SES Charts Accelerated UHD Rollout

With just a handful of UHD channel launches worldwide, and with broadcasters still absorbing the cost of moving to HD, we thought it timely to seek an informed view on adoption and the pace of development. Satellite services provider SES Video give us its overview. The responses are from the company’s Thomas Wrede, VP, New Technology & Standards Media Platforms.

How would you rate the state of UHD rollout?

SES’ Wrede: We see a real acceleration of Ultra HD - by 2025, analysts expect over 700 UHD channels globally. Today there are 80 UHD channels via satellite worldwide, while the very first commercial UHD channel was launched on our satellites only over two years ago, in September 2015. In fact, Ultra HD is growing so fast that it is outpacing HD development, if you compare their respective roll-out globally: Ultra HD started with 13 channels on its first year of commercialization and grew to 92 two years later (year-end 2017), while HD went from 13 channels to 32 in the same timeframe.

However, they may be some who say that the UHD roll-out is taking a bit more time than anticipated. We need to remember than many developing TV markets are still transitioning to HD. So, from that perspective, there is of course still a long way to go. However, as 4K TV prices continue to drop and the available content continues to grow, the adoption of Ultra HD will only increase.

Can you share some statistics as to what portion of channels which SES transmits are UHD - and how is this changing?

We currently broadcast 38 Ultra HD channels (including demo and test channels) out of a total of over 7,700 TV channels. Although this is still a small proportion of our total line-up, we broadcast about 40% of all UHD channels via satellite today.

We started with a first UHD demo channel in 2013, and then the world’s first commercial UHD channel, Fashion 4K, was launched on our satellites in 2015. We went from one UHD channel to 38 today, which include for example Sky Deutschland’s two Ultra HD channels, Viasat Ultra HD, Insight TV, 4KUNIVERSE, Funbox 4K, and many more.

What is the market telling you about the willingness to launch UHD channels and over what time frame and what territories?

Ultra HD has already a strong uptake in developed markets. In North America, the number of UHD channels has grown from 9 to 15 since year-end 2015, while in Europe the number has more than doubled to 38.

SES currently carries 11 UHD channels in North America and 25 in Europe. CANAL+ recently announced the launch of its Ultra HD offering via our satellite, which is certainly a clear signal of Ultra HD momentum in Europe. In addition, we start to see some channels leveraging their success in one market to expand internationally. This is the case for example with 4KUNIVERSE, which made its debut in North America with SES, and is now also being distributed to Swiss TV homes via Swisscom. Another success is Travelxp, a travel channel, which similarly started on SES’s platform in North America and is now available to German viewers via our platform HD+.

However, we do expect to see a rapid uptake from developing markets as well, namely Latin America and Asia-Pacific, where analysts predict the number of UHD channels to grow to 170 and 240 by 2025 respectively.

Of course, the growing adoption of Ultra HD is namely driven by the high demand from consumers and strong uptake of UHD TV screens. In the U.S. for example, over 20 million UHD TV screens have already been sold to date – and it is set to grow as it is anticipated that by 2025, more than half the American population will own at least one 4K TV.

The features and benefits of UHD television will help generate an increased sales push from dealers as they showcase the new technology to consumers.

The features and benefits of UHD television will help generate an increased sales push from dealers as they showcase the new technology to consumers.

2018 should be an exciting year with two key sports events, the Winter Olympics and FIFA World Cup, which are always important drivers for higher picture quality. For example, Viasat launched the first UHD channel in the Nordics right before the Rio Olympics games in order to broadcast 120 hours of the event in Ultra HD. We can only expect that this year’s events will drive momentum as well.

How do the costs for transponder play off against a broadcaster's ability to monetize carriage?

The benefits of satellite are simple. Its ubiquitous reach means we can distribute content to a large audience, and its throughput means we can deliver the required bandwidth to transmit high picture quality. That makes satellite the ideal technology to transmit Ultra HD.

A good example is CANAL+, which is leveraging the throughput and reach of satellite technology to make its UHD channels available to 100% French TV households. Along with a newly-designed decoder that offers multi-screen experience, CANAL + intends to further boost their satellite customer loyalty and grow their existing subscriber base.

Of course, switching to UHD involves significant investment. However, the latest compression standard reduces the necessary bandwidth by half, making UHD transmission more affordable for broadcasters. In addition, UHD quality is increasingly becoming a key differentiator and a choice factor for viewers – 44% consider UHD as an important TV feature.

How important is the availability of 4K content to the market adoption of UHD?

This is the typical ‘’chicken and the egg’’ situation: if there is no compelling content, pay-TV operators don’t see the point of rolling-out the UHD technology, and if the technology to deliver UHD is not ready, programmers are not so keen on investing to develop content in Ultra HD. But truth is that consumers demand 4K content.

That’s why we built the UHD platform in North America two years ago. The platform aimed to accelerate the roll-out of Ultra HD by providing a pre-packaged solution that brings together UHD content, satellite distribution and reception equipment. The goal is to enable all Pay-TV providers to cut through the cost and technical barriers to Ultra HD. We introduced the solution for the first time two years ago, and now we carry 11 UHD channels and we count over 30 cable and IPTV operators testing our platform. Most of them have started deploying their 4K set top boxes to subscriber homes, and a number of operators have already launched their commercial UHD package.

Is high dynamic range a must-have for any new service in Ultra HD?

Just like there were first-goers for Ultra HD, there are first-goers for High Dynamic Range. Similarly, other broadcasters prefer to wait and see. Right now several standards for HDR are available to broadcasters and OTT operators, and this feature is indeed key in bringing an even more immersive experience so that viewers can fully enjoy the benefits of Ultra HD.

SES delivers two UHD HDR channels via its satellites: Travelxp 4K, world’s first channel to broadcast in UHD HDR, and Insight TV. Both Travelxp 4K and Insight TV utilize the BBC/NHK developed Hybrid Log Gamma (HLG) HDR technology, which is backwards compatible with standard dynamic range sets. There are also other HDR technologies available that support static or dynamic metadata, which SES is happy to support if demanded by customers.

How easy is the transition to HFR? What elements need to be in place?

When it comes to HFR, there is still some way to go. Unlike HDR, TV sets are generally not ready for HFR. We have showcased some demos with industry partners such as LG and Ateme to push forward this technology, which will be an important step towards further enhancing the quality of Ultra HD satellite transmissions, in particular for sports and reality TV events.

Broadcasting relies on clearly defined standards. It is always preferable to have a single, widely accepted solution rather than a myriad of solutions that lead to technical compatibility issues amongst manufacturers. In that sense SES has always been working with industry to define very precise and clear broadcasting standards. SES is not a proponent of the toolbox approach or of an adaptive TV system when there is no absolute need for it. Regarding UHD, we support a single, clearly defined broadcasting specification which includes the full UHD resolution at 50/60Hz, BT.2020 colour gamut, 10-bit colour coding and the backwards compatible HLG transfer curve.

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