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A Clearer Picture For Ultra HD

The push to develop and market ever higher resolution content on TV, shows no signs of slowing down.

Even as Asia continues its migration from standard definition to high definition channels, the world’s first ultra HD TV services, offering another exponential improvement in picture quality, arrived in broadband-rich Korea and Japan this year.

The sales pitch for ultra HD (also known in the business as 4K) – that once viewers taste it, there’s no going back – is the same one that was used for HD, even though HD’s rollout was much bumpier and longer than promised.

This time however, technology companies and satellite operators insist that things will be different.

“The game has changed a little bit, in that there are other paths to market outside of terrestrial satellite or IPTV, cable,” said David Habben, chief strategist of media in Asia-Pacific and Japan for Akamai Technologies, a company that helps deliver content over the internet, speaking at last week’s Casbaa conference in Hong Kong.

“The OTT model works for 4K,” Habben continued. “In a market like Hong Kong, we can deliver to 30% of connections today in 4K. That’s the 30% that have money and will pay.

“In terms of adoption, you will see it driven a bit faster. The device manufacturers and TV manufacturers are highly incentivized to see that work.”

That addressable market, in terms of the proportion of homes able to access 4K content via broadband, is mostly limited to Hong Kong, Korea and Japan today, although Habben sees the market expanding as bandwidth speeds increase.

Most conventional pay-TV operators, meanwhile, will have to upgrade software in their set-top boxes to transmit 4K content over their networks into subscriber homes, from Mpeg-4 DVB-S2 technology that caters to HD, to a new standard, HEVC.

That’s going to take time.

Big events and movies for now

Some content producers are trying out ultra HD, mainly for big movies and large sporting events. Three games from this year’s Fifa World Cup in Brazil for example were also distributed in 4K via satellite.

The benefits of ultra HD only start to become apparent on large-screen TVs, with 50-60” displays, limiting the potential market.

Consumer interest should start to rise within a year or two, once ultra-HD resolution becomes standard on TVs with displays of 40” or more. Today however, penetration of 4K-capable TV sets is relatively low.

Nonetheless, new services have always been behind pay-TV’s evolution, pointed out Pierre Benoist D’Anthenay, deputy CEO in Asia for Eutelsat, a satellite operator.

“Quality is a key driver,” he said. “You cannot speak about price; you have to look at the ratio between price and quality.”

Commercial ultra HD services are nascent worldwide, although two of the biggest pay-TV platforms in the US, Comcast and DirecTV, recently unveiled plans to launch on-demand 4K offerings next year, joining existing services from KT SkyLife in Korea and NTT Plala and Sky Perfect in Japan.

Momentum should build in the next few years, with additional ultra HD channels rolling out in Korea and Japan. Activity should focus on East Asia, as well as North America and Western Europe.

“We have seen very significant customer interest and acquisition in Asia ahead of other regions in the world,” said Sam Blackman, CEO of video software company, Elemental Technologies.

“We’ve seen purchases in India, Korea and Japan, and a lot of interest from Hong Kong and other areas in the region,” he added.

HD's rollout suffered from multiple industry standards and definitions, confusing consumers and operators alike.

Advocates for 4K are hopeful that these lessons have been learned. The industry has already agreed a common definition for core 4K resolution and is now working on specific standards around sound and color.

“The key for me is making sure there isn’t consumer confusion about what the standard represents, and what they get,” said Deepak Mathur, commercial SVP for satellite operator SES in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East. “That is critical.”

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