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Ready or Not, Here Comes 4K

Asia’s 4K pioneers have raced off with their wake separating them from the rest. While some are preparing for a full market onslaught, the other Asian countries will take a different strategy and start with premium 4K satellite subscriptions. Either way, from niche to mass market, we will soon see just how much of a revolution this resolution can cause.

Move over 3-D because the next big thing is nearly here. Some might not want to accept this, but it is a fact: Ultra-HD will be a reality. How else would you explain the Tokyo 2020 program? Japan will be broadcasting not only in 4K but also in 8K resolution. The 2020 Olympics will highlight Japan making history as the first nation to launch commercial 4K broadcasting. Additionally, how else would you explain the activity seen in Asia’s 4K screen production? It’s here that South Korean, Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese electronics firms dominate. And how do you explain the group of technology leaders, including Samsung, NTT, NHK and ZTE that are behind MPEG Media Transport, a new digital container technology that optimizes the delivery of 4K and 8K video over both broadcasting and IP networks?

Even if many would like to continue the stale debate about whether 4K is hype or reality, and even if some view it similarly with the fleeting novelty of 3-D, the fact is that 4K is already happening, and Asia is at the epicenter of this revolution. Audacious commitments to launch commercial 4K and 8K broadcasts in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are not only galvanizing the Japanese broadcasting sector, but the entire region’s as well as energizing streaming markets. Considering the developments taking place in Asia, maybe it would be more appropriate to change the question to how big can 4K be?

This is an important query for Bradley Hankinson, CEO of Streamonix. With offices in Asia and North America, Streamonix is a Canadian/Japanese video streaming systems development company. According to the CEO, Asia is at the vanguard of Ultra-HD and at least 50 percent of it’s 4K video streaming system sales will be in this region. Hankinson is expecting a period of steady expansion in a few years, when the 4K streaming sector will have completed its current period of intense product development. At the end of this time, he says, the products and services that will shape the 4K sector will have emerged, enabling robust growth across broadcasting, broadband and mobile markets. Of course, obstacles need to be overcome.

Measat demo at CommunicAsia 2014.Photo: Measat

“Ultra-HD video streaming places unprecedented stress on broadband networks. Even with the new H.265 (High Efficiency Video Coding, or HEVC) compression standard, true broadcast-quality 4K requires around 25Mbps of dedicated network capacity per stream. With potentially tens of millions of people receiving 4K streams, total network traffic will exceed hundreds of terabits. Given such massive amounts of video traffic, the biggest challenge facing the 4K industry is the construction of network infrastructure that can deliver 4K streams — without glitches or delays — to millions of users. Nothing short of properly engineered Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks will be sufficient,” says Hankinson.

As parts of Asia were early adopters of FTTH networks and are largely unburdened by the legacy cable TV networks found in North America and Europe, the region is well positioned to launch large-scale 4K video streaming services over FTTH networks. Asia’s challenge is to capitalize on its FTTH lead and continue to deploy high bit-rate, low-latency fiber optic networks to millions of users.

New streaming technology is also needed, explains Hankinson, noting that transmitting millions of broadcast-quality 4K and 8K streams over IP networks cannot be realistically achieved using the technologies developed for traditional cloud services. While new technologies developed specifically for terabit-class 4K/8K streaming will emerge, the current cloud and Web technologies will continue to absorb large capital investments. This will act as a sea anchor slowing the pace of disruptive 4K streaming technology development.

“Consequently, as we have seen in many other technology markets, the cloud incumbents will attempt to use their legacy Web-based infrastructure to deliver next-generation 4K/8K video services. The incumbents, with their tens of millions of cloud servers, will succeed — up to a certain low point. Advancing beyond that point will require disruptive technologies truly optimized for delivering 20 to 30 Mbps streams to millions of users at the lowest possible energy and environmental cost. Without such new technologies, the environmental impact of global-scale 4K/8K streaming will be potentially devastating,” says Hankinson.

There is risk lurking for late entrants, notes Hankinson, adding that 4K technology companies will increasingly compete on price and scalability, not on new streaming implementations. This will favor the companies that are first to establish beachheads in the 4K market. However, the market will be standards-driven. This suggests that companies that develop standards-compliant products at a competitive price will be able to find customers, regardless of when they enter the 4K market. But it also suggests that the first several companies to develop and deliver such products will be in a very strong defensive position to resist late entrants.

Leaders need followers

Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan are well positioned in the 4K race. But there is more to Asia; the region is large and varied, and includes countries that differ greatly from these 4K leaders. While it’s true that Asia does, indeed, seem to be at the epicenter of the 4K revolution, it is also true that there are very unique markets under this “Asian” banner. Therefore, it is unsurprising that countries such as India, Vietnam and Thailand, for example, are taking a different approach to 4K. Following a different strategy doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be denied a fighting chance in the Ultra-HD race, explains Aravind Venugopal, vice-president and project manager at Media Partners Asia. Even if 4K is in its infancy in certain Asian markets, says Venugopal, the race leaders are also still at the experimental stage. For the short to medium term, 4K will continue to remain niche, even in Japan and South Korea where great advances in 4K technology have already been made.

“Pay-TV operators, especially those focusing on servicing the premium consumer segments, have already started rolling out 4K services on a trial basis. The introduction of Set-Top-Boxes (STB) with HEVC codecs, and the fall of 4K TV prices are, of course, the key catalysts. However, operators are simply testing 4K out at the moment,” says Venugopal. “Operators and broadcasters haven’t quite yet forgotten about 3-D or the pain it caused. Much was said about 3-D a few years ago and there’s little to show for it today, except for a lot of homes with 3-D-enabled TVs that are most likely being used as regular TVs. It’s also important to remember that standards around 4K are yet to be finalized, and many operators and broadcasters won’t want to commit to a technology unless there’s more clarity on that front. Until then, 4K will remain experimental.”

A slower rollout of 4G, the incomplete shift from SD to HD, and an underwhelming number of local content options are some of the factors that separate the North Asian 4K leaders from the rest. In many markets, analog cable or analog terrestrial are the main mediums of TV distribution; digitalization has just begun. Consumer education in these markets, including India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam, is focused on the difference between analog and digital. To follow will be the quality differences between SD and HD. The education of the mass market is slowly picking up, but there remains much more to be done before HD becomes de facto.

“That’s not to say that these markets cannot skip HD altogether and move straight to 4K,” says Venugopal. “But this happening is unlikely. OTT players like Netflix are trialing 4K and that’s a positive move. However, 4K streaming is bandwidth hungry, which effectively excludes much of the Indian sub-continent and parts of South East Asia, excluding Singapore, because of low fixed broadband penetration and 4G networks still being gradually rolled out.”

According to Venugopal, only premium pay-TV operators who have high Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) subscribers will attempt to enter this 4K space in the short term. The others will adopt a wait-and-see approach, especially to monitor how metrics surrounding 4K display penetration, content availability and technology platforms evolve over time.

Intelsat demo at CommunicAsia 2014.Photo: Intelsat.

For many, this app is realistic, explains Sharad Sadhu, a broadcast media specialist for the South East and South Asian markets. Ultimately, 4K is a transition technology, he says, explaining that the market from there would go to 8K. While there have been experimental services, the impact of 4K programming, to date, is still unknown. Therefore, considering the costs associated, it’s unrealistic for all to have large-scale 4K expectations. However, 8K is a significant improvement from HD and will likely remain in the market for a long period of time while evoking more of a must-have response from consumers. This, in turn, will fuel the whole market. Until then, notes Sadhu, there is an opportunity for satellite service providers to offer premium 4K channel subscriptions.

“The crux of the whole 4K issue is in content creation and these associated costs are not going to be reduced any time soon. We have the ‘chicken-and-egg’ situation. If there are customers, then you run the services. But without these services then, of course, there will be no customers,” says Sadhu. “At present, there are very few 4K services, so what reason should a consumer have to replace their TV sets with more expensive ones? On the other hand, if the service providers and content aggregators took the plunge and invested money into programming and started services, then there would be a market. I think to come on board first would be the satellite providers as satellite broadcast makes the most sense. There have already been some announcements of 4K services in India. But these need to be taken with at least a pinch of salt; these are, at the end of the day, promotional announcements. These will not be true 4K services running all day offering 4K-produced content.”

Premium subscriptions are a niche market; however, with a population the size of India, the numbers will still be significant, adds Sadhu.

“There are about 130 million TV households and around 850 satellite and terrestrial TV channels, although most are delivered by satellite. This is a huge industry; they’re running 24-hours. India is a subscriber’s paradise,” says Sadhu. “Now, considering so many channels, it’s relatively easy for service providers to convert a couple of these channels on the satellite to 4K and provide them as premium offerings. So, in India, who is handling 4K? It’s the service providers who will likely establish 4K in the country as a niche satellite service. Of course, with a population of 1.3 billion, there will be a substantial number of viewers who are interested in and can afford these services. But this is not a mass market; it will be niche. But we need to start somewhere.”

Satellite and capacity demands

While satellite seems an obvious choice for regions unable to consider the fiber route for 4K, satellite service providers and operators are faced with meeting rising capacity demands. With HD requiring three times more bandwidth than SD, and 4K requiring four times more than HD, this is a significant challenge, says Nile Suwansiri, chief marketing officer at Thaicom.

“Initially, it’s likely that we will see just a few 4K channels launched, which will be easily handled by operators. As 4K grows in popularity, though, more channels will be required, potentially leading to a need for new satellite launches. We expect demand for 4K services to grow, making the role of satellite even more important due to the increasing consumption of data that comes with the proliferation of 4K TV. We have already seen 4K and even 8K coverage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and by next year it is estimated that there will be 10 million Ultra-HD TVs. As we see more and more Ultra-HD TVs and services coming to the market, prices will begin to fall, leading to the mass-market adoption everyone is expecting to see in the next few years,” says Suwansiri.

By next year, it is estimated that there will be 10 million Ultra-HD TVs. As we see more and more Ultra-HD TVs and services coming to the market, prices will begin to fall, leading to the mass-market adoption everyone is expecting to see in the next few years.
— Nile Suwansiri, Thaicom

Therefore, explains Suwansiri, operators that start their transition from HD to 4K late will find themselves losing out on a large share of market revenue. Furthermore, as 4K grows in popularity, they could also risk losing existing customers.

“Satellite operators have to ensure not only capacity but also solutions to address customers’ needs. We have already set 4K as key in our strategic direction and are working to develop this, even though the 4K broadcast market is still a few years away from gaining traction, especially in Thailand and neighboring countries,” Suwansiri says.

The ecosystem is 4K-ready and waiting

According to Euroconsult’s research, 11,000 HD and 500 Ultra-HD TV signals are expected to launch by 2023. This has to drive the need for more efficient transmission — without it, how else will the industry keep pace with demands for new features and increased capacity? HD requires three times more bandwidth than SD and 4K is four times more than HD. While the research shows HD channels growing at a faster rate than Ultra-HD TV, it is also clear that satellite players are looking at sky-high capacity demands. What will happen when the scales are tipped and 4K growth catches up and overtakes HD? All this would take is for most large-screen TVs and tablets to be 4K capable. Is this inconceivable?

Thomas Van Den Driessche, CCO at NewtecPhoto: Netwec

Whether 4K remains niche or evokes a mass market onslaught, the Digital Video Broadcasting – satellite Second Generation Extension (DVB S2X) and HEVC standards will prove vital tools in delivering Ultra-HD TV, says Thomas Van Den Driessche, chief commercial officer at Newtec. Together with the DVB team, Newtec played a crucial role in developing the DVB S2X standard. Having the standard’s extension already in action, Newtec has proven that this specification is a key enabler for Direct-to-Home (DTH) 4K broadcasting, and that typical contribution and distribution networks will benefit from a 10 to 20 percent efficiency increase. This is good news for the industry, adds Van Den Driessche, as the standard is set for mass deployment.

“The DVB-S2X has specific features for the DTH market, including channel bonding to support the rise of Ultra-HD TV. The transition to 4K will require customers to buy or lease new Set-Top-Boxes (STB) that support the higher resolutions, higher efficient compression algorithms and DVB-S2X demodulation. We anticipate that such DTH STBs including DVB-S2X chipsets will hit the market by the middle of 2016. This will definitely fuel mass deployment of DVB-S2X into consumer applications like DTH and [Very Small Aperture Terminals] VSAT,” says Van Den Driessche.

In a bid to show that the ecosystem is ready for 4K, Newtec has done numerous live demonstrations with leading players including Intelsat, Eutelsat, SES and Sony. The most recent saw Newtec partner with Ericsson and Measat for the first ever 4K transmission using the DVB-S2X. The feed was uplinked via Measat’s teleport in Kuala Lumpur and delivered live via the Measat 3 satellite in C band. The demonstration used Newtec’s M6100 broadcast satellite modulator and demodulators, and Ericsson provided the video processing capabilities at both ends of the link through its AVP 2000 contribution encoders and RX8200 advanced modular receivers.

Compared to previous 4K demos, this latest project showed that the new standard implemented on Newtec’s product range offered lower roll-offs, increased granularity in Modulation and Coding (MODCOD) choices, higher efficiency modulation optimized for use in linear and non-linear operations, and a standard mechanism to bond carriers together, creating one big transmission pipe for multiple 4K programs over existing transponders.

"This demonstrates not only that satellite networks are ready for 4K but also that DVB-S2X is ready to help satellite operators and broadcasters cut costs or deliver more content within the same capacity," says Van Den Driessche.VS

Adrienne Harebottle is a media specialist and freelance writer for the space, satellite and telecommunications sectors.