The next generation of broadcast TV is coming, whether you're ready or not. Actually, no one's ready, and that's sort of the point.
ATSC, or Advanced Television Systems Committee, is the group that decides what over-the-air (and more) TV signals look like. Last year about 76 percent of US households subscribed to cable, satellite or fiber for TV, while 21 percent relied on antenna reception for at least one TV in the home. But that antenna number went up four points compared to 2014, according to the Consumer Technology Association.
The airwaves are still an important source of free TV for millions of Americans, despite FCC auctions selling off TV spectrum to wireless carriers like T-Mobile. Free TV, however, is in for some big changes.
Back in the day, the ATSC decided on 1080i and 720p resolutions for digital and HDTV broadcasts, and today just about every cable or satellite show uses one or the other. Up next, not surprisingly, is 4K resolution, along with a host of other improvements including high dynamic range (HDR), better sound and even 3D (remember that?) and access via your phone.
Their standards and by extension, what's next for over-the-air TV, will have effects that reach far beyond the people who get their TV via antenna. It could affect what you see and hear on your TV for years, maybe even decades, to come.
So what is the ATSC?
The Advanced Television Systems Committee is an international group of broadcasters, TV manufacturers, and other tech companies. If it's a tech company you've heard of, they probably have a seat at the table. Originally the ATSC was created to establish the then-futuristic "HDTV" and what that entailed. Believe it or not, that was almost 25 years ago. We're about as far from that now as they were from color television. We've moved past 1080i/720p. Like it or not, we're in the 4K era.
While Ultra HD TVs have come fast and furious, 4K content has not. We have more now than we ever have, and more is on its way, but it's not a ton. Notably, there is almost no cable or satellite 4K content, and absolutely no over-the-air broadcasts.
When HD hit, the TVs arrived right around the time of the Digital Transition, so we had lovely OTA HD broadcasts to watch on our shiny new HDTVs. Not so much now with 4K. Re-enter the ATSC.
3.0 (i.e., 2 better than 1.0)
Things are moving quickly, or as quickly as you'd expect from a group of companies that are often fierce competitors outside the ATSC. At the end of March one of the major components of the standard, "System Discovery and Signaling," was finalized. This is but one small part, but it's a step. A lot of what's being worked on now are the nuts and bolts. The behind the scenes stuff, so to speak, that won't matter much to us in the long run.
Because the standard isn't finalized, we don't know exactly what it will be. We do know a few things for sure, and a few things we can guess at given the committee's stated intentions.
The resolution is going to be 3,840x2,160, commonly known as 4K or UHD. There are plans for enabling even higher resolutions in the future. Getting that to your screen is going to be H.265 compression, which ATSC and other group's testing found to be 35-50 percent more efficient than H.264 (which itself was a big leap from HD's MPEG-2).
The option for frame rates up to 120fps are being discussed, which is way beyond what we have access to right now other than with games on high-end PCs (Ultra HD Blu-rays are all currently 24fps because that's what nearly all movies are). Higher frame rates of 60 and 120fps will be great for sports, and a bit of techno overkill for most other programming.
Not wanting to let ATSC 3.0 be obsolete before it's even launched, they're looking into including high-dynamic range and wide color gamut. Unlike Ultra HD Blu-ray, they're even looking to include a 3D option.
The audio side isn't being neglected either. MPEG-H and Dolby AC-4 are potential candidates. Both are more efficient and flexible than the Dolby Digital used in current broadcasts. We probably won't see Dolby Atmos specifically, but some version of object-based surround sound, with height channels, will likely be an option.
Perhaps just as interesting, a lot of attention is being paid to a multiple audio options within a program. Different languages of course, but also different commentary tracks (Not having to listen to stupefyingly inane "color commentary" might be enough to get me to watch sportsball). There will be the option for "contouring" the audio based on the user and the device. So this means you can still hear the dialog when listening through a tablet's speakers, it sounds like you're listening to speakers in a room when you're on headphones, the thunder sounds massive when you're in your home theater, and grandpa can hear Bill O'Reilly though his 32-inch TV in the den without cranking the volume to 100.
Plus, in what will surely be ATSC 3.0's most beloved feature, dynamic range limiting means no more loud commercials.
