Will we see 4K over-the-air TV in 2020?

There aren’t a lot of you, but I know some diehards who are really excited about the prospect of 4K over-the-air television. After making a splash with new FCC rules about two years ago,  the push toward the next generation TV standard has slowed. But will it pick up again?

A little bit of where we are now

We should be “all systems go” for the next generation television standard, called NEXTGEN TV or ATSC 3.0. The standard was formalized by the Advanced Television Systems Committee. Congress still has yet to adopt it but there aren’t any other competing standards.

The FCC has been allowing test broadcasts and they’ve been going on for about two years now. However, the equipment is still super-expensive and we still aren’t to the point where anyone has a full-time 4K station that regular folks can watch.

I haven’t personally seen any NEXTGEN TV broadcasts, because I’m still waiting for my prototype NEXTGEN TV converter box. Our vendors are working hard on them as we speak. But the content isn’t expected to be 4K. Right now we’re still testing the technology, and HD content is being upscaled and recoded so it can be used.

What does 2020 look like for 4K over-the-air

I hate to tell you but I don’t expect a huge change this coming year. I think we’ll finally see hardware that’s available to regular folks, but without participation from broadcast networks, we won’t actually see 4K.

I’ve said before, chances are excellent that most broadcast shows today are produced in 4K. If you look at the old TV shows that thrive today, they are ones that were either produced on film (like Friends) or originally shot in HD even though they were originally broadcast in SD (like Everybody Loves Raymond.) Broadcasters have learned that a show won’t have staying power if it looks ugly on the TVs of the future. That, combined with the fact that 4K cameras aren’t really much more expensive, means that shows are probably shot and edited in 4K and then broadcast in HD. That’s a good thing.

However, we’re not seeing those shows go out to the local channels in 4K yet and that’s not likely to change in 2020. There’s enough satellite bandwidth, that’s not the problem. But we’re talking about stations in every market being able to receive and store that 4K content and sample it down to HD. We’re not there yet. If we do see true 4K transmissions to the local channels, we’ll see them as a second stream. That way the local broadcaster can just pick up what they want.

The road ahead

It’s important to remember that there isn’t a real road ahead… yet. There will be. I am sure that we will get there. But for now, we’re still in early testing. The goal originally was to get the full transition done by 2025. That may still happen. The real issue is that it will take an act of Congress.

Because television broadcasting is considered a “public trust,” the government has to get involved. Any changes to broadcast technology must be approved ahead of time. The last time this happened, it took about five years for the transition and every home got vouchers for converter boxes. I don’t know how it will happen this time. One thing is for sure, at some point Congress will pass a law saying every TV must have a NEXTGEN tuner in it and an internet connection. (Because, NEXTGEN TV really only works completely when the TV’s connected to the internet.)

At that point we’ll see a timetable for a full switchover. Not before. When all that happens, you’ll learn about it here.

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 5,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.