In the rush to sign up for cable TV and then video-on-demand services such as Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ and Netflix, you may have forgotten that you can still use an antenna to view TV.
In fact, over-the-air TV reception has been getting better. Thirteen years ago, those TV signals changed from analog to digital, allowing for high-definition broadcasts.
Now a new standard called Next Generation TV is about to revolutionize our viewing experience — great news if you’re a cord-cutter who has ditched cable. Here’s what you need to know.
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What is Next Generation TV?
This new over-the-air standard delivers higher quality 4K video and clearer Dolby audio, which can make it easier to understand dialogue in shows and movies. In addition, more consistent volume means that commercials won’t scream at you and background noise gets tamped down, which allows that dialogue to stand out.
NextGen TV, also called ATSC 3.0, can also deliver television to your phone or tablet or car if you have a device that can receive these signals. ATSC stands for the Advanced Television Systems Committee, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that includes more than 100 international broadcast equipment and TV manufacturers, broadcasters, cable, motion picture, satellite and semiconductor companies. It has been around since 1982.
In the first version of ATSC standards, in 1996, over-the-air TV and internet were separate. The second version was to allow for some mixing of TV and internet but became outdated before it launched. ATSC 2.0 was folded into the third version, in which broadcast TV becomes a part of the wireless internet.
Is NextGen TV available in my area?
It might be. About half of U.S. households now have ATSC 3.0 signals being broadcast to them, and that’s supposed to increase to three-quarters of households by summer’s end, according to ATSC.
The TV markets now targeted for NextGen TV cover 80 percent of U.S. households. As of June 1, 55 of the country’s 210 television markets had at least one station broadcasting NextGen TV signals, with another 20 scheduled to start by the end of 2022. ATSC updates its map and list of markets regularly so you can check to see if yours is live.
South Korea was the first country to turn on NextGen TV in 2017. Now about 70 percent of residents in that country have been reached.
Does it cost anything?
Nope, NextGen TV service is free, just like any over-the-air TV. Its local channels include network affiliates, PBS stations and local independent channels.
What equipment do I need for NextGen TV?
If you already have a TV antenna, you won’t need a new one. Don’t have one? Indoor antennas compatible with NextGen TV signals start around $20.
But — and here’s the big but — you will need a newer, NextGen-compatible TV. Manufacturers started to add ATSC 3.0 tuners to some popular models in 2020. Sony, Samsung and LG all support the technology, and other manufacturers will release compatible sets soon.
Just look for the NextGen TV logo on the box, or search for your TV’s specifications online. If your TV doesn’t have NextGen capacity, you can buy an external tuner with ATSC 3.0 technology for about $200.
Do I need internet for NextGen TV?
No, you can receive the stations that broadcast in ATSC 3.0 over the air without subscribing to a high-speed internet service. But NextGen TV was designed to merge broadcast TV and internet resources in a seamless viewing experience, such as a morning show cooking segment where you can linger on a recipe for the dish to see whether you have the ingredients in your pantry, or sports broadcasts that can show you detailed statistics.
With an internet connection you’ll also gain interactivity, on-demand content and customized advertising. Plus, your ATSC 3.0 tuner and your smart TV will need to download software updates for this evolving technology over your internet connection.
Can I still watch television using my older TV set?
Yes, if you don’t want to buy anything, stations are required to continue broadcasting HDTV even if they adopt NextGen TV. No one’s over-the-air set will be useless as sets were on June 12, 2009, when analog TV became extinct in the United States.
You just won’t be able to take advantage of the new standard, its higher-quality picture and better sound.
“This is yet another choice for consumers,” says Lynn Claudy, senior vice president of technology at the National Association of Broadcasters. “It doesn’t replace another choice consumers might make.”
What programs will benefit from NextGen TV?
“Sports is what people usually focus on first,” Claudy says. But movies, which often are shot in the highest resolution, should also look sharper.
Will I be able to watch TV on my phone?
The technology is designed with mobile devices in mind, but phone manufacturers and carriers would need to include a tuner in the devices to pick up the broadcast signals. So far, that hasn’t happened.
What’s next for NextGen TV?
Beyond the better picture and sound, NextGen TV is designed to offer interactive elements that could be especially useful during news or sports shows. Down the road, you might be able to push a button on your remote to see a map of where an event is happening or see additional interviews on the topic at hand.
Want to shift the camera angle on the game you’re watching? That’s technically possible, though Claudy notes that these sorts of features will take some time to develop.
Chris Morris is a contributing writer who covers technology and video gaming. He previously was an editor at CNN Money and Yahoo! Finance. His work also appears in Fortune, on Nasdaq.com and on CNBC.