“4K” is the biggest buzzword in the television industry. Everywhere you turn, you find 4K TVs and computer monitors for sale. These Ultra HD (or UHD) displays give you more pixels than ever – four times as many as HD.
Traditional HD Is limited to a resolution of 1920 x 1080, but UHD has a total resolution of 3840 x 2160.
As you can imagine, 4K produces a clearer, sharper and more detailed image. But how will this new higher resolution affect your over-the-air (OTA) experience?
For the record, 4K is still in its infancy, so this is not an urgent problem that you need to consider right now. There really isn’t a whole lot of content being produced in 4K at this moment in time, especially for free OTA networks.
It’s going to be a long time before 4K signals are the norm – if ever.
Broadcasters can’t even put out a 4K signal using the current broadcasting standard. In fact, the only reason we even have HD content is because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandated the move to digital broadcasting back in the 2000s.
There is a proposed standard for 4K that would allow broadcasters to put out a 4K signal using the current 60MHz channel for HD, but we don’t know for sure if the quality will be good.
The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) has created ATSC 3.0, which includes 4K, but we still don’t have a timetable for when this will become standard.
Right now, the OTA broadcast standard is ATSC 1.0, and video is broadcasted primarily in high definition.
In 2017, the FCC permitted broadcasters to use the ATSC 3.0 standard as long as their broadcast was a mirror of what was being broadcasted on their ATSC 1.0 channel.
Last year, the National Association of Broadcasters said it was committed to moving to ATSC 3.0 starting this year and finishing in 2025. But here’s the thing: ATSC 3.0 doesn’t automatically mean that content will be broadcasted in 4K.
Right now, it seems like broadcasters are pushing for ATSC 3.0 because it allows them to display targeted commercials to viewers. There’s been no suggestion, thus far, that broadcasters are working on 4K content.
I’ll go into more depth about ATSC 3.0 in a future post, but in a nutshell, the new broadcasting standard would allow you to watch TV from any device you want. Broadcasters can track what you’re watching, and show you ads based on that content.
Only a handful of stations in a few cities have the equipment to even broadcast ATSC 3.0 signals. To complicate matters further, receiving an ATSC 3.0 signal requires technology that isn’t even available in the newest 4K televisions.
The move to ATSC 3.0 will be voluntary for broadcasters, so it could still be quite some time before networks decide it’s worth the investment to make the switch.
Here’s another problem with broadcasting in 4K: It requires a lot of bandwidth. To stream or broadcast in 4K requires more than twice the bandwidth utilization. If you wanted to stream Netflix in 4K, for example, you’d need at least a 15 Mbps connection. The recommended minimum is 25 Mbps.
If your data use is capped, which is becoming the norm, you can easily burn through a lot of data in a short amount of time just by streaming Netflix in 4K.
You’ve probably seen OTA antennas that are 4K ready – I’ve reviewed some. In the future, all antennas will be able to pick both ATSC 1.0 and ATSC 3.0 signals. You may need to upgrade your antenna, but that’s a small expense that’s still years away.
The antenna itself isn’t really the issue – it’s the tuner that connects to the antenna. If the tuner technology isn’t advanced enough to pick up an ATSC 3.0 signal, you won’t be able to see content in 4K no matter what type of antenna you have.
Some people are wondering whether they should “wait for 4K” before cutting the cord, but I advise against this. It could be many years before ATSC 3.0 and 4K signals are the norm. If you cut the cord today, you can save a lot of money over those years. If you wait, you’ll be spending thousands more dollars on cable bills for no reason at all.
Another thing to keep in mind: Laws mandate that any station that moves to ATSC 3.0 must also maintain ATSC 1.0 signals for an additional five years after completing the transition. Any TV, antenna or tuner equipment you invest in will get many years of use before you even have to worry about upgrading.
Right now, TV manufacturers are only starting to prepare for ATSC 3.0. In Korea, LG started shipping televisions with ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 tuners. That’s because Korea is the first country to begin 3.0 broadcasts.
Here’s another problem with ATSC 3.0: Free may no longer be an option. With the new standard, broadcasters could encrypt some of their programming. They may require users to create accounts and pay for access to some features. There are still no details on how this would work from the consumer’s perspective.
Consumer advocate groups have said that they will continue to fight for consumers to have access to free OTA TV reception. There’s a push to ensure that the FCC pushes the same public interest obligations that came with ATSC 1.0.
For now, there’s really no need to worry about buying a new antenna or television for 4K. It will take some time for broadcasters to move to ATSC 3.0, and even when they do, they will still be required to broadcast in ATSC 1.0 for many years. Right now, it’s voluntary to move to the new standard, and smaller stations will take even longer to make the move.
4K may be something you want to start thinking about, but there’s really no need to take any action just yet.