The transition from the ATSC 1.0 to the ATSC 3.0 standard in over-the-air television broadcasting has been a topic of much discussion and concern, particularly regarding the DRM (Digital Rights Management) encryption applied to broadcast signals. This shift brings a significant limitation for viewers like myself who have enjoyed the freedom to watch and record television in the privacy of our homes.
In my latest video update on the ATSC DRM situation, I learned that every ATSC 3.0 tuner will have its decryption certificate expire after a certain length of time.
These certificates, essential for viewing encrypted signals, will expire after a predetermined period – varying from 10 to 30 years. For example, the certificates in devices like the ADTH box and Zapperbox are set to expire in 30 years. But the costs of these certificates are based on length AND quantity. Many manufacturers producing high volumes of tuners may opt for the shorter length certificates to remain profitable. And so far no manufacturer has disclosed how long their certs will last.
Given that the HDHomerun I reviewed over a decade ago is still running on my network today, it’s not unreasonable to have a tuners in use for lengths of time that exceed the certificate’s expiration date. At the moment these certificates are tied to the model number of the hardware being produced and are not renewable via firmware updates.
Another aspect of the ATSC 3.0 transition that has come to light is the ‘phone home’ feature of these devices. Regardless of whether an internet connection is necessary for television viewing, devices with ATSC 3.0 tuners will communicate back to broadcaster servers for certificate validation whenever they tune into an encrypted channel, provided an internet connection is available.
The progress—or lack thereof—in developing gateway devices for ATSC 3.0 has been another point of contention. Gateway devices, like the Tablo and HDHomeRun, are popular as they allow users to stream broadcast content across various devices within their home network. Unfortunately, due to the DRM encryption, creating compatible ATSC 3.0 gateway devices has been a challenge. This struggle is further complicated by compatibility issues with platforms like Apple TV, Roku, and Windows, among others.
Interestingly, the shift towards ATSC 3.0 has led to a potential change in how broadcasters might distribute high-bandwidth content like 4K. Rather than using valuable broadcasting bandwidth, it appears more likely that 4K content will be streamed over the internet, signaled by URLs pinged out by broadcasters over the air. This was revealed in the latest Zapperbox release notes:
As broadcasters seemingly retreat from utilizing public airwaves to their full potential, one wonders if these frequencies could be repurposed for community-benefiting uses, such as local access television. This would provide a new avenue for public access channels, which are currently struggling due to the decline in cable TV subscriptions and the consequent reduction in funding.
The ATSC 3.0 transition, marked by its DRM encryption and tuner expiration dates, raises critical questions about the future of over-the-air television broadcasting. As we move towards the 2027 deadline for the completion of this transition, the decisions made by broadcasters and regulators will significantly impact how we consume broadcast television in the years to come – if at all..