Are 4K OTA Broadcasts Available Right Now

Everything You Need To Know About ATSC 3.0

If you’re a die-hard Antenna Junkie like me, then no doubt you’ve heard about the new standard for OTA broadcasts that is coming – 4K UltraHD ATSC 3.0. In this article I want to delve a little deeper into what this standard is, how it will improve OTA digital broadcasts, and how it will impact Cord Cutters like you and me.

ATSC 3.0 is the latest broadcast transmission standard being developed by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). It’s no secret that Ultra High Definition (UHD) 4K television sets have been on the market for a few years now, however, digital broadcasters have been slow to keep pace with the advancements in technology.

That’s about to change. Coming in 2020 or perhaps even sooner the FCC has provided a pathway to allow digital broadcasters to transition to ATSC 3.0 which will provide significant enhancements to the digital signals we receive. Included in these enhancement will be:

  • Ultra High Definition (UHD)
  • Support for Mobile Viewing
  • 3D Television Support
  • High Dynamic Range (HDR)
  • High Frame Rates (HFR)
  • Multi-Channel Immersive Audio

Before we look at all these advantages in closer detail, let’s take a look at how ATSC 3.0 stacks up to its older brother ATSC 1.0. Yes, that’s right the previous standard is ATSC 1.0 not 2.0, so what happened to ATSC 2.0? Let’s find out.

ATSC 1.0/2.0 Protocol Stack

So what happened to ATSC 2.0? Well, an ATSC 2.0 standard was actually being outlined and it was being developed to integrate seamlessly into the existing ATSC 1.0 protocol stack. This means that ATSC 2.0 would have had full backward compatibility with existing ATSC 1.0 hardware (ATSC 3.0 does not and we will discuss why later), however, it never did fully materialize as the advancements in technology out paced it.

Saying that, let’s not forget that the current ATSC standard has paved the way for all the current HD digital broadcast signals that we currently receive today. Since the transition to digital broadcast imposed by the FCC in 2009, we have been reaping the benefits of upto 1920 x 1080 pixels, 1080i or 720p, 5.1 multi-channel audio using Dolby AC-3 format and up to six sub-channels for each physical/virtual channel (x.1, x.2, x.3, etc.). Certainly nothing to be complaining about!

Below is an image of the full ATSC 1.0/2.0 protocol stack. In blue color are the additions that ATSC 2.0 incorporates, however, because of the MPEG2 encoding it was still limited in its ability to stream Ultra High Definition 4K content.

Everything You Need to know about ATSC 3.0

You can see from the layered image that ATSC 2.0 was built on the same Physical Layer and Transport Layer as was ATSC 1.0. This improved ATSC 2.0 standard did offer enhanced audio and rendering capabilities, however, it was never going to be able to support a Full 4K UHD transmission. Ultimately, as the technology of the last 8 years rapidly shifted, it never gained an traction and was ultimately superseded by the new ATSC 3.0 standard.

How Does The New ATSC 3.0 Standard Stack Up

ATSC 3.0 is really a paradigm shift from the way analog signals of old and current digital signals are being transmitted today. Today digital signals are being carried using an MPEG 2 Transport Stream, as illustrated in the ATSC 1.0/2.0 protocol stack image above.

As discussed, this protocol stream has inherent limitations and bandwidth caps. With the new ATSC 3.0 standard these limitations are being obliterated by leveraging an IP-based protocol to easily deliver high-quality, high-bandwidth content. What does this mean you ask? This is the same transport stream being leveraged by on-line streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Video to deliver 4K video to your media streaming boxes such as the NVIDIA SHIELD TV, an absolute power house when it comes to Android TV streaming boxes.

It is quite apparent that the way we consume content today has changed significantly, no longer are we constrained to consuming our entertainment on television sets. Nowadays, we consume our entertainment on our TV’s, PC’s, Tablet’s, Smartphones, in our cars and the list goes on. This is what ATSC 3.0 aims to address through its IP-based protocol.

That’s right, this new form of digital transmission in effect will become a part of the world wide web and allow us to receive content being pushed by broadcasters on a plethora of modern devices.

