4K Ecosystem Matures to Woo Operators, Broadcasters to UltraHD


The mass-market deployment of 4K (aka UltraHD) is really a case of not if but when, according to Futuresource Consulting, which predicts that 4K sets will grow from shipping just 62,000 units last year to 780,000 in 2013, and up to 22 million units in 2017. Getting there requires operator and broadcaster investment in infrastructure and, of course, content—a costly endeavor, but something the ecosystem is finally swinging into action to encourage.

Adam Cox, head of broadcast equipment at Futuresource, said that a number of operator challenges remain when it comes to 4K, with the most significant being the sheer amount of data involved in distributing it. “Delivery of 4K requires eight times the bandwidth of 1080p, which has significant implications for the production and distribution chains,” he noted.

Luckily, new tools like high efficiency video coding (HEVC) compression can alleviate some of the delivery overhead for pay-TV providers. For instance, new chipsets from system-on-a-chip (SoC) makers AMD and Broadcom were unveiled at IBC 2013 that are geared to improve performance for 4K STBs, satellite CPE, home gateways and multiple portable screen types by leveraging HEVC.

Another gating factor for operators to invest in 4K is the lack of an accepted broadcasting and transmission standard that meets the defined UltraHD TV spec and a lack of 4K content—a big obstacle to the adoption of 4K TV sets and general uptake by consumers. 

For broadcasters, the cost of creating a 4K channel, factoring in upgrades to existing equipment and infrastructure, could be $10 million to $15 million, according to Deloitte. To put that in perspective, currently an HD channel costs about $2 million; a decade ago it would have cost about $10 million, but the costs quickly came down as consumer adoption accelerated.

“The top estimate of $15 million for 4K may seem high, but broadcasters should remember television's commercial success is predicated on its ability to distribute high production costs across a large audience, resulting in a reasonable cost per viewer,” the firm said. “A major television event costing $10 million to stage and watched by a billion people costs one cent per viewer.”

Image via Shutterstock

This fall, several satellite ecosystem players and vendors announced significant investments aimed at kickstarting the content leg of the UltraHD stool, with tests and initial launches of dedicated 4K channels. This breakthrough should be the first of a flood of content development: if all goes well, the arrival of native 4K content and increased consumer awareness will help boost sales from 2015 onwards, Futuresource said.

Satellite broadcaster SES has big plans to expand its 4K footprint, especially in Africa and Latin America. At IBS, it demonstrated UltraHD demo channels in the new HEVC standard broadcast via the prime European orbital position of 19.2 degrees East. One of the channels was delivered through a partnership with Sky Deutschland and Harmonic to the first actual UltraHD consumer set-top boxes – from Humax and Technicolor – connected to a Sony 84-inch 4K TV screen; the other was set up by SES and Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute to broadcast UltraHD content in the new HEVC standard, but at higher frame rates.

“By showing these two demo channels [we have] demonstrated how [to collaborate] with the industry to make UltraHD a commercial reality. We also have immediate plans to use these UltraHD transmissions to provide our industry partners with live satellite signals to demonstrate devices with the 50/60Hz frame rates that the new HDMI 2.0 interface will be capable of,” said Thomas Wrede, vice president of reception systems at SES.

He added, “As technologies for UltraHD mature, SES will continue to work with partners to make UltraHD the ultimate television experience for consumers, not just with more pixels but with better pixels that also deliver brighter, smoother and more colorful pictures.”

Meanwhile, HISPASAT has been working on UltraHD content delivery using the HEVC compression capabilities in Thomson Video Networks’ ViBE VS7000 multi-screen encoding platform, following a 4K trial this summer, using the HISPASAT 1E satellite platform. Thomson and HISPASAT also have signed a wider cooperation agreement to promote UltraHD TV jointly.

"This demonstration plays an important role in our plans to promote the deployment of the most cutting-edge compression and delivery formats - giving our customers the ability to offer their viewers the absolute highest-quality viewing experience," said Ignacio Sanchis, chief commercial officer at HISPASAT. "With the Thomson Video Networks technology, we are hoping to create awareness within our customer base and deliver live UltraHD streams that can be used in many different ways, such as demonstrating interoperability among manufacturers of TV sets and set-top boxes."

