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Free 4K TV with an antenna is almost here

por Latrice Hoke (2020-05-20)

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$_10.JPG?set_id=880000500FSamsung's 2020 8K TVs, as well as select 2020 4K and 8K models from LG and Sony, will have Next Gen TV tuners built-in.

David Katzmaier

CES 2020 was the official launch of Next Gen TV, aka ATSC 3.0. By the end of the year, 61 markets will be broadcasting, and 20 different models from 3 manufacturers -- LG, Samsung and Sony -- will be available with built-in tuners. Don't be surprised to see other manufacturers follow suit. Standalone tuner boxes that you can connect to any TV are also on their way.

Next Gen TV is the latest version of over-the-air antenna TV.  Its broadcasts have the capability to carry high-quality Ultra HD 4K video, High Dynamic Range and wide color gamut, high frame rates up to 120Hz, and more. Like current over-the-air TV broadcasts -- and unlike cable, satellite or live TV streaming -- it will be free. You'll just need an antenna and a TV with a built-in Next Gen TV tuner, or separate tuner that can decode it. ATSC 3.0 proponents also claim better reception indoors and on the go, perhaps on your phone or even to your car.

Read more: Best TV Antenna antennas for cord cutters, starting at just $10

One potential downside for consumers? ATSC 3.0 will also let broadcasters track your viewing habits, information that can be used for targeted advertising, just like companies such as Facebook and Google use today.

Here's the top-line info:

If you get your TV from streaming, cable or satellite, Next Gen TV/ATSC 3.0 won't affect you at all. 

The transition is voluntary. Stations don't have to switch. Many will, however, for reasons we'll explain below.

It's not backwards-compatible with the current HD (ATSC 1.0) standard, so your current TV won't be able to receive it. Your current antenna should work fine though.

Stations that switch to Next Gen TV will still have to keep broadcasting ATSC 1.0 for five years.

20 models from Sony, Samsung, and LG will have built-in tuners starting with the 2020 model year.

Stations across the country are already receiving 3.0 licenses, and several are already broadcasting.

Stations in the largest 40 TV markets in the US have committed to broadcasting Next Gen TV by the end of 2020, with over 60 markets total covering roughly 70% of the US population.

Read more: Best 4K TVs for 2020

A demonstration of a Next Gen TV Olympic broadcast, co-hosted by WRAL-TV, NBC Universal and NAB in February 2018.

National Association of Broadcasters

How it will work in your home
At CES 2020 I saw an interesting demo at the Next Gen TV booth. There was a prototype tuner connected to an antenna on the roof of the Las Vegas Convention Center. It was showing live Next Gen TV broadcasts, though at that point these were "only" HD, not 4K. 

The most interesting thing about this setup was the tuner had no HDMI output. The antenna (RF) cable went into the tuner, and out of the tuner was a single Ethernet cable. This was connected to an off-the-shelf router, similar to what you have in your home now for Wi-Fi. Because Next Gen TV is IP-based, it's very easy to send around a network. So in this setup, an antenna and tuner receive the signal, and then it gets sent out over your home network to TVs or other devices.

This means anything with access to your network can have access to over-the-air TV, be it your TV, your phone, your tablet or even an Apple TV box, which showed local channels like any other content option such as Netflix or Disney Plus. It's safe to assume there will be traditional tuners with HDMI outputs as well, but this is an new and interesting alternative that seemed impressively seamless for a modern connected entertainment system -- much like an ATSC 3.0 version of networked OTA DVRs such as the Fire TV Recast.

Also shown at CES was the demo video above which shows how Next Gen TV menus will look on your TV, with a consistent layout regardless of the brand of TV you're using. At the top left will be the channel you're watching, and as you dig into the menus each station can have video clips available to watch. These clips are streamed via the internet, not received over the air. This may be content the station has on its website, and could be breaking news, weather and so on.

In November of 2017, the FCC approved ATSC 3.0 as the next generation of broadcast standard, on a "voluntary, market-driven basis" (PDF). It also required stations to continue broadcasting ATSC 1.0 (i.e. "HD"). This is actually part of the issue as to why it's voluntary. 

During the mandatory DTV transition in the early 2000s, stations in a city were given a new frequency (channel, in other words), to broadcast digital TV, while they still broadcast analog on their old channel. These older channels were eventually reclaimed by the FCC for other uses when the proverbial switch was flipped to turn off analog broadcasts. Since that's not happening this time, stations and markets are left to themselves how best to share or use the over-the-air spectrum in their areas.

