ATSC 3.0: Everything you need to receive free TV

With endless subscription TV services and ever-increasing cable/satellite bills, wouldn’t it be nice if you could just watch up to 4K TV for free? Yes you can! Anyway, some TV. This advancement is called NextGen TV and will be rolled out nationwide. In fact, it’s already available in most major US cities. Many new televisions have compatible tuners built in, and there is a growing number of standalone tuners. As the name suggests, this is the next generation of over-the-air broadcasting, replacing or complementing the free HD broadcasts we’ve had for over two decades.

NextGen standout features like 4K and HDR aren’t widely available yet. But the picture quality of Full HD images will likely look better than what you’re used to from streaming or even cable/satellite.

So here’s everything you need to know, and even deeper dives if you want to learn more.

What is NextGen TV?

There used to be NTSC. This was the broadcast standard for over half a century. It was officially replaced by ATSC, also known as HDTV, in 2009. Now ATSC even will be replaced in many markets by NextGen TV, formerly called ATSC 3.0 (there was no 2.0).

NextGen TV offers a variety of new technologies, including the ability to broadcast 4K, HDR and more. Through how it worksyou will probably have better reception if you are far away from the TV tower.

The short version is: NextGen is free over-the-air television with potentially more channels and better picture quality than older over-the-air broadcasts.

Where is NextGen TV?

The many quotes with current or upcoming NextGen TV channels.

watchnextgentv.com

Most major cities have NextGen TV channels, as do many smaller ones, and more are added every month. The move to NextGen is voluntary, but so far many broadcasters in most markets are welcoming the move. Much of this has to do with the digital shift to HDTV. Since everything is already digital, upgrading to NextGen doesn’t have the same high cost as going from analog NTSC to digital ATSC (1.0). There are also new ways broadcasters can make money, which certainly softens the blow.

You can find out which stations are already active in your area at watchnextgentv.com/markets.

What do I need for NextGen TV?

A chic living room image of Sony's A95K QD OLED TV.

The Sony A95K QD-OLED has a built-in NextGen TV tuner.

Sony

All you need is a NextGen tuner and an antenna. When you buy a new TV Many current models have built-in NextGen TV tuners. This includes many models from LG, Sony, HiSense and Samsung. There are also a handful of external tuners, although not as many as you might think – at least for now.

The antenna part is pretty simple: There are many inexpensive options. If you have an antenna from the HDTV days, it will probably work just fine.

Will there be my favorite series?

Rooftops with a bunch of antennas, mountains in the distance.

When I come home tired and exhausted, I go upstairs where the air is fresh and sweet, I escape the busy crowd and all the rat noise down the street…

Mats Silvan/Getty Images

That’s the ultimate question, isn’t it? What good is free content if you don’t want to watch it? NextGen is a broadcast standard that typically covers the “broadcasters” of yore (namely ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS). These aren’t the only channels you’ll find, but these are the core offerings in most areas.

However, the specifics are more complex. Not every broadcaster in your area will have switched to NextGen, but if you have the antenna and tuner you should be able to pick up all “ATSC 1.0” (aka old school HDTV) broadcasts. So you should be able to get all the major stations over the air for free one way or another.

However, in many areas you can get a lot more than this. Most stations operate multiple sub-channels, which in turn run different programs under the same “channel” banner. There are also smaller stations with different content. can you watch stranger things above the air? Almost certainly not, but This Is Us, Chicago PD, Grey’s Anatomy and most major sports are all available to watch wirelessly for free.

A few cities, like Boise, Idaho; Portland, Oregon; Denver, Colorado has Evoca, which is sort of a hybrid service which combines over-the-air with some pay channels like the NFL Network, Bloomberg and others. This is ideal for markets that may not have many channel options while also having internet speeds that are too slow for streaming. You’ll be surprised at how quickly internet speeds and availability drop once you’re outside of many cities.

Will there be 4K/HDR/120Hz content?

Tall towers with countless antennas sit on a mountaintop.  More mountains are in the distance.

Onfocus/Getty Images

That’s a frustrating “maybe.” The technology behind NextGen makes it possible to be very flexible. If you think of the Internet connection at home as a two-way data hose, NextGen is an open fire hydrant on the street. It sends massive amounts of data in one direction, everywhere, all the time. With NextGen, local broadcasters have many more options for what they can broadcast, including 4K and HDR.

However, they need something to transfer. Unlike streaming services, major networks have little motivation to improve the picture quality of their content. Some sporting events have had some 4K cameras, but adoption is frustratingly slow. Without the networks offering shows in 4K, NextGen channels have little (if any) 4K content to show.

Will that change? Pretty sure. Will it change tomorrow? no You might be surprised at how good 1080p can look, especially when compared to the highly compressed 4K we’ve all seen streaming.

Does this mean I have to watch ads again?

Technician adjusts TV antennas on the roof

And I still can’t get CBS…

Bettman/Getty Images

Nothing is ever really free, is it? In this case, you are paying with your time by watching ads. Back in the day, aka before streaming, there were DVRs that recorded programs onto a hard drive for later viewing. You could fast-forward through the commercials. It was A thing. And it still is when you pay for cable or satellite TV.

There is a few NextGen DVRs already, and some of the other tuners have the ability to record to local or networked hard drives. So if you don’t want to spend 20 minutes every hour watching a prescription drug work because of its possible side effects, look for one of these.


In addition to reporting on TV and other display technologies, Geoff also conducts photo tours cool museums and places around the worldincluding nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castlesepic 10,000 mile road trips and more. Cash Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a best-selling sci-fi about city-sized submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and on his YouTube channel.

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