Not to be outdone,  Eutelsat and Samsung’s UltraHD channel has been launched on the EUTELSAT 10A satellite, which provides full European coverage, enabling Samsung to reach exhibitions, industry shows, point-of-sale outlets and other promotional venues for demonstration on its expanding range of UltraHD consumer displays.

"UltraHD is the future of TV, and the technology is now commercially viable with regards to affordability of products and processing power,” said Michael Zoeller, Samsung's European marketing director for TV and audiovisual products, during the launch event. “With this world-first UltraHD channel broadcasting direct to a consumer TV via satellite, Samsung is once again reinforcing its technical leadership in UltraHD displays. UltraHD broadcasting standards are expected to be finalized soon and our products are future-proof thanks to the Evolution Kit that supports current and future transmission standards."

For its part, Eutelsat is also working with Ericsson, Globecast, Newtec and Sky Italia have announced that they have successfully completed a series of live tests proving the reliability of an end-to-end satellite-based delivery chain for the contribution of live images in 4K.

Deloitte said that these moves are a key landmark for 4K.  “The broadcasts should prove useful for optimizing considerations such as frame rate (the number of still images shown per second to create video effect) by genre,” the firm said. “Broadcasters will need to balance minimization of bandwidth requirements while maximizing viewer experience. For [instance, for] sports, the frame rate may need to be 120Hz to provide a fluid picture with no blurring: with higher resolutions image blurring is more visible, making 60Hz transmission less viable. Sports is likely to be one of the genres most likely to be captured in 4K given its strong commercial appeal, but it may require a higher bit rate.”

Another lagging key to operators investing in upgrading their infrastructure to support 4K is a penetration rate among consumers of equipment that can receive those signals. Without a consumer base that can actually see the content, ratings are nonexistent, advertising fails and there’s no rational business model for a pay-TV provider to invest in the technology.

With more than eight million pixels, four times the resolution of today's full-HD displays (hence the “4K” designation), UltraHD enables viewers to sit closer to the screen and benefit from a much higher immersion.  Unfortunately, with typical displays, viewers need to be very close to the set to tell the difference from regular HD — which has made it difficult to justify the purchase when prices range from $7,000 to $15,000.

As such, timing also remains a challenge. The most notable recent technology advances like HD came before the economic downturn. Today, many economies haven’t recovered yet. “Moving to a major new technology with limited ROI at least initially may be limited,” Cox said in a video analysis note. “Upgrading to 4K is a major investment, so manufacturers need to convince end users that 4K isn’t a flash in the pan, as 3D is too many.”

To get past the logjam, UltraHD display-makers may need to reset their specifications in the short term to boost market appeal and reduce the prohibitive pricing. One of the issues is the fact that 4K TVs have value-added functions like 3D and smart TV capability, which makes the sets unaffordable. Analyst firm WitsView projects a penetration rate of only 0.8 percent for 4K this year, and a penetration rate of up to 2 percent next year. But the linchpin is reducing TV set costs. It recommended that manufacturers cut the frame rate and reduce the use of key value-add components, while boosting the panel production yield.

Also, whereas to date most 4K sizes are 55" and 65" to underline the UltraHD TV's high-end position, that alone leads to costs that are 1.5-1.6 times higher than HD panels. WitsView said that some manufacturers will begin producing sizes under 50 inches and will alter the product spec to eschew some of the frills.

In total, chipsets, TV pricing and options, content availability and general consumer interest look to all contribute to a market that will eventually become as mainstream as HD flat panels are today.

“LCD TV panel manufacturers and premium TV brands have been looking for the next hot trigger to accelerate flat panel replacement,” added Simon Bryant, head of consumer electronics at Futuresource. “4K represents a … natural progression for the industry, but one that brings its own challenges, not least the intricacies of producing 4K panels at high yield rates and the complexities of delivering the bandwidth-hungry content. Substantial compression improvements provided by the HEVC codec will smooth the way for broadcast.”

Edited by Alisen Downey

TechZone360 Contributor

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