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Decoding 4K Ultra HDTV

MUMBAI: The hottest topic in the TV broadcasting industry across the world today is 4K Ultra HDTV or UHD. While still in its nascent stage, UHD is gaining traction among DTH players, broadcasters as well as consumers.

set-top-box-02In India, two DTH players, Videocon d2h and Tata Sky, have already announced their intention of offering UHD set-top boxes (STBs) as early as end of 2014 or early next year. The move will help them tap into the crème de la crème or the premium class of early adopters of technology at a time when other players will be busy seeding STBs in small towns and rural areas in Phases III and IV of digitisation.

While the starting price of Videocon d2h UHD box is expected to be Rs 10,000, the company CEO Anil Khera said that it should come down to Rs 6,000–8,000.

“While we might import a few boxes for testing purposes, we will soon start making them in-house and the cost will be in the Rs 6,000–8,000 range. As of now, we have demonstrated our capabilities of 4K readiness. We can transmit, decode and deliver the 4K signals to homes,” he had mentioned.

What is UHD?

In simple terms, a UHD TV delivers four times the detail of a full-HD quality picture or video. That is equivalent of eight million pixels compared to two million pixels in the HD format.

4k_technologyIn other words, the image gets far better in clarity with much greater texture and an almost photographic emulsion of smoothness. This all without the grid-like small boxes even if a viewer is seeing the broadcast on a large screen.

In fact, the minimum screen size to enjoy a UHD broadcast is 50 inches, which is why all available UHD TV’s available in the market are 50 inches plus.

“4K services will revolutionise viewing in this country. It will provide images with so much clarity, finer detailing and nuances that the differences will be unbelievable,” said Khera.

Technology

Naturally, with eight million pixels and up to 60 frames per second, broadcast will need a different encoding than the present HD format of MPEG-4 DVB2. In that format, a channel of 4K UHD will take up space equal to 20 standard definition channels.

For putting things in perspective, an uncompressed two-hour movie playing at 30 frames per second would require 55 TB of storage just by itself. 1 TB is equal to 1,000 GB.

Anil Khera

Anil Khera

The UHD video, thus, will use High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). “This STB will work on HEVC, which is 50 per cent more efficient than the MPEG-4 technology that other DTH players are using,” Khera mentioned.

HEVC is a video compression standard, a successor to H.264/MPEG-4 AVC (Advanced Video Coding). In layperson’s terms, it is double the data compression ratio compared to HD compression at the same level of video quality.

Chipmaker Broadcom has already announced the BCM7445, which is an Ultra HD decoding chip capable of decoding HEVC at up to 4096x2160p at 60 fps.

Both Videocon d2h and Tata Sky are going to use Broadcom’s chip in their STBs.

Challenges of pricing and content

While a lot of hype has already been generated around UHD, the reality is that not just in India, but across the world, it is a relatively new technology and only in very few countries like the US and Japan, satellite channels provide UHD content.

Netflix and Amazon have started giving content in 4K, but it has not reached a critical mass, and there is still some years before it will.

Khera said that the DTH player will have one UHD channel initially, where content providers can offer their content.

Media experts believe that largely, the content will be available as pay-per-view (PPV), video-on-demand (VoD) or over-the-top (OTT) services and will mainly focus on key sporting events and movies.

On a large scale, the Fifa World Cup in Brazil became the first to be shot entirely in UHD by Sony. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) broadcast matches of the Fifa World Cup to audiences in North America, Latin America, Europe and Asia in Ultra HD via SES’ NSS-7 and SES-6 satellites.

The next Cricket World Cup will also be available in UHD.

As per a research report from NSR, a global leader in providing satellite industry market research and consulting services, there will be over 820 UHD channels across the world by 2025.

However, the pricing is another big issue as 4K Ultra HD TVs prices currently start from Rs 600,000. Internationally, the price of a 55-inch 4K TV has come down from $3,000 to around $1,000.

It is expected that Ultra HD TV sets are going to get cheaper, with larger sets going for less and less.

“In years past, and with previous technological advancements relating to TV content, we have seen a number of hurdles, not least of which has been the prohibitively high cost for end-users to attain TVs suitable for new content. With HD about 15 years ago, this was a major sticking point. Conversely, with Ultra HD, this hurdle is eroding quickly, with UHD-compatible TV sets reducing in price to as low as $1,000 today,” said NSR analyst and report author Alan Crisp.

Further, NSR notes that compared to HDTV, a number of satellite operators and DTH platforms, from regions as diverse as North America to South Asia, are investing heavily in UHD content and UHD-compatible STBs.

So, what is Videocon d2h’s plans?

The company has shown that it can be innovative and has put all the pieces in place. “If the world can go to 4K, we have demonstrated that we can also do it,” said Khera.

So, when is the commercial launch? “We have the systems in place. We have tied up the content partner. We are studying the availability of bandwidth and the commercial viability. We will need one transponder for this,” said Khera.

Will there be a 4K channel? “No, that is not possible at this stage. We can have a pipe for it. Sports and big banner movies will find takers for this,” Khera explained.

Why is Videocon d2h interested in tapping into such a thin subscriber base? “It is important to continuously have innovative services and products. It will help in getting the top-end subscribers hooked on to your DTH service,” said Khera.