Because there's no new bandwidth, broadcasters will temporarily share transmitters. Two or more stations will use one tower for ATSC 1.0 (HD) broadcasts and those stations will use another tower for ATSC 3.0 (UHD) broadcasts. This will mean a temporary reduction in bandwidth for each channel, but potentially a limited impact on picture quality due to the better modern HD encoders. More info here.


Without a mandate, stations might not bother spending the money upgrading to 3.0. It's easy to see the end result of this being no stations, or not enough stations, agree to the costly upgrades in equipment that ATSC 3.0 entails. If that happens, ATSC 3.0 is dead before it starts, or at best, languishes for years until a less regulation-averse FCC makes the transition mandatory.

People involved with the transition now, however, are optimistic. Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications at the National Association of Broadcasters, pointed out to CNET that the improvement in quality, overall coverage and the built-in safety features mean that most stations would be enthusiastic to offer ATSC 3.0.

John Hane, president of the Spectrum Consortium (an industry group with broadcasters Sinclair, Nexstar and Univision as members), was equally confident: "The FCC had to make it voluntary because the FCC couldn't provide transition channels. [The industry] asked the FCC to make it voluntary. We want the market to manage it. We knew the market would demand it, and broadcasters and hardware makers in fact are embracing it."

So far, this seems to be the case. Stations in 61 markets across the country have promised to start broadcasting Next Gen TV before the end of 2020. Some early stations have already gone live, though even if you live in their areas you won't be able to see anything without hardware that, as yet, isn't available.

Given the competition broadcasters have with cable, streaming and so on, 3.0 could be a way to stabilize or even increase their income by offering better picture quality, better coverage and, most importantly, targeted ads.

Ah yes, targeted ads…

Broadcast TV will know what you're watching
One of Next Gen TV's more controversial features is a "return data path," which is a way for the station you're watching to know you're watching. Not only does this allow a more accurate count of who's watching what shows, but it creates the opportunity for every marketer's dream: targeted advertising. 

Ads specific to your viewing habits, income level and even ethnicity (presumed by your neighborhood, for example) could get slotted in by your local station. This is something brand-new for broadcast TV. Today, over-the-air broadcasts are pretty much the only way to watch television that doesn't track your viewing habits. Sure, the return data path could also allow "alternative audio tracks and interactive elements," but it's the targeted ads and tracking many observers are worried about.

The finer details are all still being worked out, but here's the thing: If your TV is connected to the internet, it's already tracking you. Pretty much every app, streaming service, smart TV and cable or satellite box all track your usage to a greater or lesser extent.

Return data path is still in the planning stages, even as the other aspects of Next Gen TV are already going live. There is a silver lining: There will be an opt-out option. It also requires Internet access, but if this type of thing bothers you, just don't connect your TV or Next Gen TV receiver to the internet. You will lose some of the other features of Next Gen TV, however.

That said, we'll keep an eye on this for any further developments.   

Free TV on your phone
Another point of potential contention is getting ATSC 3.0 tuners into phones. At a most basic level, carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile are in the business of selling you data. If suddenly you can get lots of high-quality content for free on your phone, they potentially lose money. Ever wonder why your phone doesn't have an FM radio tuner? Same reason.

T-Mobile made a preemptive strike along those lines in September 2017, writing a white paper (PDF) that, among other things, claims, "In light of the detrimental effects that inclusion of ATSC 3.0 can have on the cost and size of a device, the technology trade-offs required to accommodate competing technologies, and the reduced performance and spectral efficiency that it will have for other mobile bands and services, the decision as to whether to include ATSC 3.0 in a device must be left to the market to decide."

"The market" determined you didn't need an FM tuner in your phone, and in the few phones that had an FM tuner, if you bought it through an American provider, it was almost always disabled.

TV broadcasters, on the other hand, are huge fans of ATSC 3.0 on mobile phones. It means more potential eyeballs and, incidentally, a guarantee of active internet access for that return data path. Hane feels that tuners in phones is "inevitable," and feels that international adoption of ATSC 3.0 will help push it forward. Wharton says that the focus now is getting TVs to work, but mobile is in the plan.

It's highly unlikely the FCC, current or future, would make any sort of tuner mandate for mobile phones. There is talk of "gateways" that would receive the ATSC signals, and then send them over your home network via Wi-Fi for you to watch on any smartphone or tablet. A sort of Wi-Fi-enabled external tuner. In all likelihood these same "gateways" would also let your current TV see ATSC 3.0 signals. 

