You know that ATSC TV tuner inside your set that lets you get free, over-the-air HD broadcasts from an antenna? In the near future it will no longer work. If you want to continue getting free TV broadcasts, you’ll either need to get a new TV or use an adapter (or dongle), like many of us had to do during the digital TV transition that ended analog broadcasts signals.
That's because a new digital broadcast standard, called ATSC 3.0, is already in the works. But you actually don’t have to start worrying about the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard quite yet, since we're still about two years away from a final standard. And broadcasters will then have to upgrade all their equipment and existing infrastructure, which is designed to work with the current ATSC 1.0 standard.
Why a new broadcast standard?
The ATSC 1.0 standard was developed more than 20 years ago, before most people had any idea of the prominent role the Internet, streaming video, and mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones would play in how we watch TV. To accommodate these, and other, shifts in TV viewing, the broadcast industry started working on a new, more modern digital transmission system that can simultaneously deliver signals to both fixed and mobile devices.
There are several advantages to ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard. For one, it uses TV spectrum more efficiently than the current standard, and it includes better compression. That will enable broadcasters to transmit higher-quality 4K signals with high-quality, immersive audio to those with Ultra HD TVs. It will also give broadcasters the option to offer multiple channels within that same bandwidth, plus the ability to simultaneously broadcast to TVs in the home and to mobile users on smart phones and tablets. In addition, since the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard is based on Internet Protocol, it will let broadcasters transmit content developed for and sent over the Internet. This will allow them to create new hybrid services and augment regular TV broadcasts with greater interactivity.
Are you using an antenna and are excited about a new digital broadcast TV standard? Let us know by adding a comment below.
At the very earliest, the final ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard won’t be finalized and approved until 2017, after a series of tests and an evaluation process takes place. And it’s quite likely that its rollout will get pushed even further into the future by broadcasters. It won’t happen until the FCC’s auction of TV spectrum is completed, at which time current stations will get “repacked” at the lower end of the spectrum to free up space in the upper UHF frequencies, which will be used for expanding mobile broadband.
Once the transition to the ATSC 3.0 digital broadcast standard does occur, it's unlikely you'll be able to use the ATSC 1.0 digital tuners in current TVs. There won't be enough TV spectrum available for broadcasters to simulcast both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 signals.
So there may not be a transitional period like there was when the industry moved to all-digital TV broadcasts but continued to provide analog signals to give consumers time to adapt. One proposal is for broadcasters to share spectrum, so that one station would allow others in its market to broadcast ATSC 1.0 over its channels to ease the transition. It’s also unclear whether the FCC will be willing or able to provide subsidies for converter boxes or dongles, as it did during the DTV transition.
—James K. Willcox
Copyright © 2005-2015 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission. Consumer Reports has no relationship with any advertisers on this site.