The digital TV broadcast system, which adheres to specifications established and maintained by the ATSC (Advanced Television Standards Committer) and implemented by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has been solidly in place since 2009. However, less than 10 years after its adoption, it is now in the process of being replaced.

Current ATSC standards provide TV broadcasters with the ability to transmit TV programs digitally in up to 18 different resolutions from 480i to 1080p. However, although all the tuners built into HDTVs and 4K ultra HD TVs since the DTV transition has been in force have the ability to receive TV broadcast content in all 18 resolutions, only 720p and 1080i are actually used on regular basis by local and network stations for transmission.

While this is fine for those that own 720p or 1080p HDTVs, owners of current 4K Ultra HD TVs are feeling shortchanged. The increasing number of native 4K TVs and movie content available, being supplied via dedicated streaming, cable, satellite, and now Ultra HD Blu-ray discs/Player sources, may be the contributory factors.

However, when it comes to TV programs from the major networks, local channels, and most cable channels, even on a 4K Ultra HD TV, viewers are still receiving either a 720p or 1080i signal even if those signals are relayed via cable or satellite. In other words, what you actually see on the screen from most broadcast, cable, and satellite channels are upscaled to match the number or pixels available on a 4K Ultra HD TV screen.

Need for Change

To keep pace with cord-cutting trends and the advance of 4K Ultra HD TVs and 4K content, the ATSC, after several years of development, is now finalizing the next step in TV broadcasting; ATSC 3.0 is intended to replace the current system.

ATSC 3.0, when implemented, will include some of these features:

  • Over-the-air transmission of TV programming in 4K resolution, as well as HD and SD simulcasting capability
  • Inclusion of HDR and wide color gamut
  • Compatibility for up to 120fps video transmission
  • Ability to transmit immersive audio, multiple-language tracks, and other audio enhancements
  • True native 3-D transmission capability
  • Improved emergency alert system for weather, natural disasters, or other important events

Including all the features would definitely be a big advance for TV broadcasters in terms of both video and audio quality, as well as convenience features. This would put them on par with other forms of 4K and Internet streaming-based content delivery, currently available through some content providers.

The increasing interest in cord cutting by consumers frees them from paying for cable and satellite services they do not want, and relying more on the Internet and free over-the-air local and network programming sources for TV viewing. By adding 4K, and other features offered by ATSC 3.0, cord-cutting may become even more attractive.

Implementation Obstacles

Although ATSC 3.0 implementation promises to deliver a better, and more flexible TV viewing experience going forward it also means another big transition for consumers in terms of how their current TVs will work.

On the upside, as ATSC 3.0 comes into use, the current DTV/HDTV broadcast system will continue to be used for transmissions for a period of time, and so current TVs will not become obsolete for a while – user just would not be able to access the advanced features offered by ATSC 3.0. A similar process was employed for analog TV signals for several years before the previous DTV transition date was finalized.

However, after it is deemed that there are enough TVs in use that incorporate built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners, a date-certain will be set where only ATSC 3.0 standards will be in use.

Once the cut-off date is reached, this would mean that owners of remaining analog, HD, and any non-ATSC 3.0-enabled Ultra HD TVs still in use at that time will need to have external tuners in order to receive network and local TV programming over-the-air.

The external boxes or other plug-in adapters would have to receive and downscale ATSC 3.0 transmissions for those that own analog, 720p, or 1080p TVs, but, hopefully, would offer a native-4K resolution output for owners of 4K Ultra HD TVs that may not have a built-in ATSC 3.0 tuner of their own.

In addition, cable and satellite providers may still need to provide a little longer down-conversion compatibility for their subscribers that do not own compatible TVs.

Where ATSC 3.0 Has Been Adopted

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South Korea has been on the forefront of ATSC 3.0 adoption. It began full-time testing in 2015, and as of May 2017, has announced that its three major TV networks are ready to transmit ATSC 3.0 full time in several cities. For added support, South Korea-based TV maker LG will make TVs available with built-in ATSC 3.0 tuners.

For USA, things are progressing slower. In 2016, ATSC 3.0 took the first step out of the lab with full-time field testing by WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC.

Although consumers do not have access to these initial transmissions, it is giving TV broadcasters and TV set manufacturers the opportunity to test content transmission features, as well as the reception/decoding hardware/firmware that will be needed to be incorporated into Ultra HD TVs going forward. Slow roll-out of ATSC 3.0 is expected to be seen in both TV stations, and TVs, beginning late in 2017. However, as to when the current ATSC system will switch over entirely to ATSC 3.0 –
perhaps in 2020.

Not a Victory Lap

As the scope of ATSC 3.0 was further developed, the initial timeline gave way to a more complete plan that reflected the huge amount of work that needed to be done. It can be seen that most elements of ATSC 3.0 have been completed. The remaining elements are moving forward at a rapid pace.

A considerable amount of work remains to be done. But, all of the major elements have either been completed, or will be completed soon. While work continues to wrap up the remaining standards, new efforts are focused on developing recommended practices that provide implementation guidance to TV station engineers. In addition, updates to the approved ATSC 3.0 standards are being done as needed. With any complex standard, work to refine the documents will continue for some time. This is the nature of standards development work

Outlook

The switch-over from current HDTV broadcasting of ATSC 3.0 is definitely a major undertaking that will greatly affect both TV broadcasters and consumers.

Unlike current standards, TV makers are not required to incorporate tuners into new TVs to receive ATSC 3.0 transmissions. However, it is anticipated that competitive market pressure will enforce compliance.

To aid in this transition, TV set-top box makers have indicated that outboard add-on tuners will be made available to consumers that need them. However, there will not be any FCC sponsored coupon program as was done with the 2009 analog-to-digital TV transition.

In addition, logistics still need to be worked out as to how cable and satellite providers will integrate with the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast system into their content services.