After being hyped up for so long, the very first ‘true’ ATSC 3 tuner hardware is finally here! SiliconDust’s latest cord-cutting tuner, dubbed the FLEX 4K.
The Flex 4K is Silicon Dust’s very first device capable of streaming 4K resolution, and it also boasts four built-in tuners: two for the new ATSC 3.0 standard, and the other pair for the older ATSC 1.0 format most of us are familiar with.
The signature feature of the product, however, is its ATSC 3.0 support, which allows OTA content to be more reliably broadcast in full HD 1080p and even 4K resolutions. Before we get into the technical spec’s of the HDHomeRun Flex 4K, let’s go over what ATSC 3.0 is, where ATSC 3.0 is currently available, and what ATSC 3.0 going to mean for cord cutters.
HDHomerun Flex 4K and ATSC 3.0
The new HDHomeRun Flex 4K features four tuners:
As you can see, two tuners support the new ATSC 3.0 standard while the other two supports our current ATSC 1.0 standard. This will ensure reliability as we go through this transition between ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 that is expected to last until 2023. Meaning, the Flex 4K is a great long-term investment as you can use it for both standards.
Why is the HDHomeRun Flex 4K so special as a true ATSC 3.0 tuner?
Because until now, a single-tuner ATSC 3.0 USB dongle would cost you almost $1,000, while the Flex 4K is available for around $200.
What Is ATSC 3.0?
The term ATSC itself stands for Advanced Television Systems Committee, and ATSC 3.0 is actually the newest type of ATSC’s standards for signal broadcasts. The ATSC broadcasting standards are a set of protocols to standardize how television signals are broadcasted in the U.S., and also how antennas and receiving devices should interpret the signals.
The first ATSC standard (and the one we are using today), ATSC 1.0, was launched more than two decades ago in 1996 and is still widely used in the US and in many different countries. TV tuners (or more accurately, TV receivers) that operate with these ATSC’s standards are dubbed ATSC tuners or ATSC receivers.
Interestingly enough, ATSC 2.0 was never actually launched, and all plans for ATSC 2.0 were adopted into the recently launched ATSC 3.0 standard. The ATSC 3.0 standard was officially launched as recently as in 2017 in South Korea in preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
The main difference between the new format ATSC 3.0 and the older ATSC 1.0 is that now ATSC 3.0 uses both the standard OTA (over the air) signals and internet signals to receive television content. Meaning, it can be thought of as a hybrid between a standard OTA reception and a cable/satellite TV reception.
What are the Benefits of ATSC 3.0
The fact that ATSC 3.0 utilizes the new technology to combine enhanced OTA signals and broadband internet signals will allow a significant enhancement to the digital signals we receive, including:
- Support for mobile streaming/viewing: ATSC 3.0 allows us to stream videos on mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), as well as TV receivers/tuners in vehicles
- Ultra High Definition (UHD): ATSC 1.0 standard can only produce up to 1080p resolution, and even until today 1080p ATSC 1.0 transmissions are still pretty rare. Most OTA TV broadcasts are only delivered up to 720p. ATSC 3.0, on the other hand, offers stable 4K UHD as the new standard while also including various picture quality upgrades like HDR (High Dynamic Range), WCG (Wide Color Gamut), and higher FPS.
- Better Audio Quality: ATSC 3.0 supports the new Dolby AC-4 standard instead of AC-3 supported by current ATSC 1.0. This allows 7.1.4 l audio that also supports Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, and other advanced object-based surround formats.
- Geo-targeting and personalization: With ATSC 3.0 capable of also utilizing internet signals, it can collect more information online like better geo-location, viewing data, and so on. As a result, ATSC 3.0 can allow broadcasts of truly personalized content, unique for each viewer.
In the next section I’ll expand on some of these features.
How Does ATSC 3.0 “Stacks Up”?
ATSC 1.0/2.0 Protocol Stack
So what happened to ATSC 2.0? Well, the 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 fully materialize as the advancements in technology out-paced it.
Since the transition to digital broadcast imposed by the FCC in 2009, we have been reaping the benefits of up to 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.).
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.
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.
ATSC 3.0 Protocol Stack
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 HD video streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon.
It is 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.
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 new standard stacks up against the current IP-based protocol leveraging an internet connection and modern broadband distribution companies.
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 will ATSC 3.0 mean for Cord Cutters
Better Picture Quality
ATSC 3.0 tuner hardware promises to deliver improved over-the-air reception receiving broadcasts in pristine 4K resolution. Supporting this will also mean high dynamic range, wide color gamut, and frame rates upto 120 frames per second.
What does a 120 frames per second mean you might ask…check out the YouTube video below that does a great job visualizing it.
In order to broadcast in 4K, ATSC 3.0 will leverage the H.265 codec which means better quality and better reception both indoors and outdoors.
Improved Audio Quality
Another exciting aspect of ATSC 3.0 is the immersive audio it will deliver. ATSC 3.0 will include native support for 7.1.4 audio configurations that can be scaled up to 22.2.
ATSC 3.0 will standardize on the AC-4 audio format for digital broadcasts.
