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Europe fertile ground for 4K

Europe has not traditionally been early-adopter territory for new TV technologies, partly for historical reasons associated with encoding for analog transmissions, which meant the need for improvements was less than in North America.

This was certainly the case for HD, which was introduced much earlier in the U.S. and also 3-D, which has been even more of a damp squib in Europe than elsewhere. Yet, there are signs that 4K is going to buck that trend. Certainly visitors to the recent MIPTV (Marché International des Programmes de Télévision)annual TV programming market event in Cannes, France, came away with that impression.

The 4K logo was everywhere, and there were three sessions dedicated to encouraging 4K production for TV. It is true these were sponsored in part by Sony, which has turned 3-D almost into a unilateral crusade out of its desperation to find a new market within which it can rekindle past glories, as in the 1980s when it (rather than Apple) was the iconic consumer electronics brand. But, broadcasters such as the BBC were also active on the panels, as well as pay-TV operators like Sky, which all believe 4K production will become mainstream and spill over into distribution, driven by the compelling quality gain for large screens.

Global satellite capacity operator SES was also talking up 4K in Cannes and has invited around 200 leading industry players around the world to participate in a 4K HD workshop close to its headquarters at the Luxembourg Chamber of Commerce as part of its Industry Day for UHDTV and other emerging TV technologies.

SES stated that it wants to seize the initiative to drive UHDTV and encourage the relevant players including broadcasters, TV-set manufacturers, and pay-TV operators, to create a common working environment within which they can develop shared UHDTV expertise and knowledge. It claims to be developing the ideal infrastructure to help content providers and broadcasters test and develop their ultra HD content, just as it did with HD.

But, SES is hardly alone here, since another European operator, Eutelsat Communications, started the first 4K broadcasts in the continent in January this year. At this point, it is worth pausing to consider what we are talking about here. Fundamentally, UHDTV simply refers to any broadcast resolution that is better than the current maximum HD resolution transmitted by just a few broadcasters around the world, which is 1080p. There are two levels of UHDTV as defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — UHDTV K Level 1 at 3840 x 2160, often referred to as 4K; and 7680 x 4320 at exactly twice the resolution in each direction, sometimes called 8K. For the foreseeable future, we can forget 8K, as it will be hard enough to justify the investment in production, content workflow and network bandwidth even for 4K, although it is clear enough why TV makers like Sony, and to an extent pay-TV operators, are keen on it to generate new revenues.

There is also the issue of frame rate, given that at higher resolutions on big screens that would become the factor holding back quality with noticeable jutter. Frame rate will at least have to double to around 50fps or 60fps with some talk of 100fps, 120fps or even 150fps being necessary. The upshot is that the baseband data rate will be at least 8x greater than conventional HD, about 12Gb/s.

Finding the extra bandwidth for both production and distribution is the first hurdle then for UHDTV, as well as enabling new decoding devices that will be integrated into TVs and set top boxes, and, above all, upgrading the entire end-to-end content process chain to 4K native capture and production. This last change is essential for terrestrial broadcasters to reach the point of UHDTV transmission.

On the other hand, UHDTV has some compelling advantages as an origination format, just as HD did when SD still ruled, largely on the grounds that this sets the benchmark for quality throughout the content lifecycle. As the saying goes, you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so it is best to start with the highest quality. This is becoming possible with the development of 4K equipment along with 40Gb/s and 100Gb/s Ethernet technology providing the necessary bandwidth.

Down the distribution chain, the advent of High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) will provide a big fillip for 4K, because on large screens at high resolution recent research has shown that it will yield substantially more than the generally accepted two times increase in compression efficiency compared with H.264/MPEG 4. This is because the scope for compression is greater at high resolutions for areas of a screen that have large numbers of similar or identical pixels such as the grass of a football pitch, in effect because more pixels can represented in a given set of compressed elements.

Just as importantly, the demand will be there. According to the Ericsson 2012 ConsumerLab TV and Video Consumer Trend report, there is a willingness among higher-end consumers to pay for 4K "extreme quality" as part of their TV and video service. This was much less the case for 3-D, so the likes of Sony, at least, will be hoping this is all enough to galvanize broadcasters into action.