Let’s look at how ATSC 3.0 protocol stacks up against the current IP-based protocol used by modern broadband distribution companies.

Everything You Need to know about ATSC 3.0
Image Source: https://www.thebroadcastbridge.com

As you can see there is a fundamental difference in the delivery mechanism in the bottom two layers, namely, the Physical Layer and Link Layer. On the Digital Broadcast side, the Physical Layer will be an Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM RF) transmission and on the Data Link Layer an ATSC Link-Layer (ALP) protocol. Of course, looking at the protocol stack above the shared IP Layer, things get a little more complicated.

What Is ATSC 3.0 Going To Mean For Cord Cutters

Before we get into the nitty gritty details of what ATSC 3.0 is going to mean for us Cord Cutters. I recommend taking a look at this video published by the Advanced Television System Broadcasters (ATSC). I assure you, it will get you excited about the revolutionary change that is upon us!

4K Ultra High Definition

That’s right, when broadcasters decide to migrate to the new ATSC 3.0 standard they will be able to deliver crystal clear, 4K resolution video right to your Television or Mobile devices. Ultra High Definition 4K TV delivers over 8 million pixels which is 4 times more than 1080p and 23 times that of Standard Definition. The ATSC 3.0 standard will include UltraHD video up to 3840×2160 at between 60 and 120 fps (frames per second).

Mobile Viewing

ATSC 3.0 promises to deliver mobile viewing to all your portable devices, similar to the way it does today in your home WIFI network if you are leveraging network tuner hardware such as my personal favorite, the SiliconDust HDHomeRun EXTEND (2-Tuner) or the not to be denied Tablo 4-Tuner Digital Video Recorder.

With the launch of a new generation of these tuner devices, and the likely integration of the ATSC 3.0 standard built right into the favorite devices we use everyday such as our smartphone, Smart TV’s, Tablets and PC’s, 4K UltraHD will be within reach of all of us. In a press release, Kevin Gage, ONE Media’s executive vice president of strategic development and chief technology officer said,

We intend that this new platform will be a place where the broadcast industry can unite to launch new and exciting consumer and B2B products and services.

3D Television Support

That’s write, the new ATSC 3.0 standard will incorporate Terrestrial 3D Television support. Broadcaster will have a framework by which they can broadcast 3D 4K UltraHD transmission over the air waves. Of course, the decision will lie solely with the broadcaster, however, it’s an example that no stone is being left un-turned in this standard.

Support for High Dynamic Range (HDR)

For those of you who are not familiar with High Dynamic Range (HDR), it is a standard that preserves the dark and light contrast in an image, yields brighter, crisper, and cleaner images with a wider color palette. In short, HDR will yield the most detailed and realistic TV picture you’ve ever seen. Significantly brighter highlights, deeper blacks, and far more detail in the mid-tones, closer emulating real-life.

The technology has been very familiar in photography circles who use HDR as an alternative or complement to image stacking to yield crisp, life-like images.

The ATSC reached a consensus that HDR will be a part of the ATSC 3.0 standard allowing broadcasters to deliver and compete with other broadcasters that are intending to incorporate it. Companies like Amazon have already launched open standard HEVC 10-bit streaming and it’s part of the new Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc format already hitting store shelves in late 2017.

High Frame Rates (HFR)

Frame rates are the number of frames that are shown in a given period of time, typically measured in seconds or frame rate per second (fps). The frame rate is the number of still frame images shown per second to emulate continuous playback. Therefore, the higher the frame rate, the smoother and more real-life the playback becomes.

Check out this Youtube video that shows the difference in frame rates. It should be noted that YouTube currently has a maximum frame rate of 60 fps which is why there is no noticeable difference between 60 fps and 120 fps.

It is clear that at 15 fps motion is very slow and jagged, whereas at 30, 60 to 120 fps, motion is extremely smooth. To be honest, and maybe it’s just my eyes, I see no discernible difference between 30, 60 and 120 fps in the video clip, however, as screen size increases the subtle differences will most likely become more pronounced. ATSC 3.0 will support frame rates up to 120 fps.

