help push it forward. Wharton says that the focus is getting TVs to work, but mobile is in the plan.

Then there's portable TVs, of which there are HD versions on the market and have been for years. The next-generation ATSC 3.0 versions of these will likely get better reception in addition to the higher resolution offered by the new standard.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Cost (for you)

NextGen TV is not backward compatible with current TV tuners. To get it, you'll eventually need either a new TV or an external tuner. 

However, you shouldn't feel a push to upgrade since:

1. NextGen TV/ATSC 3.0 isn't mandatory, and it doesn't affect cable, satellite or streaming TV.

2. Regular HD broadcasts will continue for at least another five years.

3. HD tuners cost as little as $30 to $40 now, and NextGen TV tuners, which currently start at $200, will eventually be cheap as well.

Even after they start NextGen broadcasts, stations have to broadcast regular old HD for five years. Here's the actual language:

"The programming aired on the ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel must be 'substantially similar' to the programming aired on the 3.0 channel. This means that the programming must be the same, except for programming features that are based on the enhanced capabilities of ATSC 3.0, advertisements and promotions for upcoming programs. The substantially similar requirement will sunset in five years from its effective date absent further action by the Commission to extend it."

In other words, the HD broadcast has to be essentially the same as the new 3.0 broadcast for five years, perhaps longer depending on future FCC actions.

Which brings us to point 3. By the time people had to buy them, HD tuners were inexpensive and are even more so now. The HD tuner I use is currently $26 on Amazon. The first generation NextGen tuners available now are more expensive than that, but not outrageous. We'll discuss those below. By the time anyone actually requires one, however, they'll almost certainly be affordable.

Which is good, because there aren't any planned subsidies this time around for people to get a tuner for cheap. I'm sure this is at least partly due to how few people actually still use OTA as their sole form of TV reception. Maybe this will change as more stations convert, but we're a ways away from that.

atsc-upgrade-path

As you can see, there are lots of parts that need to get upgraded all along the chain before you can get 3.0 in your home.

ATSC/TVTechnology.com

Here's another way to think about it: The first HD broadcasts began in the mid-90s, but when did you buy your first HDTV? As far as the 3.0 transition is concerned we're in the late-90s, maybe generously the early 2000s, now. Things seem like they're moving at a much more rapid pace than the transition from analog to DTV/HDTV, but even so, it will be a long time before ATSC 3.0 completely replaces the current standard.

How to get NextGen right now

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LG

If you want to check it out for yourself, many of you already can. The first stop is to go to WatchNextGenTV.com. That website will help you find what stations in your area are broadcasting, or which ones will soon. 

Next up you'll need something to receive it. If you're in the market for a new TV there are several options available from LG, Samsung, and Sony. Here's our list of all the 2020 and 2021 TVs with built-in next-gen tuners

If you want to check out NextGen TV without buying a new television, you'll need an external tuner. It's still early days, so there's only one on the market now and another that should be shipping in a few months. 

The HDHomeRun Connect 4K ($200), is one of the network-connected tuners we discussed above. There isn't even an HDMI output to connect directly to your TV. Instead it lets you stream NextGen content to any device on your network, including your TV. That is, as long as your device or TV can play the HDHomeRun app, which is available on Android and iOS

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Zapperbox

If you want a more traditional tuner, BitRouter plans to start shipping its first ZapperBox M1 tuners in the spring. You can reserve one now for $249. It doesn't have internal storage, but BitRouter plans to add the ability to save content on network-attached storage, or NAS, devices via a firmware update. They also plan to add the ability to send the content around your home network, like what the Connect 4K does.

Then there's what to watch. Being early in the process, you're not going to find much 4K content, possibly not any. This was the same with the early years of HDTV. It's also going to vary per area. There is certainly a lot of 4K content being produced right now, and that has been the case for several years. So in that way, we're in better shape than we were in the early days of HD. 

Basic and paid cable channels over-the-air?

One company is using the bandwidth and IP nature of NextGen to do something a little different. It's a hybrid paid TV service, sort of like cable/satellite, but using over-the-air broadcasts to deliver the content. It's called Evoca, and right now it's available only in Boise, Idaho. Edge Networks is the company behind it, and it wants to roll it out to other small markets where cable offerings are limited, and broadband speeds are slow or expensive. 

It's an interesting idea for underserved and often forgotten-about markets. 

Read moreCable TV channels and 4K from an antenna?

Seeing the future

The transition from analog broadcasting to HD, if you count from the formation of the Grand Alliance to the final analog broadcast, took 16 years. 

Though many aspects of technology move rapidly, getting dozens of companies, plus the governments of the US and many other countries, all to agree to specific standards, takes time. So does the testing of the new tech. There are a lot of cogs and sprockets that have to align for this to work, and it would be a lot harder to fix once it's all live.

But technology moves faster and faster. It's highly doubtful it will take 16 years to fully implement NextGen TV. As we mentioned at the top, dozens of stations are already broadcasting. Will every station in your city switch to NextGen TV? Probably not, but the bigger ones likely will. This is especially true if there are other NextGen TV stations in your area. There's a potential here for stations to make additional money in the long run with 3.0, and that's obviously a big motivator.

There's also the question of how much content there will be. If it follows the HDTV transition model, big sporting events in 4K HDR will come first, followed by lots and lots of shows featuring nature scenes and closeups of bugs. Seriously -- this was totally a thing. Then we'll see a handful of scripted prime-time shows. My guess would be the popular, solidly profitable ones that are produced (not just aired) by networks like CBS and NBC.

So should you hold off buying a new TV? Nope, not unless you only get your shows over the air. And even if you do, by the time there's enough content to be interesting, there will be cheap tuner boxes you can connect to whatever TV you have. 

For now, NextGen TV seems to be well on its way.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff Morrison does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castlesairplane graveyards and more. 

You can follow his exploits on Instagram and YouTube, and on his travel blog, BaldNomad. He also wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel