High Definition content offers mind-boggling visuals that literally jump out of your screen. Here, Digital Broadcast Middle East looks at the state of play of High Definition in the Middle East, and reveals what lurks beyond the current high-resolution standards.
High-Definition (HD) video refers to content that is of a higher resolution, measured in pixels, when compared to Standard Definition (SD) video. Today, the most common HD resolutions in play are 720 progressive (720p: 1,280 x 720 pixels) and 1080 progressive (1080p: 1,920 x 1,080 pixels).
By comparison the most common SD formats are 576 progressive (576p: 768 x 576 pixels) and 480 progressive (480p: 704 x 480 pixels).
In the broadcasting world however, the HD story is a little more complicated because while content can be transmitted at resolutions of 720p, 1080i or 1080p, the quality of video that finally appears on a consumer’s screen also depends on how much bandwidth the transmission has been allocated.
Mohamed Youssif, CEO of Abu Dhabi satellite service provider YahLive explains, “HD is all about quality and resolution, and as such an increase in the resolution and or the quality requires higher bandwidth on the satellite.
In the Middle East the average satellite bandwidth used for a SD channel is around 3-megabits per second. For an HD channel some broadcasters are transmitting between 4- to 6-megabits per second. This doesn’t do justice to the HD content and as such, YahLive is adopting higher bandwidth, allocating 8-megabits per second for our HD channels.”
In recent months a number of the region’s heavyweights such as OSN, MBC, TBS, du and Etisalat have begun moving to HD either completely or, at the very least, partially. OSN was one of the region’s early adopters and today boasts a HD bouquet of 26 channels.
“OSN recognised the potential of HD very early on and we’re delighted to be able to offer customers so much choice and quality across our HD entertainment line-up.
With brilliant content in stunning 1080i resolution, we’ve seen a strong growth increase across all our key markets and Churn dropping by 30%. 2011 saw an increase in our subscriber base of over 30% due to a factor of accelerated sales and rapidly declining churn,” explains David Butorac, CEO of OSN.
YahLive too is a strong proponent of HD broadcasting and even offers upscaling features to broadcasters who don’t yet have native HD content. “All of our uplink facilities are equipped to handle HD broadcasting, even if the channels don’t broadcast native HD.
We have agreements with our uplink facilities (du, Etisalat, JMC, Gulfsat, and others) to have the capability to upscale the SD signal to HD as an interim solution until the channels are ready with an HD transmission chain. We also allocate a minimum of 8-megabits per second per channel, which in our opinion is the minimum needed for a good quality HD viewing experience. This is close to European average of 10-megabits per second,” explains YahLive’s Youssif.
Despite the appetite and interest for HD, the region still has a way to go before it catches up with regions such as Europe and the United States. Those regions began HD broadcasts in the early 90s and have since matured into HD dominated markets.
Commenting on HD adoption within the region, Mark Billinge, VP of Broadcast Operations, OSN explains, “Standard Definition is still the dominant format for the majority of channels across the region.
Those broadcasters who have launched HD services are in a transitional stage of converting to full HD transmission. When OSN launched its HD bouquet we made a commitment to use only native HD content. This means our HD channels are of the highest quality all of the time, in both video and audio quality with Dolby 5.1 audio. OSN are still setting the standard throughout the region”.
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YahLive’s Youssif believes however that the Middle East will transition to HD from SD in the not too distant future. He says, “This trend has started already - having the market leader MBC entering the HD arena is a major milestone in the total conversion of the region to HD.
We at YahLive are firm believers that the conversion to HD will be faster than many people think. Our expectation that in the next five years we will see more and more channels follow MBC and take the plunge into HD. The evidence we have seen clearly demonstrates that, increasingly, people are ready for HD. This presents a huge potential for growth in the Middle East HD market.”
While broadcasters and service providers alike are singing the praise of HD in terms of the increase in fidelity it brings to the viewing experience, as well as the potential for increased revenue, the industry is also united in its understanding that there are a number of issues that are hindering the adoption and spread of HD in the region.
Billinge says, “I guess its three main factors; cost of transmission, transponder capacity and the cost of content acquisition. To go fully HD it starts with the acquisition of content so all production has to be converted to High Definition - cameras, sets, post production, etc.
Following that there is the cost of converting the transmission facilities and of course the additional bandwidth required to deliver the signal to the customer in the highest quality possible.”
YahLive’s Youssif weighs in saying, “It is not an easy situation, many broadcasters are still waiting for significant increases in the number of HD TV sets and HD receivers, before they take the plunge.
The flip side of the coin is that some viewers are waiting for the availability of more HD content and for broadcasters to switch to HD, before they make their investment in a HD screen and HD receiver.
It’s a chicken or egg situation, and we are doing our part to help break this stalemate.”
While HD is yet to be fully integrated into the broadcast and consumer spaces in the Middle East, there are already whispers about next generation high-resolution standards, predominantly 4K. This next generation standard offers resolutions as high as 4,096 x 3,112 pixels (12.7-megapixels), more than double that of 1080p.
Video sharing website YouTube is presently the only online hosting service that supports this new format and there already a number of 4K videos available for viewing.
However, given that widespread acceptance of this newer high resolution standard will demand that the industry adopt new hardware and technologies from production right up to delivery and viewing, we are not likely to see 4K take off in the near future.
OSN’s Billinge explains, “If it’s another step change in technology as we saw with the move from SD to HD, HD to 4K would raise all the same issues again including the capital cost and investment required from broadcasters for the conversion. Manufacturers need to support broadcasters better in these transitional times by building hardware which is more adaptable to change rather than replacement.”
OSN’s Butorac adds, “Like all emerging technologies 4K is something we are tracking but it’s not likely to be a viable broadcast format for at least a couple of years. When it is we will be at the forefront of introducing the technology to the region and making it available to our customers. In the mean time we will continue to offer and build on our HD platform to bring the highest quality HD viewing to our customers.
Beyond High Definition
4K is an emerging standard for high resolution video and graphics and could succeed HD. Presently 4K content resolution varies from 4,096 x 1,714 pixels (7-megapixels) to as high as 4,096 x 3,112 pixels (12.7 megapixels).
The 4K name is derived from the number of horizontal pixels, which in this case is about 4,000 pixels, whereas in terms of HD and Full HD the 720p and 1080p naming is derived from the number of vertical pixels.
4K represents the horizontal resolution because there are a number of different aspect ratios used in cinema - so while the horizontal resolution stays constant, the vertical resolution varies, depending on the video source. There are different resolutions that qualify as 4K and, presently, YouTube is the only video hosting service that supports 4K content.