Ultra HD via satellite – today’s trends and tomorrow’s evolution

Christoph-LimmerThe Future of satelite broadcasting in South America

Ultra HD is the next state-of-the-art for video. Its jump in terms of quality and immersive experience is comparable to the transition from black & white to colour, analogue to digital and digital to high definition. Experts predict that over 800 Ultra HD channels will be broadcasting within the next 10 years, with growth largely driven by satellite Direct-to-Home reception and the Latin American market accounting for 13% of channels. Writes Christoph Limmer, Vice President Global Sales and Commercial Development Video de Eutelsat and member of EUBrasil .

Although at an early stage from a commercial perspective, the Ultra HD ecosystem has rapidly taken shape. 

4k Ultra HD TV sets retailing for less than $1,000 are now produced by almost all major consumer electronics manufacturers and the first 4k Set-top-Boxes (STBs) are also coming to the market. GfK says that over 12 million TV sets have already been shipped globally. They are of course retro-compatible which means they can still display SD and HD signals, which are “up-converted” to 4k internally on the TV set. Consumer equipment vendors often state that 4k screens, even when not fed by native 4k pictures, in any case show an improved picture quality with respect to HD. Even without regular 4k programming and content, sales of 4k screens keep progressing because the appetite for new screens is a process not related purely to the availability of content. When flat screens and HD screens became affordable, they rapidly replaced CRT TV sets, despite the initial lack of HD content and HD programming. Full HD screens also progressively replaced HD-Ready screens, and this trend is likely to be repeated with 4k screens that will replace Full HD screens, as soon as 4k panels are as economical to produce as Full HD panels.

Ten years ago, High Definition really began to accelerate with the arrival of MPEG-4 encoding. Ultra HD should also progress with the arrival of another encoding standard: HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) which is expected to be 30-40% more efficient than MPEG-4. Existing Set Top Boxes (DVB-S / MPEG-2 / SD and DVB-S2 / MPEG-4 / HD) will be progressively replaced by DVB-S2 / HEVC / Ultra HD boxes.

Satellites will be the primary platforms for Ultra HD delivery. Eutelsat is already broadcasting two demonstration 4k channels in Europe with HEVC compression, broadcasting at 50 frames per second and with 10-bit colour depth. 

Content production, a critical success factor, is also on the rise, driven by players such as Netflix that are shooting flagship series like House of Cards in 4k. Some major events, including three FIFA 2014 matches were produced in 4k Ultra HD and broadcast via satellite in the framework of public demonstrations and/or trials. Nine FIFA 2014 matches were also filmed in 8k Super Hi-Vision.

They represented valuable opportunities for technicians and crews to test and prove new technology and have provided essential feedback to manufacturers and vendors which will help them correct and improve their present products.

Eutelsat’s expectation is that pay-TV platforms will be the first to propose 4k television channels to their subscribers. Following the same path as High Definition, 4k is expected to emerge in countries characterized by high purchasing power, with a competitive video market, like the USA, Japan, Korea, Western Europe and parts of Latin America. Ultra HD is expected to be driven by the same content as for High Definition when it first appeared, by sports and cinema. 

We believe it is questionable whether OTT will be an effective medium for delivering live 4k broadcasting to millions of users. 4k streaming requires that the Internet line serving each single user is capable of sustaining very high throughput to support the higher rate required by 4k streaming. Netflix recommends at least 25 Mbps, which in fact limits its use to customers connected via FTTH, i.e. a small minority of users. Furthermore, transit and CDN costs represent an important recurring cost that OTT operators will have to face to deliver 4k. OTT providers today pay around 3 cents of a dollar for the delivery of one hour of SD video to a single user, while they will have to pay up to six times more for 4k content per single user due to the higher throughput. CDN costs also increase linearly with the number of users served meaning that delivering a few hours of 4k content to millions of OTT users will rapidly generate six-zero figure costs to OTT suppliers.

Satellites, on the contrary, are significantly more efficient in cost-efficiently delivering high throughput to millions of users, with low bandwidth costs. The core added value of 4k broadcasting is improved quality.

We anticipate that when broadcasters launch the first offer of channels they will be attentive to assigning the required throughput in order to sustain quality high across the delivery chain right up to user screens. And we will be by their side to partner with them in this new adventure with satellites adapted to each region, notably the EUTELSAT 65 West A satellite for Latin America.