ATSC logo over a broadcasting tower
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A new era of free TV is on the horizon, and it promises to bring 4K TV to your phone over-the-air. The FCC began the transition to this new format, called ATSC 3.0, on March 5th, 2018.

Wait a minute. If we started transitioning to ATSC 3.0 a year ago, then why isn’t anyone talking about it? Why can’t we watch broadcast TV on our phones? Why isn’t my local news station in 4K?

What Is ATSC 3.0 and How is it Unique?

When ATSC 1.0 (digital television) was announced 25 years ago, it served as a replacement for analog TV signals, and it began the HDTV revolution. Now, the Advanced Television Systems Committee is implementing ATSC 3.0, a new broadcast standard that promises to drag 4K into the mainstream and to bring free TV to our phones and cars.

This is the first major update to broadcast TV in 25 years. The Advanced Television Systems Committee planned a transition to ATSC 2.0 in 2010 or 2011, but the project became outdated during development, so it was scrapped. As a result, we’re skipped right from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0.

As you can imagine, ATSC 3.0 is meant to bring broadcast TV into the present. The format supports 4K, 3D, UHD, and high-quality audio, which will hopefully help 4K supersede HDTV. Like traditional broadcast TV, ATSC 3.0 works over the air, but it also works in tandem with internet connections (including mobile connections, like 5G) to create a broadcast/broadband hybrid stream.

ATSC 3.0 utilizes the OFDM, QAM and QPSK encoding methods, which provides a lot more flexibility than the fixed 8VBS encoding method utilized by ATSC 1.0. Do you know how Netflix lowers your video quality when your internet connection is slow or weak? Yeah, these encoding methods are meant to mimic that process. When your TV or phone has a poor connection to an ATSC 3.0 broadcast source, the video’s quality will be reduced, but it will keep playing smoothly.

This latest standard also uses a new form of Ghost Cancellation technology, which essentially prevents two TV transmissions from interfering with one another. This allows broadcasters to utilize multiple transmission sources (TV towers) in a small area, which will provide the coverage that’s needed for phones and cars to maintain a stable signal.

ATSC 3.0 Uses the Internet for Targeted Content

The Advanced Television Systems Committee has big plans for ATSC 3.0. But a lot of these new ideas require a little help from the internet because they all stem from one familiar concept—targeted content. Broadcast TV is a one-way signal, and for targeted content to work, broadcasters need a two-way signal. The internet just happens to fit the bill.

Right now, broadcasters rely on 3rd parties, like Nielsen, to survey who’s watching what channels. Broadcasters use these surveys to formulate airing schedules and to optimize ad revenue. But once ATSC 3.0 is fully adopted, broadcasters will know a lot more about their viewers. Without any help from companies like Nielsen, broadcasters will know your age, your location, when you’re watching TV, and what you’re watching on TV.

Young woman using her phone at an airport
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As you’ve probably guessed, all advertisements broadcasted over ATSC 3.0 are targeted toward individuals. But over-the-air transmissions are broad, not specific, so targeted ads are handled by the ATSC 3.0’s internet backbone. It’s a bit strange, but it follows the format of websites like YouTube and Hulu. If you’re a young woman, you won’t see ads for catheters while watching the local news. If you’re an old man, get ready for more catheter ads.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee hasn’t revealed how advertisements will work without an internet connection, and there’s a chance that you can block ATSC 3.0 ads with a device like a PiHole. Since broadcasters aren’t adopting ATSC 3.0 yet, it’s impossible to know how things will work.

Internet integration also allows for tailored emergency signals, which means that natural disaster warnings and evacuation routes will be much more effective. This change will be especially helpful for people during a blackout or evacuation because emergency signals can be sent directly to phones.

Do You Have to Buy a New Phone or TV?

Back when we transitioned from analog TV to ATSC 1.0, the FCC bought converter boxes for consumers. Taking broadcast TV away from people that can’t afford converters would be grossly irresponsible, as it would effectively create a class-based information blackout.

But that was 25 years ago. Now, most people get their information over the internet, so the FCC won’t give away any ATSC 3.0 receivers. Until you buy an ATSC 3.0 receiver for your TV or buy a phone that can tune into ATSC 3.0 signals, you won’t be getting any free 4K TV.

Thankfully, the FCC has mandated that main broadcast content (like news and government-sponsored TV), will be simulcast in both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 for five years while consumers make the transition. This five-year simulcast plan began on March 5th, 2018. Geez, exactly one year ago. Why don’t we have ATSC 3.0 on our TV’s and phones right now?

You’ll Get ATSC 3.0…Eventually

ATSC 3.0 won’t expand nationwide this year, but it’s clear that the Advanced Television Systems Committee and the FCC are ready to make the switch. The basics of ATSC 3.0 are fleshed out, and the format has been approved by the FCC since March 5th, 2018. It just needs to be implemented by broadcasters.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee will show off ATSC 3.0 at NAB 2019 in April. At this conference, broadcasters will learn how to transition to ATSC 3.0, and how ATSC 3.0 emergency broadcast system will work. Hopefully, this conference will incentivize broadcasters to adopt ATSC 3.0 in the next year so the format can hit the ground running.

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It’s good to know that some broadcasters are ahead of the game. Right now, Pearl TV and ATEME TITAN are doing real world tests with ATSC 3.0 in Phoenix. Residents of Phoenix who happen to have an ATSC 3.0 receiver may be able to catch a signal right now.

But when will ATSC 3.0 come to phones? Well, that’s up to phone manufacturers. At CES 2019, the Sinclair Broadcast Group debuted its new system-on-a-chip that supports ATSC 3.0. Sinclair offered to give the chip to manufactures for free, but nobody’s taken the bait yet. It seems like everybody’s too focused on 5G right now. Speaking of 5G, doesn’t it kind of eliminate the need for ATSC 3.0?

Does 5G Eliminate the Need For ATSC 3.0?

Now, all of this sounds super cool, but we need to talk about the elephant in the room. You’ll probably have 5G before you have ATSC 3.0, and 5G already promises to bring 4K video to your phone without any hiccups. When 5G comes around, will there be a point in watching broadcast TV from your phone? And don’t streaming sticks like the Chromecast already eliminate the need for Free TV in your home? Is ATSC 3.0 the last breath of a dying medium?

Consider this. Broadcast TV has its merits, and those merits don’t always exist on the internet. While the internet is a landscape of unchained confusion, broadcast TV is a regulated medium that’s focused entirely on education, clean entertainment, and information. While the internet hosts an infinite amount of content fighting for your attention, broadcast TV is like a lazy river full of sports, reruns, and kids’ shows.

A 5G network enveloping a city
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Right now, our society is having a conversation about the violent, inappropriate content that’s targeted to kids on Youtube. With ATSC 3.0, parents can tune into channels like PBS on their tablets and phones, so kids can watch media that’s made and regulated by actual human beings instead of internet weirdos and algorithms.

Small cities and counties are concerned that the internet has turned peoples’ attention from regional news to national news, which diminishes community involvement. ATSC 3.0 will bring local news right to your phone. Local sports teams will be accessible on the go, and people in areas that are prone to hurricanes and flooding will be able to receive comprehensive safety information from anywhere. See where this is going?

Even if you never tune into broadcast TV on your phone, there are a lot of people who will. Its uses extend beyond entertainment, and high-speed internet can’t challenge those uses just yet. Hopefully, broadcasters start picking up on ATSC 3.0, because it certainly won’t be useless.

Sources: ATSC.orgDigital Trends, Display Daily

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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