4K Has Come a Long Way, Has Farther Yet to Go


The 4K Ultra HD market is developing faster than anyone thought that it would—with TV shipments escalating, more and more content availability and advances being made in compatible home set-top boxes. That said, there are certain arenas that still need to follow suit with adaptability and preparedness for this expanding space, like content security, and delivery mechanisms that can address 4K bandwidth requirements.

UHD TV penetration is expected to reach 61 percent in North America by 2020, according to ABI Research, which is higher than what had been expected. And, more than 46 million households worldwide will subscribe to a 4K UHD pay-TV service by 2018, according to Parks Associates.

Impressive numbers, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective.

“To enjoy the true benefits of 4K, three things need to be present: the television, the content, and a way to get the content to the TV,” said Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates. “4K can deliver an enhanced experience to viewers, but these three factors are not yet aligned. Getting 4K content to the TV remains a key challenge as is the pace of production of 4K content.”

Overall, it’s a market that’s in transition—it’s come a long way, but there’s a long way to go still.

4K Content Momentum

4K content is continuing to pop up as a thing—with everyone from Netflix to Comcast embracing the production of content in the next-gen format. Recent weeks have seen significant moves from some big players.

Comcast for instance plans to add hundreds of titles to the Xfinity in UHD catalogue and library, including films originally produced for IMAX and other Giant Screen theatres from K2 Communications and Havoc TV, like The Ultimate Wave Tahiti, Antarctica, Rocky Mountain Express, Fighter Pilot and Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia. Other fare will include full current seasons of hit TV shows such as Syfy's Defiance; USA's Playing House, Satisfaction and Suits; and original programming from STARZ including Outlander and Power will also be included.

"With Xfinity in UHD, our customers can easily and seamlessly enjoy some of the best 4K programming available today as part of their subscription with no additional equipment or costs," said Matt Strauss, EVP and GM of video service for Comcast Cable. "We are committed to providing the highest quality entertainment experiences across platforms and our next-generation set-top boxes deliver on that promise — providing our customers with UHD and HDR programming on the biggest screen in the home."

In the UK, BT Sport UHD will become the nation’s first ultra-high-definition channel to launch, and will feature live soccer and other premium content. BT is working with Ericsson to make it happen.

Elsewhere in the world, Fuji Television has unveiled Japan's first commercial 4K ultra high definition (UHD) online streaming service, a subscription video on demand offering. The service launched with a handful of offerings, including a streamed documentary called Battleship Island, about the abandoned Hashima Island near Nagasaki in southern Japan and its undersea coal mine, which was manned by forced labor during the 1940s. It’s planning an ongoing expansion of offerings. Also, Netflix is already collaborating with Fuji TV to produce original content for its own entrance in the Japanese streaming market.

Image via Shutterstock

Brazilian production house Globo has also dipped a toe into the 4K waters, and has licensed the film Time and the Wind in Ultra HD format to the EPG media group of South Korea.

"We think Ultra HD will be a main stream of broadcasting market in the near future and will be a new blue ocean. The Time and The Wind has an important meaning to us in the way that it will be the first step of a new business era,” said Johwang Suh, CEO at EPG. "The film is best quality not only in technically but also in storyline. We hope that starting with this content, we can introduce more good Ultra HD content from Globo and it will make us take an initiative in 4K content market in Korea.”

Set-Tops Begin to Appear

Of course, a 4K TV and content availability aren’t all one needs to enjoy 4K. If 4K is being delivered by a pay-TV operator, the home set-top-box has to be compatible with the format too.

Technicolor is working on this, making its single-stream HEVC HDR reference code for testing by MPEG and strategic partners.

Technicolor says that the single-stream code has been written to provide a “universal, convenient and cost-effective method for supporting efficient delivery” of high dynamic range (HDR) content—a hallmark of current-gen 4K TVs—to the consumer market in a way that is not dependent on the CPE. HDR offers increased color gamut, contrast and brightness.

Technicolor's latest 4Kp60 UHD High Frame Rate HDR set-top box already incorporates the solution, and it’s available to cable, satellite and IPTV operators to help them avoid the need to replace consumer premise equipment as their customers upgrade to 4K TVs.

Comcast meanwhile is prepping a 4K Ultra HD set-top box for launch later this year. The new X1 set-top box, dubbed the Xi4, will deliver Xfinity TV customers 4K Ultra HD content directly to the television. The Xi5 STB that supports HDR will be coming next year.

French broadband and IPTV service provider Free has turned to Broadcom to deploy a 4K Android TV set-top box (STB). The new device is powered by Broadcom's BCM7252 STB system-on-chip (SoC). Dubbed the Freebox STB, it delivers a comprehensive suite of streaming, terrestrial, on-demand and recorded content at up to four times the resolution of current HD television.