Now this is an interesting one. ATSC 3.0 promises to deliver digital broadcasts directly to your mobile devices in much the same way that your WiFi currently does. Of course, your mobile devices will need to have installed an ATSC 3.0 tuner which likely won’t be to market any time soon.
In fact, with all the buzz around 5G that also promises to deliver 4K directly to your phone, it is likely that we’ll see 5G tuner hardware before ATSC 3.0 tuner hardware in our mobile devices. It’s very exciting that we have these two somewhat competing technologies, ATSC 3.0 and 5G on the horizon…what a time of innovation we are living in!
Tablets and phones are not the only devices that will be capable of this mobile viewing experience. Televisions in our vehicles will also have a direct link to ATSC 3.0 provided they are outfitted with ATSC 3.0 tuner hardware as well.
Where is ATSC 3.0 Currently Available?
There is no denying that ATSC 3.0 is going to be the new digital broadcast standard for the future. It is being touted as next generation TV or “Nextgen TV”.
In fact, markets are have already been ramping up the transition from the older ATSC 1.0 to the ATSC 3.0 format since late 2019 and earlier this year.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will prevent TV stations from abandoning ATSC 1.0 until at least 2023 and most likely 2025, but more and more broadcasters have announced that they are going to bring ATSC 3.0 to 62 markets across the U.S.
Those 62 markets—dubbed the ‘First Markets’— are indicated on this map:
Image Source: https://www.atsc.org/nextgen-tv/deployments/
Orange color indicates that at least one station in the area is already transmitting ATSC 3.0 content, while markets in light blue indicate that at least one station has submitted the FCC application to transmit ATSC 3.0 content and is preparing to launch service.
Now, we know from the above discussion that ATSC 3.0 is mostly about HD and 4K-quality transmission over the air, but what exactly is NextGen TV and will your current antenna still work?
Will Your Current Antenna Work With ATSC 3.0
The short answer to this questions is, yes! TV networks and stations are required to offer the ATSC 1.0 OTA standard for at least five years after they introduce ATSC 3.0 (regulated by the FCC). Meaning, both broadcast formats will be supported for some time yet.
However, will you be able to get all the new benefits from the new ATSC 3.0 standard with your current antenna? The short answer is it depends.
If you have an older TV antenna that is not optimizes to receive digital signals you may want to consider upgrading it before the full ATSC 3.0 roll-out happens.
Remember that ATSC 1.0 broadcasts will be available for the next five years or until at least 2025.
With that being said, there is no reason to keep paying cable and satellite subscriptions waiting for the next standard to be wide-spread. You can literally save thousands of dollars by cutting the proverbial “cable cord” today.
If you’re looking to cut the cord, be sure to check out our full review of the best outdoor antennas. If an outdoor antenna is not option there are plenty of indoor antennas that will yield very good results as well.
Will Your Existing TV Be Compatible With ATSC 3.0?
The answer here is strictly no. ATSC 3.0 is not designed to be backward compatible with current ATSC 1.0 tuners, at least not until further notice.
Meaning, the tuner hardware and also your current TV set won’t be able to natively receive and process the 4K signals and 7.1 Dolby Atmos audio brought by the ATSC 3.0 signals.
As mentioned above, however, 2023 (and most likely 2025) will be the earliest year any broadcaster(s) will be legally permitted to abandon ATSC 1.0 broadcast, and that is if they do decide to discontinue the broadcast.
So, if you’ve already invested in tuner hardware recently, you will still be able to use it for at least three to five years. If you’re currently looking to upgrade to an ATSC 3.0 Tuner, then be sure to read the next section.
What To Expect with ATSC 3.0 in the Coming Years
Slow Rollout for ATSC 3.0
Various tests for ATSC 3.0 infrastructures and also regarding the readiness of the market are still being done throughout the US. How fast the deployment of ATSC 3.0 technologies will be, would ultimately depend on the results of these test runs.
In general, we can probably expect major networks and stations to start rolling out NextGen TV by mid or end 2020, and we won’t see it becoming mainstream until somewhere between 2021 and 2025. So, you can still use your antennas and tuner hardware.
Generate Lots of Hype but Little Consumer Adoption in 2024
We can expect 2024 to continue the trend of being a preparation year for Next-Gen TV (ATSC 3.0) as broadcasters are still getting ready with the infrastructures and are still experimenting with Next-Gen TV content.
It’s quite likely that most customers will have to take the “wait and see mentality” and won’t upgrade their TV sets and tuners until late in the year, or more likely, 2021. TV makers like Sony and Samsung have announced their new smart TVs will support the new format, making their way to markets by late 2020.
ATSC 3.0 Broadcast TV Will be Two-Way Information
That is, the TV stations will know what you’re watching after Next-Gen TV is successfully implemented. This might be controversial, and thus the TV networks can show personalized ads specific to your viewing habits and even your income level and other factors like gender or race.
This is obviously something really new in TV technology, although we’ve grown to be quite familiar with it through internet ads and social media. This, however, will also mean increased risks for security both for the viewers and the broadcasters (i.e. risks for pirated content, relayed signals, etc.).
This is where digital rights management and the consumer electronics industry will need to come together with the advanced television systems committee to find more ways to encrypt broadcast signals. Will this change how we use and watch TV? We’ll have to wait and see.