Your quarterly dose of ATSC 3.0 disappointment

According to our blog archives, the last time I waxed poetic about ATSC 3.0 was way back in May. I guess it’s time for you to think about it again.

No news is…

Yes, there have been a few more stations launching in Phoenix. That seems to be the whole extent of the news for the quarter.

Yes seriously. It’s not exactly shaping up to be “the year of ATSC 3.0” is it. I mean, we’ve all been focused on other things, that’s true. But remember that the timeline for a national rollout depends on successful tests all around the country. That’s just not happening yet.

A reasonably priced converter box?

The fact is we’re not even seeing that reasonably priced converter box yet. Sub-$100 converter boxes were available for three years before TV cut over to digital in 2009. They used to be one of Solid Signal’s best sellers.

There is now some hardware out there for engineers to test with, along with some signal meters that actually measure ATSC 3.0. That’s great news for the well-budgeted. However, aside from one box that connects to a computer or streaming device (not a TV), there’s nothing out there for consumers. We’re not even seeing unbranded, unlicensed copies from overseas, and that should tell you something about the demand here.

What’s the timeline?

At this point, who knows. It seems really unlikely that Congress would stick to the original plan of cutting over to ATSC 3.0 completely in 2025. That’s not even four years away. It’s not reasonable to think that this technology would become cheap and pervasive by then. This is especially true since not even one TV makers offers an ATSC 3.0 tuner across its full line (that we know of.)

That we know of?

Yes, it’s possible that since a lot of the hard work of an ATSC 3.0 tuner is in software, that manufacturers are putting the hardware for ATSC 3.0 into their TVs and not telling us. At some point in the future they could issue a software update that turns on the tuner.

Don’t laugh, it could happen. For example, Roku has been known to do this with the TVs they provide software for. Most people don’t know that Roku TVs can act as simple over-the-air DVRs by connecting a flash drive. This capability came as a software update and wasn’t advertised initially.

Pull no punches – best guess

Where are we right now with ATSC 3.0? There continues to be low demand, and that’s slowing down development of the whole thing. If we were to look at a date for cutting off ATSC 1.0 services, I’d have to guess that it would have to be ’27 or later at this point. Remember the whole thing still has to go through Congress and then there needs to be a transition period for people who want to upgrade at a reasonable price.

In the meantime I would guess that low-priced (sub-$200) tuners will finally start hitting shelves in less than a year. Maybe that’s a bit optimistic, but as the technology continues to appear in new TVs, chipmakers will package it so that it can be used on any TV. That’s just common sense.

The real question of course is 4K content. For the most part, test stations are rebroadcasting HD content. That’s the deal with the FCC’s decision to allow test broadcasts at all. Nothing on the ATSC 3.0 stations can be different from the publicly-available ATSC 1.0 stations. That deal would need to be changed in order to allow for widespread 4K programming. Of course this presumes that there really is any of that.

The FCC would have to…

The biggest stumbling block for the FCC right now is that even eight months after the new administration took office, we’re still missing one FCC commissioner. Chair Ajit Pai resigned, which is common when the administration changes parties. Jessica Rosenworcel is acting chair and will probably be confirmed as chair at some point. But the FCC is supposed to have five commissioners and we have four. Nothing’s going to get done until that’s fixed.

So, I suppose the next best thing is to fast forward another three months when I predict I’ll write a remarkably similar article. Don’t get hung up waiting for a TV standard that won’t come. Jump into the world of free TV and get an antenna from Solid Signal.

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.