Multi-Channel Immersive Audio

Another big enhanced built into the ATSC 3.0 standard is going to be the multi-channel immersive audio that will embody both depth and height. Rumors suggest that it will have out-of-the-gate support for 7.1.4 audio configurations that can be scaled upto 22.2.

Everything You Need to know about ATSC 3.0

Two major audio contenders are Dolby with their AC-4 standard, and the MPEG-H Audio Alliance, which is a combination of Fraunhofer, Qualcomm, and Technicolor standards. Both the Dolby and MPEG-H Audio Alliance will offer similar immersive audio experiences, the differentiator between the two is how the underlying technologies implemented under the hood.

In a recent publication released by the ATSC, A/342 Part 2:2017, “AC-4 System”, confirmation has been made that one of the formats that will be standardized in the ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard is the new AC-4 format. This format promises to provide listeners with both a personalized and an immersive experience. It will establish a common framework for multiple Next Generation Audio (NGA) systems, both current and future.

In-Car Television

When the ATSC 3.0 standard is widely adopted it will provide an efficient and convenient way to deliver high quality 4K UltraHD directly to your moving vehicle, which will include but is not limited to, rear-seat televisions, and real-time updates for Telematics and navigation systems.

When Will ATSC 3.0 Be Available?

Trials have already begun, both NBC and FOX have been experimenting with ATSC 3.0 in Raleigh North Caroline (NBC) and Cleveland Ohio (FOX). ATSC 3.0 is expected to be available for wide-spread adaptation as early as 2019 but most likely we won’t see it become mainstream until some time thereafter. From what I’m seeing anywhere between 2020 and 2025.

That said, South Korea has already adopted ATSC 3.0 as its broadcast standard and were broadcasting the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games in 4K UHD. Additionally, LG and its partners have successfully completed trials for complete end-to-end 4K Ultra High Definition OTA Broadcasts and we should start seeing  ATSC 3.0 TV’s, Tuners and Media Boxes coming to market around that 2020 time frame as well.

So it appears that we likely won’t see ATSC 3.0 become mainstream until some period between 2020 and 2025, that is of course if it doesn’t suffer the same fate as its older sibling ATSC 2.0. My gut is telling me that this is not likely to happen, as the ATSC 3.0 is a complete redesign modeled after IP-based protocols that is at the backbone of the entire world wide infrastructure.

Will ATSC 3.0 Work With My Existing Hardware?

This is where we discuss the downside of ATSC 3.0. If you’ve been reading along I’ve made some intent that would imply that current television sets and tuner hardware will not be compatible with ATSC 3.0. There is no indication that ATSC 3.0 is being designed to be backward compatible with ATSC 1.0. That means the tuner hardware and television set currently pulling in your HD signals will not be able to natively bring in 4K UltraHD signals.

There is no need to panic about this yet. If you’ve already invested in tuner hardware such as SiliconDust HDHomeRun EXTEND (2-Tuner)  and Tablo 4-Tuner Digital Video Recorder you will still enjoy a number of years with this hardware as the transition to 4K UltraHD ATSC 3.0 occurs.

In fact, 2023 will be the earliest date than any broadcaster will legally be permitted to discontinue broadcast support for ATSC 1.0. That means for those of you looking to get into the market right now and “cut the cord” there is still a good business case to be made to do so.

Think about it, if you’re paying a modest $100/month for cable or satellite that is costing you $1200/year. If you “cut the cord” today, your initial investment cost to get up and running with a top of the line antenna and network tuner hardware will pay for itself in less than a year.

Even when broadcaster do finally change over, you will still have a solid number of years to keep that cash that you’re shelling out now, which will more than pay for the new hardware that will be coming to market.

Check out my articles that show you how I’ve setup my system here at My Current Setup. And be sure to check out my reviews of the Best Outdoor Antennas on the market right now.

The good news is that the antenna you invest in today will have no problems picking up broadcasts delivered using the ATSC 3.0 standard. That’s right, let’s debunk that myth right away that would suggest you need a specialized “4K TV Antenna” to pickup 4K OTA Broadcasts. This is simply not true.

