Nearly half of all U.S. households now have access to NextGen TV broadcasts. But due to a simulcast mandate by the FCC, broadcasters don’t have the bandwidth for 4K transmissions. And they may not have the necessary bandwidth for a very long time.
Just a few years ago, ATSC 3.0 was hailed as the savior of free over-the-air (OTA) television. It promised to bring 4K video and Dolby Atmos audio to every home in the United States, and surprisingly, broadcasters were actually interested in the idea. So, why can’t I watch 4K antenna TV yet?
What Is ATSC 3.0 (NextGen TV)?
The ATSC 3.0 standard, colloquially referred to as “NextGen TV,” is an upgrade from the existing HDTV (digital TV) standard that currently powers broadcast television. It can transmit a massive amount of data by combining traditional antenna TV techniques with internet protocol (IP).
NextGen TV’s biggest selling point is its data transmission capabilities. Broadcasters using this standard can transmit 4K video and Dolby Atmos audio through the air and into homes—in other words, ATSC 3.0 is free to anyone with an antenna, it doesn’t require a visit from the cable company, yet it dramatically exceeds the quality of cable TV.
Additionally, broadcasters claim that ATSC 3.0 can adapt to emerging video codecs, so it may be able to transmit 8K video. It also has a wider range than the existing HDTV standard, and it can be utilized for targeted emergency broadcasting (which may include specific evacuation routes for tornados and such).
There are some theoretical applications for ATSC 3.0—it could send free TV to cars and smartphones, for example, or provide some level of internet access (download-only) to smartwatches and other devices. But these ideas are a bit farfetched, and free 4K TV is really the biggest factor for NextGen TV.
But the FCC isn’t forcing broadcasters or TV manufacturers toward the ATSC 3.0 standard. Adoption of NextGen TV is totally voluntary. Historically speaking, this is a bit of an odd stance, as the U.S. government was somewhat aggressive during the transition from analog TV (NTSC) to digital or HDTV (now retroactively called ATSC 1.0—there isn’t an ATSC 2.0, by the way).
So, broadcasters are carrying the flag for NextGen TV. At least 100 stations in the United States now broadcast ATSC 3.0, providing coverage to about half of all U.S. households (according to the National Association of Broadcasters). Yet we still don’t have 4K OTA TV.
Here’s the problem; broadcasters are unhappy with the FCC’s approach to this transition. They blame the FCC for the lack of 4K OTA TV, and they worry that without aggressive regulation, ATSC 3.0’s full implementation may be delayed for several years. (These criticisms are outlined in a letter from the NAB to the FCC—I’m not making assumptions or theories.)
Why Aren’t There Any 4K Channels Yet?
As per the FCC, broadcasters who transition to ATSC 3.0 must continue supporting their ATSC 1.0 channels for at least five years. On paper, this is a pretty reasonable mandate. Antenna TV is supposed to be financially accessible, and it’s an important tool for emergency management. Leaving viewers behind would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
But this mandate has several unfortunate side effects. The big one, sadly, is that broadcasters don’t have enough bandwidth to support 4K channels—they’re “wasting” too much bandwidth on legacy HDTV channels. (The NAB specifically calls this approach “wasteful.”)
Even if you own an ATSC 3.0 tuner, you aren’t seeing the full benefits of this new standard. And you certainly aren’t going to brag about it. So, there’s very little demand for (or awareness of) NextGen TV. The only people who are trying to generate hype for ATSC 3.0 are broadcasters and nerds like me.
This is where the feedback loop begins. Manufacturers know that NextGen TV isn’t in demand (or required by the FCC), so they do not install ATSC 3.0 tuners in their newly-made TVs. When broadcasters are finally allowed to drop their ATSC 1.0 channels, very few households will be able to watch the ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. The FCC has already added a temporary extension to this five-year rule, and there’s a good chance that it will see another, more concrete extension.
If the FCC does not extend its mandate, viewers who want to continue watching antenna TV may need to buy an external ATSC 3.0 tuner, upgrade to a compatible TV, or rely on local stations that haven’t made the switch.