Airwaves augmented by the Internet, mobile
As you'd expect in today's connected world, something the original creators of ATSC 1.0 couldn't have dreamed about a quarter century ago, ATSC 3.0 is being created with the idea that most devices will be Internet-connected. They envision a "hybrid" system, where the main content (audio and video) will be sent over the air, but other content (targeted ads, for example) will get sent over broadband and integrated into the program.
The transmission itself will be IP-based, like how video is send over the Internet, instead of the current MPEG stream. The easiest way to imagine this difference is the current OTA broadcast is like water from your faucet. The new system will be bottles of water: same amount of water, just handled differently. This opens up a number of options for broadcasters and content providers, not least encryption and access restriction (yep, we all should have expected that), but also end-user-friendly features like video-on-demand.
Unlike 1.0, 3.0 is incorporating mobile as an integral part of the package. So, in theory, you'd be able to watch the game while taking the train home from work without using your data plan or dealing with an overly compressed SD stream.
Lastly, if a station doesn't want to use their extra bandwidth for Ultra HD, they'll be able to share bandwidth with an entirely different channel, potentially saving them money and freeing up valuable frequency spectrum for the FCC to auction off.
Will I need a new TV or tuner?
Well...yes. Sort of. There is no intention in making ATSC 3.0 backward compatible. This is a huge leap forward, and that's only possible if the standards developed in the early '90s (which in turn were hamstrung by tech from the '50s) are left behind.
However, it's going to be a long time before this will be an issue. Initially there's going to be bandwidth sharing, so current ATSC 1.0 tuners will still work well into the 3.0 transition. There will also be multiple options to get the new signal to older TVs. Think HDMI dongles, standalone tuners, perhaps even whole-home tuners that receive the signal and then send that over your home Wi-Fi.
Since an ATSC 1.0 tuner box can be had right now for $40, it's likely this aspect will be worked out inexpensively for the "legacy" TVs still in use, just like how HD is available now on all the old SD TVs still in use.
Once the standards are finalized, you'll start seeing ATSC 3.0 tuners in TVs, hopefully with a more marketing-friendly name like "4K Broadcast Ready" or something. But we're a few years away from that.
What the ATSC says
I spoke with Rich Chernock, chairman of the Technology and Standards Group at ATSC, about what their goals were for 3.0. "To provide broadcasters with a new set of tools that would allow them to construct new services to match their business models," he replied, stressing "flexibility" and "evolveability." They want to give broadcasters as many tech tools as possible so they can give you what you want, and perhaps convince you not to subscribe to cable and satellite.
The other half is just as interesting, "to allow the system to gracefully evolve with new technologies without needing the disruptions that we've had in the past." As you saw in many of the potential specs listed above, ATSC is going far beyond what we have use for now, anticipating the best they can figure for future changes and directions. By not having the rigid specs we've had in the past, they're leaving open for future advancements so a hard break like the one we'll have to get to 3.0 won't have to happen again.
At least not for another quarter century or so.
Wait, what happened to 2.0?
If ATSC 1.0 was 1080i/720p HD, what was 2.0? 2.0 was going to be enhancements to 1.0, but ended up getting "eclipsed" as Chernock says, for the far more advanced 3.0.
4K over-the-air broadcasts are coming, but not in the next year or two. ATSC 3.0 is already being tested in cities around the world, though it's still in the early stages. Cord cutters should be the most excited, as free 4K signals over-the-air is a great idea. OTA HD is still some of the best looking HD (other than Blu-ray), so with any luck, OTA 4K will be high-quality too.
But more than that, ATSC 3.0 aims to change the very nature of broadcast television and bring it into the new millennium, becoming a part of our digital present and digital future. What we've covered here merely scratches the surface. The ATSC is "going big" and hoping to get right what time and tech wasn't able to with 1.0. Will they succeed? Let's hope so, because better free TV is pretty cool.
As more aspects are finalized, some later this year and all by Q2 2017, we'll revisit and discuss.
Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics such as why all HDMI cables are the same, LED LCD vs. OLED vs. Plasma, why 4K TVs aren't worth it and more. Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff then check out his travel photography on Instagram.