Next Gen TV is a new broadcast television standard that allows TV broadcasters to deliver full 4K UHD content and interactive “smart TV” features to local viewers over-the-air. It combines the Interactivity of streaming, the low cost of local broadcast TV, and the high image and audio quality of traditional cable or satellite TV.
If that sounds like a mouthful, just think of it as a hybrid between broadcast and broadband technology.
In a statement released to the public, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai views Next Gen TV as a win-win for the TV industry and consumers:
By authorizing the rollout of the next generation broadcast television standard (Next Gen TV) on a voluntary, market-driven basis, we open the door to a substantially improved, free, over-the-air television broadcast service, and fiercer competition in the video marketplace. 
Detractors, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about consumer tracking and hardware expenses that could make the transition challenging.
Clearly, Next Gen TV is going to rock the boat. In this guide, we’re going to take a look at how and why it matters for regular people, then jump into the nitty-gritty of how the complex ATSC 3.0 spec that powers it actually works.
Does Next Gen TV require new hardware?Yes, consumers will have to purchase a Next Gen TV-enabled device and/or Next Gen TV gateway device if they want to receive Next Gen TV content. However, the November 2017 FCC Order approving Next Gen TV requires broadcasters to continue transmitting local TV content as-is for the next five years (through 2022). 
Will Next Gen TV replace my cable TV subscription? No, Next Gen TV is specifically designed for local over-the-air television. However, by giving smart features to broadcast TV, it will allow them to compete with cable TV for your business. Next Gen TV is expected to be appealing to cord cutters. As of this post, the process for “retransmitting” ATSC 3.0 content over cable is unclear.
Will Next Gen TV cost money? Next Gen TV will most likely continue to operate just like the free broadcast TV you already use, and the Next Gen TV tuner needed. However, it will potentially allow broadcasters to track consumer data and deliver targeted advertising, similar to the personalized ads you see when browsing the web or watching content on streaming services like YouTube.
Understand: Next Gen TV and ATSC 3.0 are the same thing
“Next Gen TV” is really just a marketing term for “ATSC 3.0”, which is an update to the ATSC 1.0 digital TV standard that officially replaced analog TV in 2009.
ATSC has been the de-facto TV standard for close to 20 years now, and it was only a matter of time before it got replaced.
What is ATSC 3.0?
ATSC 3.0 is an IP (Internet Protocol)-based broadcast transmission platform. Technical readers can jump below for the specific layers and standards included in ATSC 3.0.
Using IP rather than QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) comes with huge content delivery benefits, essentially allowing the broadcaster to push only the content a viewer is watching, rather than pushing all content at once as with current QAM systems. Hybrid QAM/IPTV providers like Verizon FiOS are also making signs of moving to purely IP-based systems. Verizon, for example, is currently beta testing this in select markets. 
In simple terms, ATSC 3.0 works by sending bits over the air to your home, at which point they will be translated into streams and files by a new ATSC IP-based tuner.
These tuners are expected to be installed directly into devices like TVs and smartphones similar to Wi-Fi chips, although there’s also talk of creating “gateway” devices that translate content to Wi-Fi to reduce the need for hardware replacement over the next five years.
When the content is displayed, the screen is actually a virtual web page, allowing programmers to display the new layers of interactivity over the top of the media content using HTML5.
One of the bigger breakthroughs of ATSC 3.0 is High Efficiency Video Coding, which makes it possible to pack 4K video into half the bandwidth. The expense of 4K delivery has been one of the major holdups with ATSC 1.0, which required about three times the bandwidth of HD to deliver 4K-quality content.
In addition to encoding interactive layers directly into the broadcast, providers can also deliver separate content layers via a consumer’s broadband connection. A simple example of this would be putting common subtitle languages directly in the broadcast, and making dozens more less-common languages available over broadband. A customer could request the specific language using the Next Gen TV interface, and the subtitles would come in over broadband and sync with the program as they receive it.
Aside from bridging the gap between these two long-separate methods of content delivery, the new standard will finally deliver official support for several tech trends that have been present in the wider industry for years now.
