Digital Broadcast Middle East gets a behind the scenes look at the HD and ultra-HD ready infrastructure at du as the UAE telco prepares for a surge in demand for high definition services
On the outskirts of Dubai near Jebel Ali sits the Samacom facility, with several huge satellites pointing into the sky and a security set up worthy of a palace.
It was here in what was until a few years ago the middle of nowhere, that we met Ahmed Al Muhaideb, vice president, broadcasting & IPTV services at du.
This is part of the nerve centre of du’s broadcast operations in the region, with playout and uplink facilities for more than 280 channels, including 16 TV channels played out on systems for both tape-based and tapeless content from producers without their own broadcast capability.
All of this of course is just a fraction of the total number of channels that du transmits for its broadcasting partners.
Al Muhaideb is managing a careful balancing act between the needs of the broadcasters and the needs of the future of the industry, with du playing a leading part in the evolution of the industry by offering an infrastructure for tapeless and even cloud-based broadcast workflows and the widespread adoption of HD technology by broadcasters.
“We are seeing a steady trend of broadcasters upgrading their services to HD,” says Al Muhaideb. “Based on our market forecasts we launched in mid-2014 a new exclusively HD bouquet on a dedicated transponder, which has been hugely successful.” According to Al Muhaideb, developments such as this, and du’s proactive approach to the evolution of the industry has prepared it for the expected demands of broadcasters in the next year or two.
“Even if a particular broadcaster has not told us yet that they want to uplink a HD channel, we know that he is one of a number that will be contacting us in the near future to do so,” says Al Muhaideb.
“We’re creating this infrastructure to be future-ready to meet that expected increase in demand for HD services when a broadcaster comes to us in three or four months and says they want to launch a channel in HD.” Du has taken a similar approach to the more recent introduction of 4k technology, but according to Al Muhaideb, ultra-HD is not something that we will see become mainstream in the industry like HD.
“It’s still to be seen how 4k will be applied in the Middle East. So far, content in ultra-HD is very limited and in order to really appreciate 4k technology you need a huge screen of more than 70-inches.” However, there have been significant in-direct benefits for du of preparing its network for 4k broadcasting.
“The introduction of 4k has given us access to better encoding technologies so that we can actually almost double the number of HD channels we transmit within the same bandwidth,” Al Muhaideb told Digital Broadcast Middle East.
“This means that the network is more efficient, whether over satellite or fibre.” One of the newest encoding technologies is HEVC, or H.265, which Digital Broadcast Middle East examined in the previous issue. According to Al Muhaideb, du is in the midst of adapting its infrastructure to be HEVC compatible, but is held back by legacy set top boxes.
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“We’re currently upgrading many of our systems and they will be replaced with HEVC compatible hardware and software. It’s a natural process as the company grows and renews its infrastructure. In terms of our set top boxes, however, there are no HEVC-compatible chipsets that have been launched, but we’ll begin the process of replacing our IPTV set top boxes in mid-2015 to handle HEVC. It will be a gradual process.”
Du has seen remarkable growth in the number of its IPTV (duTV) subscribers, with HEVC likely to become even more relevant in terms of compressing bandwidth demands as that number, and the number of channels offered in HD, grows.
It is with no small measure of pride that Al Muhaideb tells us that du has grown its duTV subscribers to almost 150,000 STBs in 2014. “This is a large number, some operators in Europe are happy to have seven or eight thousand IPTV subscribers.”
IPTV pick-up has grown along with the increasing dominance of OTT content, which is primarily being consumed on smart phones and tablets rather than smart TVs, but Al Muhaideb does not see OTT content outpacing traditional linear TV in the near future.
“We’ll see the growth in OTT content consumption continue through 2015. It’s a global trend, but this does not mean the end of linear television. Almost all broadcasters now offer linear TV and catch up TV, but you cannot say linear TV is on its way out. Pay-TV and FTA will always be there, but broadcasters will offer different content, a different type of viewing experience, and the industry will adapt.”
Al Muhaideb does, however, feel that IPTV will become the dominant platform for viewers in the years ahead. “IPTV will become more popular as more people begin to realise the benefits of IPTV over traditional free to air,” says Muhaideb, pointing out that IPTV provides the same channels and more, with the ability to watch programs on demand, watch catch up TV and access du’s movie library.
“You would need six or so satellites on top of your and house pointing in various directions to pick up the different Middle East broadcasters and you still wouldn’t have access to as much content as IPTV subscribers. With IPTV you have everything via just one fibre optic cable coming into the home.”
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Ahmed Mokles, EVP consumer business, on Du’s IP TV developments and challenges
How is your IPTV service performing?
We’re seeing 13% growth in terms of subscribers, while we’ve also managed to close the gap between the DVD window and the VOD window to less than 10 days. What we’re doing at the moment is focusing on moving from being purely a content aggregator to actually developing direct relationships with the main studios in the region and Europe and the United States. This will shorten the DVD gap even further.
What are the biggest challenges and what is du doing to overcome them?
Everyone has their own usage and experience expectation of the EPG (Electronic Program Guide), so we want to revamp this to be more personalised. Unfortunately a large majority of the Free to Air channel providers do not offer an EPG and most who do don’t have an accurate one. We are trying to optimise this and improve the quality of the EPG as more and more providers are made aware of its importance. We’re also working to have greater content rights from overseas extended to the Middle East and IPTV.
Can Triple Play customers switch between screens while watching the same content?
Yes, in late 2014 we launched the multiscreen package, which will allow users to watch content between devices. So if you’re watching a movie on your smart TV and want to cascade it onto your iPad or mobile phone, you’ll be able to, but only if the content provider has extended the content rights to multiscreen. So for example the DRM might allow 80 channels on the smart TV, but only 45 for multiscreen. Not all content will be available. When we acquire the content rights, we also acquire the access technology and we’re limited in what we can provide because of the limitations of the content providers.