To be fair, I’m sure that a lot of people would prefer an external ATSC 3.0 tuner. Modern OTA receivers can connect to your router and stream antenna TV to any device in your home. Some models even have a built-in DVR. Forcing viewers to buy dedicated ATSC 3.0 hardware could make antenna TV feel like something fresh and new, which may improve public perception of the format.
But this technology needs to be built directly into TVs. That’s the only way to ensure that broadcast TV is financially accessible. And as I mentioned earlier, broadcast TV is integral to public safety in the event of an emergency. Unless the FCC wants to continue supporting ATSC 1.0 indefinitely, it needs to force a transition to NextGen TV.
This Problem Is Nothing New
Earlier in this article, I mentioned that the U.S. government was “somewhat aggressive” during the transition to digital television. In some ways, this is true. A large number of viewers (about 3 million, according to Neilson estimates from 2009) were not prepared for the analog TV shutdown—they were “left in the dark,” This is despite the fact that over a billion dollars were spent on (clearly ineffective) public awareness campaigns.
The U.S. government was also widely criticized when it forced manufacturers to install digital tuners in new TVs, DVD players, and VCRs, as this temporarily increased prices. Many viewers were unhappy with the fact that they had to buy new equipment in the first place! (Remember, the “analog shutdown” occurred in 2009 during the housing and financial crisis.)
But the “death of analog broadcasting” was a 10-year project that took 13 years to complete. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 aimed for a full transition to digital TV by 2006—broadcasters and manufacturers didn’t take it seriously, so after delaying the transition, the U.S. government and FCC began to take their “aggressive” stance.
And even as it got more aggressive, the U.S. government repeatedly made concessions and delays. The very first delay pushed this transition to 2008. Then, it was pushed back to February of 2009. And at the last minute, the DTV Delay Act set a deadline in June of 2009.
A similar situation may unfold with NextGen TV. The new standard was first opened to U.S. broadcasters in 2017, but it’s gained very little traction due to the FCC’s loose guidelines. If the FCC listens to broadcasters, it will begin to push for a full transition to NextGen TV.
But if the past is any indication, it could take a few years for the FCC to get “aggressive.” And it will have a very hard time educating the public on ATSC 3.0 (assuming that a public awareness campaign even occurs), as most people now use the internet for free entertainment and news. We may not have 4K OTA TV until the end of the decade.
I should also note that, during the transition to HDTV, millions of U.S. households were offered OTA receiver coupons (worth $40 apiece). This kept a lot of families from losing access to antenna TV. But such an action seems very unlikely in the 2020s, as many people fail to understand that broadcast TV is a public necessity.
How to Prepare for 4K OTA TV
This story is a bit of a bummer. We were supposed to have 4K OTA TV by now, but we don’t. And while it’s easy to point fingers at the FCC and TV manufacturers, we also need to be a bit realistic here—the lack of public interest in ATSC 3.0 is probably its largest obstacle.
On the bright side, you probably don’t need to buy an ATSC 3.0 tuner anytime soon. But if you want to get yourself ready, there are plenty of ATSC 3.0 tuners to choose from, and some new TVs (specifically premium models) have built-in NextGen TV tuners.
Most of the existing ATSC 3.0 tuners do not connect directly to your TV. Instead, they are receivers that connect to your router, allowing you to stream antenna TV to any device in your home (from an app, of course). The SiliconDust HDHomeRun Flex 4K is our favorite option, as it’s fairly affordable (and can connect to a Plex server or USB DVR). It also has four tuners, so you can stream or record four different channels simultaneously (although two of these tuners are ATSC 1.0-only).
Note that you’ll also need a TV antenna. Really, any antenna will work, whether it sticks in a window or installs on the roof of your home—if you already own a digital TV antenna, you do not need a new one for NextGen TV. (Since ATSC 3.0 is still in murky waters, I suggest buying the antenna, plugging it straight into your TV, and forgetting about the NextGen TV receiver until a later date. The receivers will probably get cheaper.)
I also suggest that you check a channel map, as this will show the channels available in your area and their signal strength (which ma y influence your antenna choice).
HDHomeRun Flex 4K
The HDHomeRun Flex 4K has four tuners for watching four streams at once. It’s capable of streaming 4K TV channels (if any are available in your area).