An interesting upgrade is happening right now to a technology that you have used all of your life, but I would bet dollars to donuts that you have no idea it exists. I didn’t until recently.

I refer to ATSC 3.0, rebranded as NextGen TV, which has the option of bringing a sweeping change to television coming via rabbit ears rather than fiber optic cables. It has recently appeared in Boston, although it’s only just kicking into gear, and it’s not clear when it will be used by New Hampshire broadcasters.

ATSC 3.0 is the latest version of the Advanced Television Systems Committee standards defining how over-the-air television signals are broadcast and interpreted. Broadcast signals currently use version 1.0, which was introduced in 1996 but didn’t become universal until the switch from analog to digital TV in 2009. (We skipped over 2.0 for some reason.) You need an ATSC 3.0 compatible TV or a special set-top box to handle the signals.

While future uses including interactivity are still being developed, the immediate effect is to allow better audio and video or more channels. If that sounds familiar, the same thing happened when we switched from analog signals to digital; this is the next step up.

“In the last transition we added GBH World, Create, Kids,” said Shane Miner, chief technology officer at WGBH, Boston’s PBS station. “This transition would allow us to increase the number of services we provide at same quality or we could increase the quality for the same number of services. They either see us better, or they see more of us.”

GBH is one of several Boston channels using Univision’s antenna to broadcast ATSC 3.0. Madeleine Normand, president of Advanced Television Systems Committee, which is developing standards for and lobbying for NextGenTV, explained that antenna-sharing is made necessary by this rollout’s voluntary nature. That’s in comparison to the mandatory switchover to digital broadcast in 2009, which included extra space on the broadcast spectrum allowing both to be done at once.

“There is no extra spectrum this time. You cannot have 1.0 and 3. 0 in same RF channel at the same time – there’s no simulcast – so you buddy up with somebody in the marketplace. One station says you, partner, will carry my 1.0 stuff in your band and I will carry your 3.0 stuff in my RF band,” she said. (RF is “radio frequency,” the outdated-sounding term for parts of the broadcast spectrum.)

An advantage of this system, said Miner, is that it was relatively cheap for GBH to make the transition, compared to all the new equipment needed for the 2009 transition. A disadvantage is that it will be difficult to get the service to rural areas served by a single transmitter.

The interesting part of NextGenTV, however, isn’t the picture and sound, it’s the possibility of interactivity. Interactivity is limited by the standards of the Web but it does allow some signals to go from your remote back out through the airways, serving locations that can’t afford or access Internet or have much cell-phone service.

“PBS is working with local or regional school districts to deliver educational content at home. We learned in a pandemic world that (internet service) is not equally accessible to all at-home learners. But OTA (over-the-air) transmission is free and readily available for students to consume and do work at home. To level part of that playing field, that is a real mission-oriented focus for us,” said Miner.

ATSC 3.0 is like the early days of dial-up modems: decent download but very little upload. Right now you can push a button on your remote to do things like answer a question on a test and maybe buy something if the for-profit channels have their way, but not much more. Uploading data of any kind still requires internet or cell connectivity.

“A lot of households don’t have zero internet but do have very limited internet: maybe the only two-way channel in the house is mom’s cellphone. (NextGenTV) lets you get classroom material – all of that comes down through ATSC 3.0 pipe – then use narrow band to send your questions or homework or test answers,” said Normand.

Miner noted the system is being studied to provide schooling in prisons, where internet and cell service is limited or forbidden. It might also be useful for telemedicine, although that will be very limited because two-way chatting with a nurse or doctor isn’t feasible over ATSC3.0.

What is feasible is emergency management, since TV signals are a great way to blast information to a large area, going beyond a mere warning to let people do things, to things like escape route maps if there’s a disaster.

“We are working with local/state/regional emergency management associations,” said Miner. “I think that has an enormous benefit, very mission-centric: What can we do to make this better?”

Providing emergency management notifications would be particularly useful because an even older broadcast medium that currently carries warnings is on the way out. Automakers are going to stop including AM radio in electric vehicles because the motors cause serious interference with the signal.

In fact, in-car broadcast is one of the things that ATSC3.0 may make possible, for better or worse. The possibility is under investigation by various parties. TV signals do a better job of blanketing the country than cell signals so it would be useful for emergency management.

This technology is arriving slowly, mostly because it’s voluntary. The pick of set-top boxes and TVs is still relatively limited – Normand suggests you buy TVs branded NextGenTV, an industry certification, although other ATC 3.0 sets exist – and we won’t see really interesting services for a while.

“These big infrastructure projects can have a long, long way to go before they get really realized,” said Miner of GBH. “ATSC 3.0 is still in its early days. But we’re excited to see what we can do.”

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