Things like true over-the-air 4K/UHD programming support, wide color gamut profiles, high frame rate, and high dynamic range will now be built into the toolset used by broadcast companies. This is the biggest fundamental change to TV since the final transition to HD digital TV with ATSC 1.0 in 2009.
Who is the ATSC?
The ATSC (Advanced Television Systems Committee) is a non-profit focused on developing voluntary standards for digital television. Since its formation in 1982, the organization has gone on to impact almost every corner of the broadcast industry, and virtually every company in the TV industry has been involved in the development of ATSC spec in one way or another.
The tinge of controversy here is that Sinclair, a major conservative-leaning broadcaster that’s poised to merge with Tribune and control 72% of local TV stations in the USA, is also a major patent holder in the technologies underpinning ATSC 3.0.
This isn’t exactly a surprise (Google and Microsoft also develop and patent a dizzying array of technologies) but it’s worth being aware of as it’s a common point of contention for consumer watchdog groups and the media.
As of last spring, Sinclair was even attempting to give away millions of ATSC 3.0 chips to smartphone manufacturers to encourage hardware support for the technology. 
Next Gen vs Streaming vs Cable vs Broadcast: what’s the difference?
In 2017, we have a mind-boggling variety of ways to access video content on just about any device, from virtually anywhere, at nearly any time. We have streaming players, gaming consoles, laptops, tablets, smartphones, smart TVs, set-top boxes. You name it, it has a smart function. Where does Next Gen TV fit in?
Next Gen TV is basically the “smart” upgrade for broadcast TV. However, it also has implications and applications for traditional wired cable providers. Imagine this new standard as a digital custodian of sorts; NTSC 3.0 will clean up all of these fragmented services, providing a unified framework for delivering rich, Internet-enabled content from the provider of your choosing (if you’re lucky enough to have a choice) to your living room.
Essentially, both broadcast and cable providers will be able to take full advantage of the new standard, bringing you novel ways to interact with and enjoy content on the latest consumer hardware. But what about your current devices?
Will I have to replace my TV?
When it’s in full swing, Next Gen TV will require you to upgrade your TV to a model that has an ATSC 3.0 tuner (or buy the inevitable gateway adaptor that provides this functionality), but for now, no one needs to be rushing out to get out ahead of the curve. So far, only LG has announced versions of their 4K TV’s with the new tuner installed, with the other major brands likely waiting until the standard is finalized and out in the open before committing to it on any appreciable scale.
As for the potential impact for rural and low-income Americans, will a mass market shift toward a new standard leave this segment of the population out in the cold? Probably not, at least for now. The FCC is mandating that one of the stipulations for providers when adopting ATSC 3.0 is to “simulcast” their programming with the help of a viable local channel to be delivered to old-school NTSC 1.0 equipment. For the moment, your current investments are safe.
Still, not everyone at the FCC is happy with the current plan to roll out the new standard as it currently stands. Speaking about the end of the five-year grace period for legacy equipment, FCC Committee member Mignon Clyburn had this to say:
Without a requirement to make programming substantially similar, broadcasters are free to create two different tiers of television. Why is this problematic? Why am I uneasy? This could actually create an unacceptable, unjustified and unwanted digital television divide for those with limited financial means. 
Impact on consumer privacy
One of the overarching goals of ATSC 3.0 is bringing traditional broadcast advertising up to par with its modern Internet media contemporaries. This means that all of the fancy (and often creepy) methods that the Googles and Facebooks of the world use to deliver targeted ads today will now be available to your television provider. IP connections are the best in the world for tracking consumer habits, so it’s no surprise that moving TV onto IP will open up unique data collection possibilities.
TV content providers have largely been stuck with blunt, decades-old systems for delivering advertising. Internet content providers, meanwhile, have developed tools so precise that many consumers are convinced their phones are listening to them all the time. Next Gen TV is like replacing a butter knife with a scalpel when it comes to data collection.
Broadcast TV executives are also excited about the revenue models this creates. In a statement to investors, Sinclair’s Executive Chairman had this to say: “We’ll know where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing — just like you do now, just like everybody does now, the internet does, or Google, or a Facebook. We will have perfect data all the time.” 
