The year’s a quarter over and it doesn’t look good for ATSC 3.0

Around the halls of Solid Signal’s offices, I have a reputation for being pretty pessimistic about ATSC 3.0, the so-called “Next Generation” standard which may or may not actually be adopted some time in the future. And yet, my pessimism seems to be well-founded every time I look up and realize that more months have gone by without significant progress toward this standard.

Not that we expected anything…

Former FCC chair Ajit Pai, a strong supporter of ATSC 3.0, left his position on January 20. This is not uncommon; the FCC is part of the Executive Branch and we’ve seen before where the chair leaves when there’s a change of party. In Mr. Pai’s wake he leaves acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel in charge of a deadlocked FCC. With two Democrats and two Republicans, big changes aren’t expected.

The filling of the now-vacant seat is traditionally one of the last bits of the confirmation process that includes cabinet secretaries and other agency heads. The FCC could act if something were really important, but you’re not likely to find major policy initiatives until the full, 5-person commission is back in their offices.

Still waiting on that tech…

Yes, there are a few televisions with ATSC 3.0 tuners inside. There are a few more that promise to be software-upgradeable. And, there’s a device that will let people stream ATSC 3.0 content to other devices in their home networks. But, perhaps because of the issues we’ve all been dealing with, there still isn’t even one consumer ATSC 3.0 external tuner out there. There’s nothing you can hook to an existing 4K television to let it get ATSC 3.0 programming directly. It doesn’t exist.

And, there were no new devices announced at the abbreviated CES show in January.

Still waiting on programming…

Several readers have pointed out that using their ATSC 3.0-compatible TVs, they’re still getting HD, not 4K. That’s because there isn’t any 4K programming. As I’ve pointed out, a lot of stuff is probably shot and edited in 4K to make it futureproof, but the broadcasts are still all HD. All of them. And that’s not expected to change, anytime soon.

First of all, as the existing rules go, ATSC 3.0 test broadcasts can take place if the content on them is the same as current ATSC 1.0 broadcasts. That doesn’t mean the ATSC 3.0 stuff can’t be in 4K, but it doesn’t exactly allow 4K either. Since 4K content isn’t really required to do these test broadcasts, there’s no incentive for broadcasters to go out and get 4K versions of their current programs.

Second, as I said there just isn’t any 4K content out there, outside of the hard drives in the studios that make the stuff. And there’s no incentive for there to be either.

Still waiting on people to want it…

The biggest thing about 4K content is that regular folks aren’t climbing the walls asking for it. Of course you, the avid Solid Signal reader, are. But average folks still can’t tell the difference between streaming in 4K and streaming in HD. And, they’ve gotten used to the poor-quality 4K streams coming from Netflix and YouTube. They don’t see the real benefit.

And that leaves broadcasters asking why they would want to spend all the money to test ATSC 3.0, a product that so far no one wants. Almost no one, anyway. Sinclair Broadcast Group, one of the largest owners of TV stations in the country, wants this and wants it bad. They don’t care about giving you 4K. They think that they’ll make tons of money by offering targeted advertising to people who use antennas. Maybe they’re right. But that remains to be seen.

Timeline is still fuzzy

As I’ve pointed out before, because of previous broadcast law, it would take an act of Congress to establish a timeline for any changeover from ATSC 1.0 to ATSC 3.0. Real 4K broadcasting won’t take place until that changeover gets closer. And when will that be? In early 2020 we thought it would be 2025. And, of course, we’ve lost at least a year’s progress. So it’s fairer to say that it could be ’26 or beyond. I wouldn’t expect it to be sooner.

Why the update then?

I write these updates when I get a lot of people asking about them. I want you to be informed, even if the information is that nothing is new. Like you, I would love to have tons of over-the-air 4K programming but I have a feeling it’s going to be a while.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.