SPs Moving onto Fast Track In Preparations for Ultra HD

Phil McKinney, president & CEO, CableLabs

Phil McKinney, president & CEO, CableLabs

By Fred Dawson
January 15, 2014 – Like it or not, service providers are looking at a new escalator in Cap Ex stemming from growing recognition that consumer demand for Ultra HD programming will have to be accommodated sooner than later.

While drumbeating about UHD 4K was to be expected from consumer electronics manufacturers at this month’s Consumer Electronics Show, the scale of 4K-related activity that came to light during the event was impressive. Critically, much of that activity was tied to efforts to enable encoding and decoding of 4K streams in the next-generation compression format HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) for delivery to set-tops, TVs and other devices.

“The [cable] industry as a whole is all-in on 4K,” said CableLabs CEO Phil McKinney during a panel discussion at CES. “We’ve completed those testings both on the cable plant and on streaming. The real question comes down to whether there are enough devices in the home to start creating and allocating bandwidth in the network to serve that content.”

Clearly, that’s not yet the case. But McKinney said he saw every reason to expect consumers would embrace the new format, which delivers video at four times the resolution of 1080p HD. “The progression to 4K is it’s just visually obvious to the consumer,” McKinney said.

CableLabs has been conducting informal tests at shopping malls showing UHD and HD displays of the same content side by side. Consumers are able to identify which is 4K by pointing to the best picture 65 percent of the time, McKinney said, noting that their performance is way ahead of video experts undergoing the same type of test.

“It was about 50-50 with the experts,” he said. “Why? Because the experts get close to the screen trying to look for video artifacts. The consumers just stand back and look at the two images and say, ‘I like that one better.’”

The discernable (to consumers) difference will show up even before there’s much 4K content to view, McKinney asserted. “4K TV sets are starting to get traction not just from simple availability of content but the fact that the upscaling technology TV manufacturers have put in place [for rendering HD on 4K sets] is so good that you can take a Blu-ray [disc], pop that in and see the visual difference on that 4K display. I think that’s going to be where that early traction comes from until the content and the ability of the networks to start distributing that 4K content and create the 4K libraries is established.”

Asked how long it would be before 4K hits the mass adoption stage, McKinney speculated it would take about two years. “We’re not going to see this big hockey stick that we saw when we made the jump to HD where everybody did a mass swap out of every set in their home,” he said, suggesting the early buying phase would be for the main TV in the living room. “My view is that in that post holiday 2015 is when we’re going to start seeing the hockey stick.”

But, of course, cable operators and other distributors won’t have the luxury of waiting for the hockey stick insofar as long before mass adoption takes off a growing base of 4K set owners will be demanding access to a growing reservoir of content. The stakes are too high to risk being left behind by aggressive competitors who act to fulfill this demand early on, starting with online players Netflix, Amazon, Technicolor’s M-GO streaming service, Hulu and possibly others who intend to offer 4K content later this year.

At CES several of these players announced deals with TV manufacturers whose new 4K sets will be able to access 4K content streamed over the Internet. Netflix, for example, announced such deals with Samsung, Sony and LG Electronics. M-GO, in a deal with Samsung, said it would launch 4K streaming services featuring newly released movies and TV shows for access on Samsung UHD sets in the spring. “M-GO and Technicolor are working very closely with our studio partners, chip manufacturer partners and Samsung to deliver on the full 4K promise – not just more pixels, but better pixels,” said M-GO CEO John Batter.

The volume of movies and even TV shows, counting all the original online series from Netflix, being shot in 4K is growing rapidly. Consulting firm Deloitte noted in a mid-2013 update on 4K that many movies have been shot in 4K over the past couple of years and that many more of recent vintage can readily be converted to 4K with scanning and re-mastering of the negatives without requiring reshooting. As for TV, Deloitte noted that while the choice of TV programs shot in 4K was limited as of mid-2013, the number was expanding rapidly with the shooting of new programs such as BSkyB’s Got to Dance andNBC’s Saturday Night Live. “Some TV shows originally shot in HD are being converted to 4K,” Deloitte added.

Adding to the pool, 3net Studios, the 3D TV production house backed by Discovery, Sony and IMAX, is now shooing all new content in 4K, said 3net president and CEO Tom Cosgrove. “The appetite seems big,” Cosgrove said. “Devices in the market increasingly are at price points consumers can afford. There are things that are sub-3,000 [dollars] now.

“From the perspective of our company and our partners,” he continued, “there is a certain inevitability to 4K. This is different from 3D. This is not a choice of do I like it or don’t I. It’s clearly a better technology. It’s a better visual experience.” From the production side, he added, “certainly within five years most people are going to be saying, ‘Why would I shoot in HD?’”

But one of the big expected drivers to 4K adoption, namely live sports, will be a while in coming to market, owing in part to the costs of having to shoot live in both 4K and HD, where the requirements aren’t just about types of cameras but also bear on the fact that camera placements are different requiring different crews in the field as well as at the production consoles. But the biggest impediment will be bandwidth, suggested Sam Blackman, CEO of Elemental Technologies.

“For live today it’s a little bit of a premium in a bandwidth context relative to on demand,” Blackman said. “We can do really nice quality encoding of on demand 24/30 frames per second at about 15 megabits per second for HEVC. But initially we’re going to see around 25 mbps for high quality sporting events and maybe even a little bit higher at the beginning.”

As a result, Blackman added, live broadcasts of sports in 4K during 2014 will most likely be limited to high-profile events screened in public places. “Sports broadcasters might use sports bars to set up end-to-end workflows to show consumers what’s coming,” he said. “Today there aren’t a lot of geographies that can support a consistent 15 mbps connection. But very quickly we will see cable plant, satellite architecture and other networks that can support a nice 25-30 mbps stream, and, at that point you’ll see it very widely deployed.”

Here’s where a chicken-and-egg issue comes into play, at least when it comes to how fast DirecTV will allocate bandwidth to 4K. “Pricing [of 4K TV sets] is a factor, but for us the real factor is content,” said Henry Derovanessian, senior vice president for CPE at DirecTV. “And compelling content for us is sports.”

As for cable operators, the competitive pressure from online providers of VOD content, who have far surpassed them in generation of on-demand viewing revenue, is of greater concern, making it likely that some of the larger MSOs will move fairly soon to deliver 4K service. With 4K TV sets now in the market which can decode HEVC-compressed 60 fps UHD and set-tops not far behind, it won’t be long before cable operators will be able to introduce a high-end UHD service. Indeed, at CES Comcast’s Xfinity was demonstrating a 4K service feed using content encoded by Elemental delivered to a Samsung HD set at CES, right next to a Samsung-displayed feed from DirecTV encoded by the same supplier.

Elemental, along with a handful of other compression technology suppliers, has been working with chipmakers to ensure interoperability between its HEVC encoding processes and the decoding processes built into those chips for OEM products. “It’s going much faster and more smoothly than was the case with H.264,” said Keith Wymbs, vice president of marketing at Elemental.

Several demonstrations in play at CES featured Elemental tie-ins with various other suppliers, including use of a Qualcomm tablet to decode a 4K HEVC stream for delivery over HDMI to a 4K TV Qualcomm; streaming of 4K HEVC and MPEG-DASH video to tablets and set-tops with Akamia; chipset compatibility demos with STMicroelectronics and Broadcom, and real-time HEVC encoding of content using DivX Live-enabled MPEG-DASH streaming to an Android tablet. Elemental, which achieved real-time encoding of live full-frame (60 fps) content at a London event in December, is working with unnamed broadcasters to support live 4K transmissions from this winter’s Olympics.