Direct-to-home (DTH) can reach parts of the world that others can’t, but that universal selling point isn’t enough to guarantee its survival. Satellite DTH needs to evolve and UHD is a strong answer.
Satellite faces competition from superfast fibre optic broadband. In the UK, telco BT TV last month launched Europe’s first live Ultra HD channel over its existing network which is capable of 300 Mbps download speeds.
The operator is already testing upgrades to the fibre and copper network capable of delivering 800 Mbps downloads and 200 Mbps uploads for rollout nationwide beginning next year. It is doing so to compete with Liberty Global-backed Virgin Media which is ploughing €4.1bn into Project Lightning, a major expansion of its own cable network and Sky, which teamed with ISP TalkTalk to plan a 1 Gbps network in the country.
In France, the government has pledged a universal connection of at least 50Mb/s by 2022 funded by €20bn over ten years. Left unattended these interventions could spell market loss for satellite operators like SES through which 6 million French homes and 12 million UK homes receive TV.
However SES has its eyes on a 4K prize. “We are convinced UHD will drive our business forward in France and in the rest of the world over the next five years as more and more UHD TV sets are sold and operators as well as broadcasters gradually endorse the format,” Nick Stubbs, the company’s VP for Western Europe said.
If 4K becomes a reality in France sooner rather than later, as telecoms consultancy NPA believes, the satellite operator will have a small window of opportunity to grab market share before 2022, the target dates set by French officials for the widespread implementation of very high bandwidth cable.
“We are rearing to go,” said Tom Cristophony, SES senior manager for sat/IP networks systems. “SES is ready to broadcast 300 to 400 UHD channels from one single orbital position as from now. We have the right capacity, the wide coverage ability and the reliability required for UHD. ADSL does not have the bandwidth to compete and most digital terrestrial operators will probably not have sufficient financial clout to massively broadcast in UHD.”
In readiness this June, SES launched its first UHD demonstration channel for the North American television market to enable cable operators to prepare and test UHD.
Satellite maintains 4k momentum
SES is far from alone among satellite operators in viewing the deployment of a new standard as an opportunity to review and upgrade facilities and to keep themselves central to the delivery pipeline.
Furthermore, some satellite analysts point out that communications satellites are the best method to quickly launch and deploy quality UHD TV broadcasts on a global scale.
“At the network level, the arrival of UHD channels means the updating of our encoding and modulation capabilities, assuming UHD will take advantage of the new generation HEVC codecs and new modulation schemes like DVB S2 and DVB S2X,” explains Bernard Riera, Globecast’s director of new technologies and innovation. “At the media management level, our playout and associated post-production facilities are being upgraded to handle UHD, which is challenging, but achievable.”
Freeing up bandwidth for UHD is not a major concern for satellite and is seen as one of its key competitive strengths. Compression and signal modulation technology such as HEVC and DVB-S2x enable UHD channels to be distributed using almost the same resources given to HD channels. Plus, some SD channels will become extinct and others are likely to migrate to broadband distribution, providing additional resources.
Thomas Van Den Driessche, chief commercial officer at Newtec, believes that DVB-S2 in particular could actually save money in the long term for satellite operators who move over to 4K UHD.
“For satellite operators to keep up in an increasingly competitive market launching 4K UHD channels will be crucial,” he said. “Fortunately, thanks to technological innovations, satellite operators can not only deliver 4K transmissions, but save on costs and deliver more content with the same capacity.”
Intelsat demos 4K
Intelsat has been demonstrating 4K technology since 2013 and in April conducted a UHD live demonstration and transmission and introduced IntelsatOne Prism, an IP content distribution managed service that is fully integrated with the company’s global satellite fleet and IntelsatOne terrestrial network.
Peter Ostapiuk, Intelsat’s head of media services, noted that media companies are facing pressure to quickly upgrade their networks to meet the demands of a TV Everywhere and an increasingly OTT society. IntelsatOne Prism is designed to address the challenges of the converging broadband and media landscape by enabling media customers to seamlessly implement digital media networking using legacy assets, improve bandwidth management with minimal investment and simplify overall content delivery and operational networks.
Also focusing on the impact of higher definition broadcasting is Eutelsat. The company points out that recent forecasts suggesting there will be over 1000 channels broadcasting to over 500 million UHD screens by 2025.
“We’ve taken a strong stance on UHD starting with broadcasting the first 4K content in Europe two years ago and working since then with the entire broadcasting chain to get all the pieces lined up in the right order,” said Markus Fritz, director of commercial development and marketing. “We have both bandwidth and reach today and have made investments in future satellites optimised for broadcasting commercial UHD as soon as our clients are ready.”
Eutelsat’s UHD broadcasts on its HOT BIRD 4K1 channel include SPI International’s 4K FunBox UHD which will address cable and IP network operators and DTH communities in Germany.
Fritz added: “Twelve months after launch, our demo channel is established as a platform of choice and progress for partners in the broadcasting chain and is attracting increasing attention from terrestrial network operators who want to deliver more 4K content to viewers.”
Deployment will be slow
This year there will be three different video standards operating concurrently: SD, HD and UHD. Such a scenario won’t be viable economically long-term and to make things worse, agreement on a global standard for UHD is still to be reached. Deployment will be slow. As well as general software and hardware upgrades, operators will need to roll out compliant set top boxes and content needs to be produced for these UHD channels.
Sky, for example, is preparing to launch “Project Ethan” a UHD STB that allows viewers to broadcast to several different secondary screens like tablets and store content via a cloud-based storage system.
East Asia leads the way on UHDTV adoption. South Korea’s UMAX launched the world’s first 4K broadcasting service on cable TV in April 2014, while Japan launched the world’s first regular 4K television service (Channel 4K) via satellite in June 2014. In term of TV set shipments, China is the biggest market with 80 per cent share of 4K TV set shipments in 2013.
AsiaSat plans a UHD platform based on DVBS2 and HEVC solutions. It will use a C-band transponder on AsiaSat 4 at 122°E and will deliver two to five full time UHD channels. “UHD is gaining momentum in Asia with UHD TV sets readily available and affordable. However, there is still a lack of UHD content and consumer receivers in Asia,” said William Wade, president and CEO, AsiaSat.
Intelsat predicts that the next big growth area will be North America. DirectTV expects to be offering up to 70 channels by 2020 via its newly launched satellite - DIRECTV 14 - dedicated to UHD. It is for the moment concentrating this on a limited VoD offering. Customers will need to upgrade to a Genie HD DVR and a UHD TV.
Europe is showing interest too, with Sky Deutschland earmarking the millionth UHD-ready TV sale in the market as the starting point for a full-scale launch in 2016.
The broadcaster allied with SES to claim a world first UHD broadcast of a football match (Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen in April 2014) live over satellite at 50 frames per second and followed that by airing the 2015 Champions League final live in UHD in a trial run to 13 Sky Sports Bars in Germany.
Tata Sky in India is scheduled to be the with a regular UHD channel on a local satellite services provider. It used the Cricket World Cup at the beginning of the year to test run 4K services.