So this is good news if you’re looking to jump into the world of FREE TV with both feet right now – I certainly hope I’ve given you some good reasons to!

For those of you who are looking to jump on board right now and get started with Free TV, I feel this article wouldn’t be complete without giving you some basic guidelines for installing your new Outdoor TV Antenna.

Outdoor TV Antenna Installation Guidelines

So you’re taking the leap and looking to get ahead of the curve and install an Outdoor TV Antenna so you can receive current HDTV signals be broadcast right now, and be ready for those 4K UltraHD signals that are just around the corner with the launch of ATSC 3.0. Great, I’ve compiled a short list of guidelines to help you get your antenna installed!

Before I do I would like to recommend a few top performers when it comes to Outdoor HDTV Antennas listed from my personal favorite (in the #1 spot), and traveling down the list from there. By clicking on one of the links you will be redirected over to Amazon where you can buy one of these outstanding antennas now.

  1. RCA Compact Outdoor Yagi HDTV Antenna
  2. 8-Element Bowtie Indoor/Outdoor HDTV Antenna
  3. ClearStream 4 Outdoor HDTV Antenna

Any one of these antennas will be a top performer when it comes to pulling in high quality HDTV transmission signals and will future proof you to receive those 4K UltraHD signals once the ATSC 3.0 standard is broadly adopted by the major broadcasters. For a complete list of all my reviews check out my Best Outdoor Antennas page.

To install your new outdoor antenna, follow this simple guide:

  • Direction, direction, direction – I recommend a couple of different websites that can help you figure out where you’re situated in proximity to the digital broadcast towers in your area. One is right here on AntennaJunkies.com the other site I would recommend, and admittedly it leverage more advanced tools to help you find your broadcast towers is here at TVFool.com.
  • Decide where you want to mount your antenna – You’ll want to carefully choose a location to mount your antenna. Typically rooftop, or fascia mount options are ideally suited to give your antenna the height it needs to provide as clear a line of site as possible.
  • Fasten your antenna using the provided mounting hardware – if the antenna you purchased comes with out own mounting pole then use that and secure the antenna using the provided hardware following the mounting instructions your antenna came with.
  • Now it’s time to align your antenna – once your antenna is secured to the mounting pole and the mounting pole is securely fastened to your roof or other, align your antenna using a compass in the direction of the your broadcast towers. Remember to use the tools mentioned above, HDTV Channel Map, or TVFool.com. If you don’t have a compass in the traditional sense, there are lots of free apps for your smartphone that will give you that functionality.
  • Connect your coax cable – choose a high-quality RG6 cable to make your connections between your antenna and your tuner. Remember to try to keep your cable run as short as possible as the longer the run is the more signal losses you will incur. Check out my 7 Ways To Boost Your Antenna Signal article for more information.
  • Scan for channels – Once all your connections are made and you’re happy with the location and direction of your antenna, it’s time to start scanning for channels. Using your supplied network tuner software or your TV’s builtin tuner functionality run a channel scan to start populating your list of received channels. If you’re not satisfied with the number of quality channels you are receiving, go back and fine tune your antenna direction and repeat the scan as necessary.

Closing Thoughts on ATSC 3.0

For Cord Cutters like you and me the prospects of being able to freely capture 4K UltraHD signals over the air waves using this new revolutionary ATSC 3.0 standard is exciting to say the least. ATSC 3.0 promises to deliver improved signal quality that will travel further and have a deeper depth penetration factor through building and walls.

Before closing off on this article, it would be prudent to touch the cost factor to convert broadcast transmission to this new standard. Throughout my research I have not found any firm numbers, and depending on the broadcasters existing infrastructure this cost factor is likely to vary from network to network. However, estimations I’ve seen appear to be ranging from the $500,000 to $1,000,000 which would be on the high side. Therefore, smaller networks transitioning to the new standard will not be as eager to do so as the larger networks like NBC, FOX, ABC and the like. I guess time will tell and all will be revealed!

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out some of my other articles today:

If you haven’t already done so, be sure to check out my Top 10 Antenna Picks for this year and leave me a comment!