Satellite Industry Anticipates Arrival of Ultra HD TV

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SINGAPORE —  Satellite fleet operators and teleport owners disagree on how quickly ultra-high-definition television will become a mass-market business but share the view that Ultra HD TV, with super-sharp picture quality and color resolution, will follow the HDTV growth model and not fall into the niche status of 3-D television.

They said the current World Cup soccer tournament is one catalyst for test programming, and the 2016 Olympics will be another — assuming that Ultra HD television screen prices follow the HDTV trend downward.

As was the case with HDTV, these officials said, an entire ecosystem needs to be put into place — signal compression to bring down the cost of Ultra HD satellite bandwidth, the availability of Ultra HD-compatible television screens at mass-market prices, and the programmers’ adoption of Ultra HD broadcasts beyond the initial sporting events.

“3-D television has been seen as more of a gimmick,” said Darby Sanchez, chief executive of the Asian division of Globecast, a global distributor of satellite television programming. “We are already seeing an upswing in the market for 4K-enabled TV sets. But signal compression needs to occur to enable a reduction in the cost of broadcasting.”

Ultra HD, sometimes called 4K or 8K to reflect the pixel density relative to today’s high-definition programming, is being tested at the World Cup tournament in Brazil, which by some measures is the largest broadcasting event ever staged in terms of the expected audience and the number of satellites delivering the coverage to viewers.

“Sports is a crucial driver in how 4K will be adopted,” Sanchez said here June 16 at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) Satellite Industry Forum. “4K bodes well for the continued use of satellite technology.”

Markus Fritz, commercial development manager for satellite fleet operator Eutelsat of Paris, said it may be necessary for broadcasters and teleport operators to develop a new business model to speed the introduction of Ultra HD.

HDTV benefited from the evolution of television screens from cathode ray tubes to flat screens, with the latter spurring consumers to seek higher picture quality, Fritz said. There is no similar hardware shift going on now.

“We’re missing the booster that there was for HD,” Fritz said. “To make 4K happen you will need more early take-up with pay-TV channels.”

Thomas Wrede, vice president of reception systems at satellite fleet operator SES of Luxembourg, said someone in the broadcasting industry “needs to have the guts to start transmitting” programming in Ultra HD format to prove its value. “We need to get out of the discussion loop and start broadcasting, even if it’s not in fully Ultra HD TV format.”

Wrede said Ultra HD likely will be a mass-market consumer phenomenon by 2019 or 2020.

How Asia will react to Ultra HD was a broad subject of debate here at the CASBAA conference and the follow-on CommunicAsia conference held June 17-20.

Deepakjit Singh, managing director for Asia of Encompass Digital Media, said that given the Asian market’s slow but gathering interest in HDTV, it is possible that many Asian nations outside Japan and South Korea will go directly from standard-digital programming to Ultra HD without passing through the HDTV phase.

“If the price of 4K equipment comes down quickly enough, this may happen in markets like India,” Singh said.

SES predicts that the number of direct-to-home satellite television channels in Asia will increase by 30 percent in the next three years, reaching 5,800 channels, plus 4,000 more when taking free-to-air and cable-feed television broadcasts into account.

Deepak Mathur, SES senior vice president for Commercial Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, said June 17 that this month’s World Cup “is the coming-out party for UHD-TV,” with test channels beaming selected matches. Eurovision is using SES’s NSS-806 satellite to broadcast the World Cup semifinal and final matches.

Mathur said Ultra HD-compatible television sets, while still far too costly for the average consumer, have dropped in price by 40 percent in the past year, to about $800. SES worldwide expects to beam more than 1,000 Ultra HD channels by 2025, with 25 percent of them in Asia.

Using a forecast from his Electronics & Media consultancy, Mathur said Asia would be the biggest Ultra HD market by 2025, with 40 percent of the total population of Ultra HD-equipped households.

The biggest national market in Asia will be China, with a forecast 97 million Ultra HD homes.

One indication of the growing sophistication of the Asian market is the fact that broadcaster StarTimes of China now uses satellite connectivity to deliver programming to its 2.6 million subscribers in Africa, Mathur said.