It's also possible we'll see tablets, perhaps inexpensive off-brand Android tablets, with built-in tuners. But there's almost no chance of an ATSC tuner showing up in an iPhone.

Then there's portable TVs, of which there are HD versions on the market, and have been for years. The next-generation ATSC 3.0 versions of these will likely get better reception in addition to the higher resolution offered by the new standard.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Cost (for you)
Next Gen TV is not compatible with any tuner on the market now, nor is it in any way backward compatible. To get it, you'll eventually need either a new TV or an external tuner. However, there's no push to upgrade since:

Next Gen TV/ATSC 3.0 isn't mandatory, and it doesn't affect cable, satellite or streaming TV.

Standard HD broadcasts will continue for at least another five years.

HD tuners cost as little as $30 to $40 now, and Next Gen TV tuners will eventually be cheap as well.

So your next TV will likely have a tuner built in, and if you want to Next Gen TV sooner than that, we should start seeing tuners soon. It's also worth keeping in mind that broadcasters have to broadcast regular old HD for five years after the launch of 3.0. In those five years you'll probably get a new TV, or worst case, have to eventually buy an external tuner. Here's the actual language:

"The programming aired on the ATSC 1.0 simulcast channel must be 'substantially similar' to the programming aired on the 3.0 channel. This means that the programming must be the same, except for programming features that are based on the enhanced capabilities of ATSC 3.0, advertisements and promotions for upcoming programs. The substantially similar requirement will sunset in five years from its effective date absent further action by the Commission to extend it."

In other words, the HD broadcast has to be essentially the same as the new 3.0 broadcast for five years, perhaps longer depending on future FCC actions.

Which brings us to point 3. HD tuners were inexpensive when they first came out, and are even more so now. The HD tuner I use is currently $26 on Amazon. Even if ATSC 3.0 tuners are more expensive when they first come out, by the time anyone actually requires one, they'll almost certainly be affordable. 

Which is good, because there aren't any planned subsidies this time around for people to get a tuner for cheap. I'm sure this is at least partly due to how few people actually still use OTA as their sole form of TV reception. Maybe this will change as more stations convert, but we're a ways away from that.

As you can see, there are lots of parts that need to get upgraded all along the chain before you can get 3.0 in your home.


Here's another way to think about it: The first HD broadcasts began in the mid-90s, but when did you buy your first HDTV? As far as the 3.0 transition is concerned, we're in the mid-90s now. Things seem like they're moving at a much more rapid pace than the transition from analog to DTV/HDTV, but even so, it will be a long time before ATSC 3.0 completely replaces the current standard.

Read more

ATSC 3.0: What you need to know about the future of broadcast TV

How HDR works

What is wide color gamut (WCG)?

Seeing the future
The transition from analog broadcasting to HD, if you count from the formation of the Grand Alliance to the final analog broadcast, took 16 years. 

Though many aspects of technology move rapidly, getting dozens of companies, plus the governments of the US and many other countries, all to agree to specific standards, takes time. So does the testing of the new tech. There are a lot of cogs and sprockets that have to align for this to work, and it would be a lot harder to fix once it's all live.

But technology moves faster and faster. It's highly doubtful it will take 16 years to implement Next Gen TV. As we mentioned at the top, multiple stations are already broadcasting. Will every station in your city switch to Next Gen TV? Probably not, but the bigger ones likely will. This is especially true if there are other Next Gen TV stations in your area. There's a potential here for stations to make additional money in the long run with 3.0, and that's obviously a big motivator.

There's also the question of how much content there will be. If it follows the HDTV transition model, big sporting events in 4K HDR will come first, followed by lots and lots of shows featuring nature scenes and closeups of bugs. Seriously -- this was totally a thing. Then we'll see a handful of scripted prime-time shows. My guess would be the popular, solidly profitable ones that are produced (not just aired) by networks. Series like Law & Order: SVU or Grey's Anatomy, and probably the late-night talk shows, are likely candidates, but that's speculation at this point.

So should you hold off buying a new TV? Nope, not unless you only get your shows over the air. And even if you do, by the time there's enough content to be interesting, there will be cheap tuner boxes you can connect to whatever TV you have. 

For now, ATSC 3.0, aka Next Gen TV, seems to be well on its way.

Got a question for Geoff? First, check out all the other articles he's written on topics like why you shouldn't buy expensive HDMI cables, TV resolutions explained, how HDR works and more.

Still have a question? Tweet at him @TechWriterGeoff, then check out his travel photography on Instagram. He also thinks you should check out his best-selling sci-fi novel and its sequel. 


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