The 4K Ultra HD television space is heating up, with TV shipments tumbling out at triple-digit rates and commercial arrangements proliferating nicely. At this year’s IBC 2015 in Amsterdam, which wrapped up this week, players across the ecosystem showed themselves to be embracing the trend in a big way.
And no wonder: There’s no question that 4K, which offers eight times better video picture resolution than regular HD, is heating up. Consider the research that was released at IBC, which found that global TV shipments declined 8 percent in the second quarter of 2015, year over year; however, 4KTV was a bright spot in the global TV market, showing triple-digit growth. At the same time, new numbers show that Europeans are ready for 4K content and willing to pay for it.
4K by the Numbers
According to IHS, units fell to 48 million units after a year of quarterly year-over-year growth in 2014—making it the largest year-over-year decline in a quarter since Q2 2009, when worldwide demand slumped amid the global recession.
4KTV however turned in impressive uptake, with unit shipments growing 197 percent year over year in Q2 2015, to reach 6.2 million units. The growth in 4K TVs is the direct result of increased price erosion and more affordable tiers of 4K models becoming available, the firm said.
And, it helps that operators and ecosystem manufacturers are stepping up to the plate. With compatible TVs making it to the marketplace, taking 4K mainstream becomes a question of content, delivery networks and compatible gear.
Research from GfK dovetails with this: it forecast that Ultra HD screens in 2020 will represent more than 70 percent of total sales across Europe and almost 60 percent in the Middle East and North Africa. The annual volume of screens sold in these markets is expected by then to have reached 37 million.
On the user adoption front, a GfK/TNS survey found that consumers in key European TV markets are ready to embrace Ultra HD as a “thrilling” TV experience.
The results show common trends across all markets with the sample identifying sharpness, immersion and vivid color as valued benefits, and respondents indicated a willingness to pay up to €10 a month (about $12 at press time) to benefit from Ultra HD in the home. Even though pay-TV subscribers showed a strong preference for linear Ultra HD channels, viewers used to free TV expressed a preference to gain their first experience through VOD and occasional, event-specific offerings.
And finally, a Strategy Analytics report showed that familiarity with Ultra HD continues to rise. It observed that in August 2015, nearly two thirds of 2,000 U.S. consumers surveyed had heard of Ultra HD, and 30 percent claimed to have seen Ultra HD TV in a home, retail store or other location. Ratings of Ultra HD video quality remain extremely high, with 95 percent of people saying they were “extremely” or “somewhat” impressed.
Operators to the Fore
Faced with such opportunity, several pay-TV operators announced at IBC that they are stepping into the 4K ring.
For instance, Danish broadband and IPTV provider Waoo! announced that it is working with Airties to introduce advanced IPTV services, including premium Wi-Fi technologies in the home and Ultra HD set-top boxes.
"Waoo! has been awarded best Danish broadband provider four years in a row and the user experience is a crucial feature to all our services,” said Waoo! CEO Joergen Stensgaard. "We anticipate this continuing as we step into the Ultra HD era."
South Korea's KT Skylife meanwhile announced that it has become the world's first satellite broadcaster to offer 24-hour transmission of three 4K Ultra HD channels. The pay-TV operator has over 4.2 million customers.
In a similar vein, Turkish satellite operator Turksat is preparing to deliver the country's first live 4K TV channel with Media Excel's 4K Ultra HD HEVC encoder—and was at IBC talking up how the service is ready for prime time.
"We are delighted with the results of our 4K trials with Media Excel and LGE, and subsequent broadcasts to our viewers have demonstrated the highest level of video quality along with the reliability of a broadcast-level service," said Hüsamettin Demirel, director of TV broadcasting at Turksat.
At IBC, several players in the gear and content fields also released 4K-ready products and initiatives to the marketplace.
For instance, Sagemcom unveiled a compact, Android-based Ultra HD set-top box (STB) that can support 4K streaming content. The STB comes with embedded 3x3 Wi-Fi AC, and the integration of Android Lollipop; first commercial deployments are expected before year-end.
