The APAC region is poised to lead the world in rolling out next generation viewing experiences to consumers by making significant technology investments toward their communication infrastructure.
“HKT Trust and operating arm HKT, which runs Hong Kong’s most extensive telecommunications infrastructure, is gearing up to launch a city-wide, 4K ultra-high-definition service on its broadband network this quarter,” announced the South China Morning Post – Hong Kong’s main daily newspaper on February 25th.
The service will be available to customers of HKT’s Internet service provider, Netvigator, and those of PCCW’s Now TV pay TV service – which is delivered by HKT’s fixed broadband network - via a jointly developed set-top box.
It’s the latest in a growing number of initiatives to bring ultra-high-definition (UHD) services to the populations of Asia. However, before getting into that, it is worth defining exactly what is meant by UHD because there are several variants.
The Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB) has defined UHD-1 Phase 1, UHD-1 Phase 2, and UHD-2. The term UHDTV, however, is not an umbrella term of all these. It generally refers to UHD-1 phase 1, which is also known as Quad HD, 4K TV or simply 4K. All the services on offer today are 4K.
4K/UHDTV differs from the widely available HD, in that it has four times the resolution (3840 x 2160 pixels v 1920 x 1080), twice the frame rate (50 or 60 frames per second v 25 or 30), and uses only progressive scanning (HD can be progressive or interlaced). Its proponents claim the result is a far more compelling viewing experience than HD, especially on large screens. Alternatively, some are of the view that 4K enhanced with High Dynamic Range (HDR) can deliver a bigger improvement to a viewer’s experience.
4K Pay TV made its global debut in Asia. South Korea’s largest IPTV provider KT Corporation (formerly known as Korea Telecom) launched what was claimed to be the world’s first UHD Pay TV service, “Olleh GiGA UHD TV”, in mid-2014. Its affiliated satellite service, KT Skylife, launched satellite UHD services around the same time. Additionally, Japan also lays claim to being the first country in Asia to start UHD broadcasts in June 2014 when SkyPerfectTV! launched services.
In the most recent development in UHD in Asia, AsiaSat and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) announced on April 12 the first live UHD telecast of a major European football match in the APAC region. The announcement followed pioneering work by AsiaSat and the EBU of live UHD transmissions of some of the World Cup matches in 2014. (AsiaSat has not yet revealed details of the match broadcast).
The EBU’s Director of Network, Graham Warren, said more live UHD broadcasts of sporting events into Asia would follow, while Sabrina Cubbon, Vice President, Marketing and Global Accounts for AsiaSat, said she believed Asia to be “ready for UHD”.
While it that may have been the first live broadcast of a major European football match into APAC, but AsiaSat has already launched two UHD channels, both carried on its AsiaSat 4 satellite at 122 degrees East. In October 2015, AsiaSat launched its “4K-SAT” channel broadcasting videos on fashion, lifestyle, and documentaries from a number of content partners including Hong Kong Cyberport Management Company and FashionTV.
On March 1, 2016 the channel “4K-SAT2/HVN” was launched in partnership with US video delivery infrastructure company Harmonic. That channel carries content from Harmonic’s video library as well as content from the new NASA TV UHD channel, the first UHD channel in North America, launched jointly by NASA and Harmonic in late 2015.
Both channels are available throughout AsiaSat 4’s footprint, which covers 50 countries from New Zealand to Pakistan and parts of the Middle East. “Home viewers with an AsiaSat 4 C-band antenna and a HEVC set-top box will be able to receive the free-to-air UHD channels in native UHD quality,” AsiaSat says.
The rapid deployment of UHD services by satellite in the APAC region belies the enormous technical challenges that have been overcome. A full, uncompressed UHD video stream requires a bandwidth in excess of 10Gbps and, according to AsiaSat, the first satellite delivery of UHD content occurred only in 2013. It used MPEG-4 compression to reduce the bandwidth, needed approximately 100Mbps, and then split the video signal into four separate streams.
The key to today’s live commercial services is High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) — otherwise known as H.265 — the latest generation video compression standard. It made its debut in 2013 and is still under development. The current version can reduce UHD channel bandwidth demands to about 20Mbps.
This level of compression extends the reach of UHD to mobile phones in those areas of 4G coverage able to support 20Mbps downstream. The benefits of UHD on the small screen might seem marginal, but according to Ericsson, mobile devices able to display 4K UHD video are becoming increasingly popular, “and soon users will expect to be able to send and receive 4K content over mobile networks,” it says.
Users in China have the best chance of getting the 20Mbps downstream bandwidth to receive UHD, at around 53%, followed by Taiwan at 44%, South Korea at 39%, and Hong Kong at 31%. They all fare much better than the US where the chance of getting 20Mbps is about 24%.
Aiding the increase of UHD services by satellite are advances in modulation techniques, the most recent being DVB-S2X, and Asia saw the world’s first satellite transmission of UHD content using DVD-S2X at CommunicAsia 2014 by Malaysian satellite operator, Measat and satellite communications equipment manufacturer, Newtec. According to Newtec, the new standard delivers efficiency gains of up to 51% for professional applications and up to 20% for direct to home UHD broadcasting, compared to the earlier version, DVB-S2.
In such a rapidly developing and highly competitive market, everybody is looking to claim a “world first” by some measure or another. Measat also claims to have achieved, “the first deployment by satellite of a 24-hour English-language ultra-HD channel,” in December 2015. In Japan, cable TV operator Ehime reported having deployed, “the countrys first live, full-frame 4K Ultra HD (UHD) channel,” in August 2015.
Japanese citizens are also likely to be the first to enjoy the next iteration in the evolution of video: 8K with a further four-fold increase in resolution to 7680 × 4320 pixels. Japans national broadcaster, NHK, plans to broadcast some of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 8K. In preparation, NHK plans to take the opportunity presented by the 2016 Rio Olympics for some early trials.
The Olympic Broadcasting Services will record and air 130 hours of 8K video. This will be broadcast in Japan where it can be enjoyed by anyone who has shelled out the $145,000+ for the only commercially available 8K TV made by Sharp.
However, if the price decline of 8K TVs follows a similar trajectory to that of 4K TVs, those 8K broadcasts should be available to a larger portion of the population than the super rich. 4K TVs first appeared in the consumer market in 2012 at an average price of almost $8,000 USD. Within two years, prices were down to about $1,100 USD. Even as consumers make the transition to 4K, broadcasters are preparing for the world of 8K.