Eutelsat provides Europe's first ultra HD channel

Satellite capacity provider Eutelsat has started Europe’s first continuous transmissions of content filmed in the 4K HD format in partnership with French video compression specialist ATEME.

Eutelsat’s new channel is aimed more at players in the broadcasting chain seeking to acquire expertise in 4K, rather than consumers at this stage, given that 4K broadcast services are still at least a few years away. This includes production companies, pay-TV operators, rights owners and consumer electronics makers.

The new channel operates in progressive mode at 50fps and at 3840 x 2160 resolution — or about eight million pixels altogether. It will require 4X the bandwidth of 1080p HD, or 8X most current HD services operating at 1080i or 720p at the same frame rate. Using ATEME equipment, the content is being encoded via MPEG4/H.264 and transmitted at 40Mb/s in four Quad HD streams, uplinked to the Eutelsat 10A satellite from the operator’s teleport in Rambouillet, near Paris.

The launch was timed to coincide with the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where ultra HD is a centerpiece with a variety of TV sets on show demonstrating the technology.

“This new step towards 4K continues Eutelsat’s longstanding commitment to achieving new broadcast milestones that over the last 20 years have included digital TV, HDTV and 3D,” said Jean-François Leprince-Ringuet, Eutelsat’s commercial director. “Early and close collaboration between all players in the broadcast chain will be a key success factor for this new revolution, and so we are delighted to propose this first broadcast platform for Europe.”

However, rival European satellite platform operator SES may not be far behind, having already demonstrated live satellite transmission of 4K Ultra HD content in collaboration with Sony in September 2012. This was also played out in Full Quad HD format and encoded in MPEG4/H.264 — in this case, uplinked from the SES site in Betzdorf (in Luxembourg) via a transponder on the Astra 3B satellite located at the 23.5 degrees East orbital slot.

As a reality check, it should be noted that there are not yet any significant over the air broadcast services in either the U.S. or Europe at 1080p, with operators reluctant even at this level to make the extra investment in bandwidth to transmit channels at twice the bit rate of 1080i or 720p. In the U.S., all major networks use either 720p or 1080i encoded with MPEG-2.

Only the satellite services, primarily from DirecTV and Dish Network, have started using the 1080p/24-30 format with MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 encoding for pay-per-view movies downloaded in advance via satellite or on-demand via broadband. Pay-TV service channels such as HDnet, and premium movie channels such as HBO, have yet to start streaming their services live to their distributors in 1080p because the cable and satellite operators are unwilling or unable to carry them, quite apart from the costs they would incur.

In Europe, the picture is similar, with 1080i currently predominating there, used by the BBC, RAI in Italy and Sky, for example. Against this background, ultra HD will remain a niche service largely for trials for some time to come. Although deployment of HEVC encoding will bring some relief, it will still only enable another two fold increase in efficiency over MPEG4/H.264, so ultra HD will still require 4X more bandwidth than 1080i or 720p transmitted with H.264 compression, or twice as much compared with MPEG2. That is without any further increase in frame rate, which some broadcasters argue will be needed to deliver the full potential of ultra HD’s higher resolution.