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This month, broadcasters got a green light from the FCC to begin rolling out a new over-the-air TV standard. The update to the improved ASTC 3.0 standard, commonly known as "Next Gen Broadcast TV", gives broadcasters a chance to compete in an increasingly crowded market. This is the first major upgrade in broadcast TV since the transition to digital signals (DTV) in 2009.
Next Gen TV is an Internet Protocol (IP) based system, which means it can carry internet content alongside the traditional over-the-air broadcast signal. The newer standard supports 4K video and high dynamic range (HDR) content. This opens up never before available interactive features like video-on-demand and advanced emergency alerts for broadcast TV.
Marketers hope that the new standard will drive sales of 4K TVs that can deliver the Ultra-High Definition picture quality. Cord cutters eager to have access to the enhanced picture and audio might line up to buy new TVs enabled with the technology, but neither the technology nor the TVs are likely to be ready before 2019. The best news is that Next Gen TV signals will be stronger and will transmit over greater distances and deeper into buildings; not only will broadcast TV be better, but the reception will be as well.
The technology is considered a game changer because it’s the first time that a broadcast format has the advantages of broadband.
Although DTV standards went into effect in 2009, the standard was developed more than two decades ago before broadcasters and consumers expected television content would regularly be delivered to smartphones and tablets.
Next Gen TV brings the features to over-the-air broadcasts that you now consider requisite in streaming applications. Broadcasters liken the new format to having the benefits of over-the-top with the costs of over-the-air. Audio and video content are broadcast over-the-air, while a separate data portion is sent over IP and integrated before being displayed.
You can look forward to new services like video on demand, mobile viewing, 4K Ultra Hi-Def, enhanced emergency alerts, a high frame rate, more colorful picture, and immersive audio – all delivered free with an over-the-air antenna.
The new standard depends on a more efficient video format, like the one used by Netflix, to broadcast the data-heavy 4K video over-the-air. It also delivers brighter images with greater contrast and colors that are richer and more heavily saturated than you get today. Immersive audio, also known as 3D multi-channel sound, will also deliver a better viewing experience.
Having the data transmitted in IP format means that you’ll see a tv guide, plot summaries, thumbnail images, and actor bios just like you’re accustomed to seeing on streaming services.
The IP data stream will also deliver additional emergency alert features. Officials can send live video, maps outlining escape routes, and other details so you can respond more quickly to warnings of natural disasters or weather events.
Next Gen TV was specifically designed to support mobile uses like rear-seat entertainment and navigation systems in vehicles in addition to phones and other portable devices. Expect to watch broadcast TV in a moving car with a better signal than you get in your living room today. This enhanced technology means that signals will reach further inside buildings, or into hilly regions where interference would stump traditional broadcast reception.
Unlike the very carefully planned rollout of DTV in 2009, there is no definite timetable for Next Gen TV. The move to the new standard is voluntary for broadcasters, but the potential for broadcasters to make money by targeting advertising or selling pay features should hasten the transition.
All North American TVs currently contain ATSC 1.0 tuners. Without a definite launch date, TVs headed for the North American market aren’t yet manufactured with updated Next Gen capable tuners. This shouldn't be an issue though - ATSC 3.0 tuners will be able to be purchased to take advantage of this new technology without requiring a brand new TV, which could get expensive.
Just because America is transitioning slowly, that doesn’t mean all countries are. LG is including both dual receivers in newly manufactured TVs shipping to South Korea, as the country has already implemented Next Gen TV as the national broadcast standard. In fact, the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games were broadcast entirely in the new standard there.
The FCC expects the long, slow transition to Next Gen TV to be consumer-driven because consumers will bear the burden of buying new equipment to receive Next Gen signals. In the meantime, broadcast stations are expected to simulcast the old signal and the new signal until an official cutoff date is adopted.
Expect external tuners in the form of tuner dongles or USB key-converters to be sold which will enable older TVs to play the updated signals. For example, LG is marketing a networked wireless antenna in South Korea that can send Next Gen signals through in-home Wi-Fi.
National public broadcasters like PBS have asked to be exempted from the simulcast requirement, as it would unduly burden the broadcasters financially. Without the funding that commercial and network broadcasters have, many public TV stations may be unable to comply immediately, so the waiver would give them a unique timeline to implement simulcasts.
Even if broadcasters jump into Next Gen broadcasts with both feet, it will take until 2019 before they’re widespread. It will take longer than that for all Americans to replace costly in-home entertainment technology. The FCC has declared that traditional broadcast signals will air until the transition is complete.
As cord cutting continues and consumers become accustomed to paying for services, it’s possible that innovative broadcasters will offer pay services. On the other hand, Next Gen transmitters are less expensive than traditional, so perhaps the broadcasters would provide incentives for upgrades rather than instituting paywalls. The ability to insert custom commercials should help with broadcasters’ bottom line and motivate them to reward consumer upgrades.
Although Next Gen TV is the first major upgrade in TV to hit America since DTV ten years ago, it will take several years to implement the changes. Manufacturers aren’t expected to start releasing TVs for the American market until later in 2018, and broadcasters will likely transition even more slowly. Although the consumers will bear the cost burden of upgrading equipment, the resulting stronger signals, better picture and audio, richer data, and interactive features will likely lead broadcasters to incent upgrades.
Eager cord cutters might want to buy a Next Gen TV as soon as it comes out on the market, but until the broadcasters transition, it won’t be worth investing. It’s better to hold off and wait for hardware prices to drop before getting that fancy new TV.
Megan Southard is a writer, mom, technology enthusiast, and movie junkie. She dreads the day her kids have to explain gadgets to her and is old enough to say, "I was the remote for our TV growing up."
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