Satellite Telecom | New Technologies Pose Challenges for Sat Bandwidth Providers

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SINGAPORE — The race between signal compression, which enables transmission of ever-larger files using less bandwidth, and the demand for increased pixel richness and color usually alternates between tears of pain from broadcasters and tears from satellite bandwidth providers.

The days when a single analog television channel used a large part of a satellite transponder and made satellite fleet operators rich as the number of television channels grew gave way to digital TV as MPEG-2 compression yielded to MPEG-4.

The same 36-megahertz transponder that could carry just 12 channels in MPEG-2 could carry 20 channels in MPEG-4. It took satellite operators a few years to fill up the suddenly vacant space in a satellite television industry that was still growing. Some are not yet through the process.

Then came high-definition television and its pixel-rich images on larger screens. Broadcasters ground their teeth, but satellite operators smiled as just two to four HDTV channels could be fitted onto a transponder with MPEG-2 compression, but up to eight channels with MPEG-4.

The most recent standard that is sweeping the industry — HEVC, or Highly Efficient Video Compression — moves the cursor back in the direction of the broadcasters. Up to 15 HDTV channels can be beamed from a single 36-megahertz transponder using the DVB-S2 transmission protocol and HEVC.

Satellite operators expect to leapfrog back ahead of the curve with the advent of Ultra HD TV, whose 4K version carries four times the pixels of an HDTV program. Using HEVC, three or four Ultra HD channels broadcasting in DVB-S2 can be accommodated on a single transponder, according to figures compiled by satellite fleet operators SES of Luxembourg and Eutelsat of Paris. That would mean a broadcaster in Ultra HD would need about twice the amount of satellite capacity that would be needed for HDTV broadcasts.

Ultra HD will require changes in the way sporting events are filmed, and will demand a capital investment on the part of teleport operators. But industry officials attending the CommunicAsia telecommunications conference here in June were unanimous that Ultra HD was not a gimmick, but a future mass-market consumer item that might catch on even faster than did HDTV.

Officials from Intelsat demonstrating their Ultra HD programming here said that for some nations in Asia that have not yet begun to adopt HDTV, a leap from standard-definition to Ultra HD television directly might be the most logical scenario, especially if the cost of Ultra HD sets goes down quickly with the entry of Chinese manufacturers into the market.