Free antenna TV is getting an upgrade and it might be in your town already
4K, HDR, 120Hz refresh rates and better indoor reception are coming to US airwaves for free thanks to ATSC 3.0, aka NextGen TV.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
NextGen TV, aka ATSC 3.0, is continuing its rapid rollout across the country. Major markets like Los Angeles, Atlanta, Denver, Houston and more all have stations transmitting. Meanwhile New York, Boston, and many other markets are slated to have broadcasts later this year. While not every station in every market has a NextGen TV counterpart, more and more are coming on the air.
What's NextGen TV? It's an update to the free HDTV you can already get over-the-air in nearly every city in the US. There's no monthly fee, but you do need either a new TV with a built-in tuner or a standalone external tuner. The standard allows broadcast stations to send higher quality signals than ever before with features like 4K, HDR, 120 Hz, and more. ATSC 3.0 proponents also claim better reception indoors and on-the-go -- whether it's on your phone, or even in your car. The best part is that if you're watching it on your TV it uses the same standard antennas available today.
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.
As of the beginning of 2022 the majority of the largest markets in the US have at least one channel broadcasting NextGen TV. By the end of 2022, nearly all major and many minor markets will have multiple channels .
How it will work in your home
Put simply: If you connect an antenna to your TV you will receive free programming, just like most people can get now. Yet, that is selling the potential benefits of NextGen TV short.
NextGen TV is IP-based, so in practice it can be moved around your home just like any internet content can right now. For example, you connect an antenna to a tuner box inside your home, but that box is not connected to your TV at all. Instead, it's connected to your router. 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, even though such a thing is easy to implement. We'll talk more about that in a moment.
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 a changeover isn't occurring this time around, stations and markets are left to themselves how best to share or use the over-the-air spectrum in their areas.
While it's not a mandatory standard, many broadcasters still 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. While it also requires Internet access, if this type of thing bothers you, just don't connect your TV or NextGen TV receiver to the internet. You will inevitably 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
. At a most basic level, carriers like
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. John Hane of the Spectrum Consortium feels that tuners built into phones is "inevitable," and 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.
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.
3. Even after they start NextGen broadcasts, stations will have to keep broadcasting regular old HD.
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, though they're 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.
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
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.
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 aren't many options.
At CES 2022 Nuvvyo announced the Tablo, a quad-tuner box that can connect to a TV directly, or transmit over a network to Rokus, Apple TVs, or computers on your home network.
The Silicon Dust has two models, the $199 HomeRun Flex 4K and the $279 HomeRun Scribe 4K. Both have ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 tuners.
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 Scribe 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.
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 already 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.