"As an early innovator with our triple-play service for subscribers in France, Freebox has demonstrated its commitment to affordably deliver the latest in entertainment to our subscribers," said Sebastien Boutruche, Free GM. "With our new Ultra HD Android TV set-top box, our customers will enjoy the stunning clarity of Ultra HD 4K content right in their homes."

And, Vodafone Portugal has debuted a 4K television channel for its IPTV customers, rolled out on its purpose-built 4K FunBox.

"With a latest generation fibre network coverage and strong focus on developing more advanced and innovative services, Vodafone reinforces once again its leading role in innovation of its television service, often recognized as the service more level of satisfaction and recommendation," the company said.

The Bandwidth Bugbear

Amid this flurry of activity, it’s critical to remember that big challenges for the 4K market remain—namely, how to deliver 4K with QoS and QoE to the average home, given how much bandwidth it requires. 4K gets its name from the fact that at 2160p, it’s double the resolution of the current 1080p Full HD standard. Essentially, it’s twice as wide and twice as tall as HD—with an 8.3MP image that's quadruple the 2.1MP image found on current HD.

To squeeze all of that into packets that won’t overload the delivery apparatus and networks, various compression methods have been touted, notably HEVC encoding. But even then, the optimal bandwidth for high-quality 4K is higher than 20Mbps just to support one TV or stream—more than double what the average American household gets in total.

Thus, Ultra HD places specific demands on workflows in the content management, playout and encoding sectors—but the industry is hard at work here too to address the issues.

SES’ pearl.tv for example, Europe’s very first free-to-air Ultra HD channel, is a shopping channel transmitted via DTH and the Internet. It will be delivered by the operator's SES Platform Services division, which will provide HEVC encoding of the Ultra HD live signal, as well as the uplink to the satellites. It will also prepare the TV signal and the Internet stream, and manage the content delivery network (CDN) supplying the stream.

The company feels pretty bullish about it. "We’ve gained a lot of know-how over the past few years,” said Sophie Lersch, chief product officer for services at SES Platform Service. “As a result, we can now offer all services that broadcasters and content providers need in order to market and distribute their content in UHD – linear or on-demand, and via satellite or the Internet."

Fuji TV meanwhile is working in conjunction with nascent technology provider Mist Technologies for its 4K service, which is streamed over the Internet. The subscription service is being delivered via the MistCDN content delivery network platform – a peer-to-peer (P2P) network which, it  says, can deliver content at bitrates of as much as 40Mbps.

The Fuji TV service is the first mass-market application of MistCDN, following its developer's launch in 2013 with funding from Japanese telco KDDI. To achieve maximum efficiency, MistCDN needs P2P users to be watching the same things simultaneously—a state of affairs that will improve as the Fuji TV service gains popularity.

SES has also launched an Ultra HD demonstration channel for the North American television market, and has three 4KTV demo channels available across Europe. The idea is to enable pay-TV operators to prepare and test their networks for 4K/Ultra HD trials.

The camera-to-screen ecosystem is built on what SES regards are satellite's inherent broadcast advantages coupled with the multicasting capability of DOCSIS 3.0, the most advanced transmission standard that is used by most cable systems today.

"This new SES Ultra HD demo channel is playing an important role in accelerating the successful delivery of Ultra HD to cable homes across North America," explained Steve Corda, vice president of business development for SES in North America. "Cable operators and content distributors can now begin to prepare their systems and test their networks for Ultra HD delivery, leading into major trials this summer."

Content Security in the Spotlight

“Along with TVs, browser- and application-based streaming services will continue to roll out 4K content at a quickening rate, creating an expanding marketplace filled with premium content from studios that demand strong content protection,” said Eric Abbruzzese, research analyst for ABI Research.

ABI noted that guidelines for proper 4K content protection rely on deep hardware-level integration of security measures in combination with software security, creating an end-to-end secure system from publishing to consumption.

This involves dedicated space on a SoC; Hardware Root of Trust and Trusted Execution Environments (TEE) will mean stronger security, but also reliance on new hardware. On top of hardware security, technologies like forensic watermarking will be implemented for copyright and source identification.

As a result, legacy hardware, including set-top boxes, smart TVs, desktops and mobile devices, could face difficulties with being supported in 4K-compliant security setups.

“The overall video market’s continuing focus on multiscreen means there are many more factors to consider for security than in years past,” ABI noted in its research. “Not only more devices in general, but also many more device types need to be considered and supported in the security system, and the importance of end-to-end security adds another layer of difficulty.”

Fragmentation is taking its toll as well. Chipset vendors, content studios, CE manufacturers and others are all involved on the scene, meaning that deploying an acceptable content protection scheme can be much more challenging.

“Video delivery companies have had to address this growth across their platforms with modular offerings to support multiple use case types; with 4K content looming, modularity in content protection is equally important,” ABI concluded.

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino
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