Impact on public safety
One of the more interesting elements of the NTSC 3.0 rollout centers around an advanced new alert system that will bring a higher degree of location-aware content to emergency broadcasts. This new system is theoretically capable of displaying things such as live video updates, realtime escape route maps, and more detailed/interactive status updates and communications.
A more-detailed look at the specs surrounding ATSC 3.0
Though the actual standard has not yet been finalized by all parties involved, we have a pretty good idea of what to expect when it goes live. From meaningful resolution jumps to advanced interactivity, here’s what you can expect from the new format:
Picture Quality Enhancements
- Native over-the-air (OTA) 4K 2160p video support
- High Dynamic Range (HDR) Support
- Wide Color Gamut support
- 120fps video transmission
- True native 3D OTA transmission
- Audio Quality Enhancements
- Native support for Dolby AC-4 audio codec
- Native support for Immersive Audio (Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, etc)
- Personalized control of dialog, alternate audio tracks and mixing of assistive audio services, other-language dialog, special commentary, and music and effects.
Quality of Life Enhancements
- Improved OTA reception & channel/content variety
- Additional re-transmission features for Internet-connected devices such as smartphones,
- tablets, and laptops (“second screen” experiences)
- Support for live video/text update streams, escape route maps, and additional location-aware information
- Support for new delivery methods to moving vehicles, allowing for enhanced features for rear-seat entertainment, telematics, and navigation
Working List of ATSC 3.0 Standards
- Sys. Disc. & Signaling: A/321
- PHY Layer D/L Standard: A/322
- PHY Layer U/L Standard: A/323
- Input Formatting into PHY Frames
- Input Formatting (e.g., ALP, TLV, etc.)
- Delivery & Signaling
- Service Announcement
- Service Reporting
- Audio Watermarking Standard
- Video Watermarking Standard
- Watermark Payload (A&V)
- Audio Standard
- Video Standard
- Caption Standard
- App Signaling & Trigger
- Runtime Standard
- Personalization Standard
- Companion Device Standard
- Security Standard
ATSC 3.0 Parent Standard
- Input Formatting / Scheduler
- Watermarking & Fingerprinting
- Essence (A/V/Captions)
- Personalization Data
- Companion Devices
The Big Picture: What’s next for broadcast TV
The rollout of ATSC 3.0 is not looking to be quite as organized as the initiative that ushered in the digital age of broadcast media with ATSC 1.0. For now, the standard will remain completely voluntary, and with so little consumer-facing hardware choices that support the fledgling standard, many providers will take the full five years of transition time to upgrade their content delivery.
All the same, what we’re seeing here is likely the beginnings of an industry defined by 4K OTA content as a standard; a qualification that could put certain local news broadcast stations in jeopardy. The increased costs and manpower required to deliver rich, multi-screen UHB programming on a nightly basis may prove to be too burdensome for these smaller outfits, and could eventually even lead to them being squeezed out of a channel lineup altogether if they are unwilling–or unable–to play ball.
As time stretches on, the level of granularity underpinning the smart functions and interactivity of these stations is only going to increase. It will be up to the broadcasters themselves to be ready for these new, market-driven hurdles, and to be the educator for consumers as the FCC continues to repack spectrum to make space for Next Gen TV on the lower end and 5G wireless.
References and Footnotes
- https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-authorizes-next-gen-tv-broadcast-standard-0/pai-statement ↩
- http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1026/DOC-347455A1.pdf ↩
- http://www.broadcastingcable.com/news/technology/verizon-testing-advanced-tv-features-fios/166343 ↩
- https://www.fiercecable.com/broadcasting/sinclair-offers-1-million-free-atsc-3-0-chips-to-phone-makers ↩
- http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2017/db1120/FCC-17-158A3.pdf ↩
- https://www.bloomberg.com/news/terminal/OZ5H1GDP1C0C ↩
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James Webb is a tech and gadgets expert with a focus on educational content development. He draws on his background in the startup world to make complicated technologies and topics easy to understand for normal folks.