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4K TV broadcasts are coming: here’s what you need to know

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ATSC 3.0: What is it?

Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the FCC, published an op-ed today in Multichannel News advocating for the television industry to move forward with implementing ATSC 3.0, the latest standard to govern over-the-air broadcast TV. Along with the editorial, Pai presented a proposal to the FCC commissioners yesterday that would allow broadcasters to begin voluntarily using the new standard by the end of the year.

Now if you're like me, chances are you read that and have questions like, "What is ATSC 3.0? What does it actually mean for the future of my TV watching life? And will I have to buy new stuff again to make it work?" Fortunately, we've put some answers together that should help explain what the new standard is and the significance of Pai's push to implement it. Read on!

Before we get into ATSC 3.0, let's first talk about the ATSC itself — the Advanced Television Systems Committee. The ATSC is a group that was founded in 1992 that established the standards for digital television, which are currently used in the United States, Canada, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and South Korea. Its self-described goal is to "coordinate television standards among different communications media." And while you may not have heard of the group by name, you may have seen the effects of its work: it developed the standard (ATSC 1.0) for the 2009 transition from analog to digital broadcasting in the US.

ATSC 1.0 (digital TV) is best known for offering high definition resolution (at 1080i and 720p resolutions) for broadcast television, with Dolby Digital audio, dramatically improving the quality of television (along with a host of far more complicated differences on a deeply technical level). From a more practical standpoint, the changeover meant that customers had to switch over to digital TV tuners that could receive the new format.

ATSC 3.0 is the next major version of the broadcast TV format. (Version 2.0 was intended as a backward compatible update that was eventually canceled in favor of the more significant 3.0 update.) Where ATSC 1.0 added digital technology and HD video, ATSC 3.0 is planned to be an IP-based (internet protocol) system. It’s still an over-the-air system, but it’s built on the same protocols as most internet technology, making it possible to easily view broadcast TV on modern connected devices. It’ll be a huge change in the technology that's underlying our TV systems, and it should greatly expand the capabilities of broadcast TV.

Among the planned additions in ATSC 3.0 is support for HD video in up to 4K resolution, HDR (which is an entirely different rabbit hole of competing standards), high frame rate, wide color gamut, and 3D. Furthermore, ATSC says that the new standard could make it far easier to broadcast live TV directly to mobile devices, similar to what’s done with a traditional TV. The changeover to ATSC 3.0 could have some complications, however. Since the system isn't compatible with old systems, customers will have to get new tuners to receive the signals. And on the broadcasting side, the transition is also looking to be extremely complicated.

Pai's proposal would allow for broadcasters to begin using ATSC 3.0, but still require them to offer a ATSC 1.0 version of their channels, to ensure that legacy devices aren't left behind (for now, anyway). But there's still a lot of questions as to how the actual implementation will work, including the standard itself, which has yet to be finalized. But it still would mark an important first step in actually getting 4K over-the-air TV by allowing US broadcasters to begin using the format, if they choose.

On the consumer side of devices, there's not much to do or worry about yet. LG announced that it would be selling TVs this year with both ATSC 3.0 and ATSC 1.0 tuners in preparation of South Korea rolling out ATSC 3.0 broadcasts this year (the country began testing the system in December of last year, something Pai calls out as a sign that the US could be "in danger of falling behind" when it comes to broadcasting). And future TV and set-top box devices will presumably also begin to use the new standard as it gets finalized, something that Pai's push should help. And when the standard does eventually replace ATSC 1.0, as ATSC 1.0 replaced digital, we'll probably see a similar transition to the new tuner format.