ATSC 3.0: How cord-cutters should plan for antenna TV’s big upgrade

The broadcast TV industry has been hyping a new standard for over-the-air channels over the past couple years. It’s called ATSC 3.0, or Next Gen TV.

The benefits of this standard are clear: Better reception, 4K HDR video support, Dolby Atmos and DTS-X support, on-demand video, and possibly even streaming to mobile devices and automobiles. (The standard also has also some iffier aspects, such as targeted advertising.) But ATSC 3.0 comes with one big caveat as well: While the new standard will work with any antenna, it’s incompatible with the ATSC 1.0 tuners built into today’s TVs, converter boxes, and DVRs. To take advantage of Next Gen TV, cord-cutters will need new hardware.

All of which has made me wonder at what point it no longer makes sense to invest in the current generation of antenna TV. With ATSC 3.0 set to roll out in the top 40 U.S. markets later this year, and with some TV makers starting to build ATSC 3.0 tuners into their 2020 sets, has the time come to hold off on buying TVs or over-the-air DVRs that only support ATSC 1.0?

The answer is “probably not just yet.”

Next Gen TV: Where it stands now

Here’s what we know for sure about the forthcoming rollout of ATSC 3.0:

The top 40 U.S. markets as ranked by Nielsen plan to have at least one ATSC 3.0 broadcast up and running this year, with an additional 20 markets to follow. Collectively those will cover about 70 percent of the population. (A full list of markets getting ATSC 3.0 in 2020 is available at this link.)

As for hardware, Samsung has announced that it will support ATSC 3.0 in 13 of its 8K TVs in 2020, while LG will support the standard in six of its OLED sets. Sony will offer ATSC 3.0 in its X900H range, totaling at least 20 TVs with Next Gen TV support this year.

Beyond that, things get squishy. Dave Arland, a spokesman for both the ATSC 3.0 standards body and the broadcaster tech consortium Pearl TV, said discussions are underway with other TV makers, so it’s possible that more TVs will arrive in 2020; for now, the tech is destined for high-end televisions.

“Like everything, it’s going to start expensive and then work its way down,” Arland said.

Broadcasters do want to support existing TVs as well, but this will require external tuner boxes, and the plans for those are even murkier.

A company called BitRouter has built an ATSC 3.0 set-top box that can connect to TVs over HDMI, and a brand called Zapperbox plans to sell the hardware to consumers this year, but neither company is announcing prices or availability yet. (Given that BitRouter’s current hardware is a small NUC desktop computer running an Intel Core i5 processor, one could imagine the consumer product costing hundreds of dollars.) Another firm, called AirWavz, is planning consumer ATSC 3.0 hardware as well, including a USB dongle with PC/Linux support similar to what it currently sells to broadcasters. But AirWavz isn’t talking price or release date yet either. We might hear more details on these products at a trade show for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in April.

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