The real story about ATSC 3.0 converter boxes

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, consider this a midterm report card. I’ve been detailing my search for ATSC 3.0 converter boxes for about three years. While I’m no closer to announcing that Solid Signal sells one, there are some bright spots to point out. First, for those new readers, a little history and a few explanations. This will be pretty fast… if you want more of the story read our previous ATSC 3.0 coverage.

The basics: What is ATSC 3.0?

ATSC 3.0, also known as NextGen TV, is one possibility for the future of television. Although it’s been in the development phase for about six years, it still hasn’t been approved by Congress. The FCC is letting broadcasters do test broadcasts. If there is any new television standard, it will be this one.

ATSC 3.0’s big appeal to customers is 4K over-the-air TV. It’s a lot more than that. It’s a new technology that will let broadcasters feed you targeted ads and work with your smart TV to let you get on-demand content.

The last time anyone talked about a timeframe for ATSC 3.0, we were talking about 2025 at the earliest. But of course this year hasn’t exactly gone according to plan, and there’s a chance that will get pushed back. In order to have full adoption of ATSC 3.0, there are a few milestones which we haven’t hit yet.

First would be a widespread program of test broadcasts. This was supposed to happen by the end of 2020. Some broadcasters are pushing forward and some have decided to hold back a bit. Adding ATSC 3.0 test equipment is expensive and operating it is even more expensive. Some broadcasters are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, which might make sense considering how this year has played out so far.

And then, the government steps in

Then, at some point Congress has to get to work officially adopting ATSC 3.0 as a broadcast standard. Congress has to be involved because of the way TV broadcasting is defined in the current law. The broadcast spectrum belongs to the people, and changes to its use have to be approved by law. When this gets to Congress, they’ll have to decide if there is a subsidy like there was last time. Back in the 2000s every household got two coupons for converter boxes up to $50 each.

Congress will also have to set a firm timetable for when older ATSC 1.0 signals can go off the air. This took over five years last time and was even put off at the last second because broadcasters weren’t ready. There’s no reason to think it would go more smoothly this time.

How will you receive these new broadcasts?

There are expected to be a small number of new TVs for this year that support ATSC 3.0 internally. There will also, potentially, be some converter boxes available.

A converter box is a separate tuner module that replaces the one in your TV. It acts like a streaming box in a sense, except that it gets over-the-air broadcasts. You attach an antenna to it, and then use an HDMI cable to get to the TV. If things go like last time, expect converter boxes to work with practically any TV made in the last 15 years.

The two candidates we know of

Right now there are two boxes in development for consumers. Professional broadcasters have boxes costing over $5,000 each but they aren’t true consumer devices. They’re just for the engineers testing the broadcasts.

Option 1: the SiliconDust box

You may have read about this box which was revealed on Kickstarter. When it’s done, it will be a full-featured ATSC 3.0 tuner. But, it won’t be a converter box. Like other SiliconDust products, it will stream to your computer, phone, or streaming box. That wouldn’t be too much of a problem but the developers are already saying,

ATSC 3.0 broadcast channels can be DRM protected and DRM playback is not yet supported. We plan to support DRM playback where possible however it is expected that some client platforms will not be able to support playback of DRM protected channels.

Some popular client platforms such as Roku and Apple TV are not able to support all ATSC 3.0 features.

So what they’re really saying is, this may not work at all, and if it does, it probably won’t really work on the two most popular streaming boxes. It’s expected to work with some Fire TV boxes.

Look, I’m not going to say anything bad about SiliconDust. They’ve been valued partners for years. They’re just setting fair expectations. ATSC 3.0 is still in a test phase and when you’re in a test phase, things change all the time. So these boxes may not support some of the new things that ATSC 3.0 actually does when it comes out in final form. I actually congratulate them for being honest about it.

Option 2: ZapperBox

This is a true converter box that’s endorsed by the Consumer Technology Association. It works like you would expect. You connect your antenna to it, and connect it to your TV over HDMI. It’s expected to have its own remote that functions just how you would expect. And, it will support all the features we know of, with enough flexibility to get upgrades as things change.

Right now, ZapperBox is still in development. I know the developers were targeting midyear to try to get product orders in the pipeline but obviously things have changed in the supply chain these past few months. But, they still want to have a product out there this year.

Their web site says ZapperBox will be in the $250 range which is probably too expensive for casual users. But, it’s a first-generation device that’s still designed for early adopters.

Where’s the content?

One of the things that’s always concerned me about 4K has been content. In the early days of 4K television it was simply impossible to stream 4K in real time, and there was no physical media. Those hurdles have been crossed now, but there’s still no 4K content from broadcasters…

…that we know of.

I say that because we, the public, aren’t aware of 4K production being done right now. It’s possible it could be going on right now and could have been going on for years. The other day I was watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond from 2001. Unlike remastered shows such as FriendsRaymond was shot in HD from day one. We didn’t know it at the time of course, but the studio used it to test HD production methods.

Compared to the switch from SD to HD, switching to 4K production would be easier for studios. Yes, you’d have to replace all your equipment, but at least it’s all digital. My guess is that you wouldn’t have to retrain people on editing software, just beef up their computers so they can handle the extra workload.

So I really do think that a lot of 4K production is taking place right now. I think it would make sense for the major studios to be stockpiling 4K programming. But keep in mind that during the test phase even channels that broadcast in 4K won’t be showing full 4K content.

rbrbrbrbrbrbWHAAAAA?

Yes, during the test phase you should not expect to see true 4K programming. The current rules let broadcasters test ATSC 3.0 as long as they use exactly the same programming as their HD channels. So the content they’ll broadcast will be scaled-up HD. You won’t see the 4K stuff until the next phase of testing.

And that next phase of testing hasn’t been scheduled yet. There’s some question about when it will start, and whether or not it’s time for Congress to get involved.

The bottom line

The bottom line here is that while we inch closer to 4K programming, and it will probably happen eventually, the odds of getting a converter box that actually shows you over-the-air 4K content this year are looking pretty slender.

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 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.