Samsung is partnering with Mexico's Televisa and Claro to develop 4K content for Latin America and increase penetration of Ultra HD technology across the region.
Although the Rio Olympics next summer was set as the launch event for Ultra HD technology, Samsung's executives foresee 2018, with the football World Cup, as the year in which Latin Americans will choose 4K TVs.
"Nowadays, Ultra HD penetration in Latin America is lower than 20 percent, but it's growing fast," said José Luis de la Vega, marketing director at Samsung. "And Samsung gathers over 40 percent of 4K screens sold in the region, which is why we're working with local companies to support UHD content distribution."
Samsung recently launched its first Blu-ray Ultra HD player, and announced an agreement with 20th Century Fox to launch 4K films, kicking off with Ridley Scott's Exodus.
Satellite and 4K Cozy Up
Content delivery was a focus at the show too, especially when it came to satellite, with all major transmission players leaping into the 4K fold.
For instance, NASA has teamed with video delivery infrastructure firm Harmonic to launch the first consumer Ultra HD channel in North America.
Using an end-to-end Ultra HD video delivery system from Harmonic, NASA TV UHD will deliver live and linear 2160p60 video ambient content to a range of TV and IP-connected devices. NASA TV UHD video is being sourced from high-resolution images and video generated on the International Space Station (ISS), Hubble Space Telescope, and other current NASA missions. Programming will also include remastered footage from historical missions, shots from NASA's development and training processes, and ultimately live launches.
Harmonic is currently in discussions with pay-TV operators to carry the channel on their satellite DTH, cable and optical networks, for consumer access. The channel will also be streamed on the Internet, which will require at least 13Mbps access connectivity to receive the signal and achieve the Ultra HD experience.
Harmonic is also at the center of a test channel, which is hoped to pave the way for more 4K operator launches. Harmonic and Intelsat SA have announced a partnership to launch HVN Intelsat UHD, a linear Ultra HD demonstration channel for the North American TV markets.
This channel will be broadcast via Intelsat's Galaxy 13 satellite located at 127° West, and will provide pay-TV operators with an opportunity to prepare and test their UHD transmissions as they start down-linking content through their own networks and into subscribers' homes. This platform will also be available to U.S. cable programmers to conduct their own testing of 4K content.
Intelsat's Galaxy 13 satellite has 76 HD channels and reaches 98 percent of the cable headends in the continental U.S.
Not to be outdone, Hispasat said that it has begun second-generation 4K TV transmissions using the high dynamic range (HDR) format, making the broadcasting capacity available for Europeans through Hispasat 1E.
The HDR format seeks to provide more brightness, greater contrast and more color, for a more realistic image.
The new permanent service has been launched in collaboration with Cellnex Telecom, Dolby, RTVE and Thomson Video Networks, and complements its Hispasat 4K channel, which has been active since 2013.
And finally, SES and Eutelsat have joined forces to create a new, industry-wide initiative to develop and promote next-generation video technologies, standards and formats, especially Ultra HD. The Future Video Initiative will assemble representative companies in the converged video value chain with the aim of ensuring that users everywhere will be able to benefit from a consistent, high quality video experience anywhere, any time and on any device.
The new body will seek to support existing initiatives, alliances, associations, roadmaps and technical standardization bodies. Its initial scope of work will focus on promoting integrated hybrid broadcast-broadband solutions that increase the reach of HDTV and Ultra HD with the highest quality, while optimizing network costs and meeting the promise of interactive services. It will also facilitate the reception of satellite services on any screen, at home and in public places.
“Through this initiative, we want to send a clear signal to the industry and public that we need to drive digitalization and the evolution of our broadcast-broadband ecosystems,” said Karim Michel Sabbagh and Michel de Rosen, CEOs of SES and Eutelsat Communications, in a joint statement.
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