FCC could kickstart ATSC 3.0

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Will we one day get 4K over-the-air television? It’s something I’ve been talking about for years. Antenna enthusiasts love the idea that we could get 4K for free, and those blogs and websites that serve broadcasters perk up every time there’s even a teeny glimmer of hope. This is another one of those times.

According to Multichannel News, the FCC has reported that they are kind of getting closer to finishing up the application that will let broadcasters start broadcasting in 4K. Kind of. Sort of. Really it was just an offhand comment by FCC Chairperson Ajit Pai.

Why is this so hard?

In order to get 4K programming with your antenna, there are several things that need to happen. The biggest is that Congress needs to approve a transition to a new broadcast standard. You might remember the last time this happened it took 6 years or so. And I dare say Congress has not gotten any more functional since then.

Before that happens, they need to have a broadcast standard to approve. This has almost sort of happened as the ATSC, an independent group, has pretty much come close to finalizing their 3.0 standard. It’s close enough that broadcasters can start trials.

There are six prototype trial stations in the country that are doing ATSC 3.0 broadcasts, but your average person wouldn’t know because it’s impossible to buy a TV or any sort of device that decodes the new standard. Again this will take an act of Congress. Congress will have to decide like they did a decade ago, how to handle this. Will there be a coupon program for people to buy new hardware? Will TV makers be required to include the new tuners? When will that start? All this is unknown.

And it might not lead to 4K TV.

Everyone is talking about the ATSC 3.0 standard like it’s going to automatically enable 4K over-the-air broadcasting. That’s so not true. If you look at the last time we went through this exercise, about half of the stations that went to digital broadcasting in 2009 were still broadcasting in standard definition. It takes a commitment to all new production and reception equipment in order to go to a higher quality level.

Remember at this point there is precisely -zero- 4K programming from any major broadcaster. They’re probably producing some stuff in 4K but none of it has been broadcast yet.

In fact, broadcasters don’t care about 4K, it would seem. They like the ATSC 3.0 standard because it means they can give you more commercials and more targeted commercials. That’s the real motivation here, let’s be honest. No one likes commercials and no one wants more of them, even in 4K.

So here we are again…

We’re all running toward the football of ATSC 3.0 while expecting the FCC not to yank it away. I think it’s kind of silly. Just like all of you I would love to see even better free over-the-air TV. I’m a big believer in free TV and I think it’s super important. However, I’m not about to believe that 4K over-the-air is coming anytime soon when it looks like the FCC still can’t even get the web site to apply for a license right. I’ll let you know if there’s any real progress here, but in the meantime, if you’re looking for the best 4K you should probably look at a DIRECTV Satellite subscription. It’s here, it’s real 4K, it works right now.

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.