Satellite Fleet Operators Hope Ultra-HD Will Succeed Where 3D Hasn’t

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PARIS — Satellite fleet operators, looking for their next growth vector after what they generally agree has been the disappointment of 3D TV, say ultra-high-definition (HD) television looks set to put a fresh wind in their sails starting as early as 2015 or 2016.

Not everyone is convinced that ultra-HD will result in a new spurt of growth, especially since many broadcasters will introduce ultra-HD in tandem with their phase-out of satellite broadcasts in the standard-definition format. That will free up satellite capacity that then can be used for ultra-HD transmissions and limit the amount of additional transponders needed.

And while many broadcasters will be simulcasting in HD- and ultra-HD formats as their customers change out their televisions, these same broadcasters will be moving to highly efficient video compression (HEVC) or other next-generation compression technology to reduce the amount of increased satellite bandwidth they need to use.

In presentations and interviews here during World Satellite Business Week Sept. 10-14, organized by Euroconsult, buyers and sellers of satellite capacity appeared to agree that 3D television is not going to follow HDTV as a market winner.

“We do a lot of 3D but the user experience doesn’t hold up 24/7,” said William Tillson, president of satellite services provider Encompass Digital Media of Los Angeles. “The experience doesn’t work for TV, but maybe for special events.”

Tillson cautioned that ultra-HD requires so much more bandwidth — double that of HDTV — that it will scare away broadcasters trying to trim costs, at least in the short term.

“We don’t see any appetite for [ultra-HD] in the near term,” Tillson said, citing the cost of satellite transponders as a deterrent for some broadcasters.

Olivier Barberot, chief executive of satellite services provider Globecast of France, said ultra-HD could find an early market in the cinema but will take time to reach the wider public.

In August, the International Telecommunication Union approved 4K and 8K ultra-HD television specifications that boast, respectively, four times and 16 times the number of pixels of current 1080p HD televisions. Sony’s first 4K television, a 213-centimeter flagship model with passive 3D, was unveiled this summer with a $24,999 price tag.

Ziv Mor, chief technology officer of satellite services provider RRSat of Israel, agreed that ultra-HD’s entry into the mass market “will not happen soon.” He said new compression technologies will reduce the bandwidth needed by 50 percent, but that this will still require substantial investment by broadcasters.

Satellite fleet operators were much more bullish on ultra-HD, even if they agreed that broadcasters will not develop the technology without a corresponding savings from bandwidth compression.

“Compression will continue to improve. We cannot play King Canute and try to hold back the tide,” said Michel de Rosen, chief executive of Eutelsat of Paris, whose core revenue base is video distribution. “But the higher compression creates the conditions for adoption of higher resolution.

De Rosen said 4K, an emerging technology standard for ultra-HD, will start in cinemas but move into the television market in the next three years.

David McGlade, chief executive of Luxembourg- and Washington-based Intelsat, was slightly more circumspect about when ultra-HD would become a force in the market, but he agreed it should be the next growth area for fixed satellite services operators after HD.

Romain Bausch, chief executive of Luxembourg-based SES, said his company expects ultra-HD to be commercialized starting in 2015 or 2016 in the United States and major European markets.

But Bausch said it is unlikely to provide an immediate jump in capacity leased on SES satellites.

“Let’s not get overexcited about this,” Bausch said, since many broadcasters will be phasing out their standard-definition programming and using this leased or owned capacity for ultra-HD. “You will see all of this happening between 2015 and 2020.”

Bausch agreed that 3D TV will not follow HDTV into millions of living rooms. “Forget mass-market 3D for television in the home,” he said. “For cinema or for public pubs, OK. But for TV in your home, it will remain a niche offer.”

Bausch said that while ultra-HD will require about twice the bandwidth as HDTV, broadcasters will provide programming for it, and distribute it, once they see customers purchasing ultra-HD-compatible televisions, which are now being commercialized but remain too costly for most people.

SES estimates that for a television broadcaster, satellite bandwidth leases account for no more than 2.5 or 3 percent of total costs, enabling these companies to absorb the additional charges once the programming and the consumers are in place.

One of the world’s biggest satellite television providers, DirecTV of El Segundo, Calif., plans to convert its current Ku-band capacity beaming standard-definition programs to ultra-HD starting in about four years for its satellite fleet over North America, said Philip J. Goswitz, DirecTV senior vice president for space and communications.

“All our Ku-band capacity in 2016 is going to be sunsetted,” Goswitz said, referring to the company’s standard-digital programming. “Those transmissions will cease and we will have 1 gigahertz of spectrum sitting on 20 million homes.”

“We’re huge proponents of it,” Goswitz said of ultra-HD and the advanced compression to come with it. “Chip manufacturers are making cheaper products. Yes, the TV sets [for ultra-HD] are now $20,000. High-definition in 1998 was about like this, and 2005 was the watershed moment” for HDTV adoption.

“I hope things are going to evolve more quickly this time around,” Goswitz said. “We are going to want to have it in place and we will use Ku-band for it.”