If I get an ATSC 3.0 converter, will I get my local channels in 4K?


Wow that was a short article. OK, let’s get serious. Let’s talk about why getting an ATSC 3.0 converter box won’t give you anything more than bragging rights.

What is ATSC 3.0?

If you found this article in a Google search, you’re probably aware of ATSC 3.0. It’s the leading contender for the next-generation of over-the-air broadcast services. When (if) it’s fully implemented, it will give the potential for 4K programs, internet-delivered on demand programs, targeted ads, and the ability to watch over-the-air television in a moving vehicle.

That’s all good, if it ever happens.

As with all things, the timeline for adoption of ATSC 3.0 has been pushed back due to the events of the last year. We were expecting to see about 100 test broadcasts of ATSC 3.0 by the end of 2020, but that didn’t happen. It’s possible we’ll see something close to that by the end of 2021. That could potentially push the final adoption of this new standard to 2026 or later.

Yes, the government does need to be involved.

Changing over to a new broadcast standard will take an act of Congress, because the airwaves are considered a public trust, almost the same way a national park is. This means that the government must ok any changes to the broadcast standard.

The last time this happened, when we all went from square tube TVs to wide flat ones, it took close to a decade for the transition to take place and it was delayed further at the last minute.

Since then, it’s hard to imagine that the US government has gotten any more functional or effective, so it’s hard to know when, or if, this transition will take place.

Test broadcasts are happening now but…

In late 2017, the FCC took a really unique step. In every past action where the TV system was upgraded, the FCC required a transition that was very slow and deliberate. With the 2017 plan, they allowed broadcasters to rush in and offer open broadcasts of ATSC 3.0 content, with one important limitation. The ATSC 3.0 broadcasts had to be exactly the same as the ATSC 1.0 broadcast that anyone could get with any television.

What that means is, those ATSC 3.0 test broadcasts are HD, not 4K. There will be some 4K broadcasts in special cases, but most broadcasts should look identical to the ones you’d get over the air. The ATSC 3.0 channels are there to test and harden the technology, not to provide end users with new features.

Did you buy  into the frenzy surrounding SiliconDust’s ATSC 3.0 device, or any other ATSC 3.0 tuner? You might be disappointed. You might have thought a device like that would let you get 4K broadcasts, but there are no 4K broadcasts to be had.

When will we start seeing 4K over-the-air?

Seeing 4K over-the-air programming depends on two things. The FCC and Congress would have to decide it’s ok to move onto the next step with ATSC 3.0 broadcasts. This next step would allocate new channel space for 4K as well as giving broadcasters the right to put unique content on their 4K channels. That’s a pretty big leap from where we are now and it doesn’t seem like anyone is in a rush to do it.

The other side of this of course is that there has to be 4K content available. Right now none of the network feeds provided from ABC, NBC, CBS, or FOX are in 4K. We don’t even know how many 4K shows there are right now. I bet most new content uses 4K production, but we just don’t know. This means that initially, if there is any 4K content, it would come from the local stations.

Do you remember the last time this all went down?  Most local markets didn’t go to HD with their news and local programming until after the final 2009 deadline. They provided standard definition content over a digital channel. I suspect the same will happen here. I bet that we’ll see local channel content stay HD long after the network feeds go 4K. And as I said, the network feeds aren’t 4K yet.


Sorry to burst your bubble, we’re just not there yet. I’m as excited as anyone, but it’s just not time yet.

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.