Ultra HD is on its way: Between 100-200 million 4K UHD sets will be sold by 2020, depending on whose forecast you follow, and a growing slate of content is being made available. Increasingly, top-tier TV shows are being produced in UHD and 57 UHD channels are already being broadcast today. Several hundred additional UHD channels will be launched in coming years.
In part I of this interview, John Ward, SVP of content operations for DirecTV/AT&T, talked about the operator's current deployment of UHD and primary drivers for deploying it. In part II, he addresses plans for the higher-resolution format moving forward and some of the challenges the operator -- and the industry -- still face when it comes to offering UHD services.
Telco Transformation: What are your plans for 4K?
JW: We are always looking at opportunities. I can't speak to future plans specifically. But we have good relationships with broadcasters. We've worked with CBS on Golf, we're working with NBC on the beach volleyball coverage, we've had the MLB as a partner for baseball. So we're looking to do more, hoping to increase what we do.
It's a viable product, I think we've proved that. And I think there's people out there who are noticing what we're doing and feeling a bit of envy.
I can tell you this is one of the coolest things I've ever been involved with. I'm a geek, I'm a nerd. I love this stuff.
TT: How are you encoding the video, given the high-bandwidth requirements for 4K?
JW: We are doing our own on-site encoding; we use our own solution at the contribution site and then send back to our broadcast center. We have used HEVC from day one, and we use for the contribution encode over IP. It's about 65-80 Mbit/s back to the broadcast center and the architecture is all over IP. We've worked with a few different companies on this, and we've got a good, stable image.
We did find it was a challenge to decode reliably at high quality. We had issues with audio-video sync -- the usual issues with anything new. We did face challenges, as with anything you are doing for the first time. But we took careful steps, adding on a bit each time, and we've kept moving forward. But we're also seeing improvements, reductions in time taken for certain processes. So it's just getting easier and people are getting more comfortable with it. That was a big issue as well, just getting people on the broadcast side to get comfortable with it. And monitoring tools will get better -- that's probably the thing we really need now.
TT: How are you handling bandwidth requirements, not just for contribution but also distribution and specially the last mile?
JW: Well, anytime you are delivering something that is four times the resolution, you will have some challenges there. I'm not the person really addressing that, so can't speak to it. But I know we have launched two satellites specifically with 4K in mind. And those birds are up there already, with the required capacity to do more.
In any case, technology always evolves. Compression always improves, and what we are doing today we won't be the same tomorrow. The industry is very focused on the efficient use of bandwidth and there's no shortage of vendors who want to work with us on that.
TT: What about other challenges, such as low penetration of set-top boxes and 4K TVs?
JW: Yes, I don't have specific information on penetration of these but from an operator's perspective we wouldn't share them anyway. But we are seeing data on 4K sets and there are more being sold regularly. Prices are also coming down and we'll see them go down further at the end of the year. In fact 4K will be the gift this holiday season and I think soon people will be hard pressed not to buy one.
And I'd like to think we play a role in that, by providing more 4K content and services.
TT: What are your thoughts on HDR -- it's potential impact on the market and the issues with agreeing on a common format?
JW: We're testing it, everyone is testing it. It's going to be stunning when it is figured out. It's the panacea that we are all looking out for.
The format issues remind me a bit of the 1080i vs. 720p -- they became religious arguments. We're starting to see that again now. But what's important for the industry is actually backwards compatibility. My TV is two years old and it doesn't have HDR. I went out and bought it right when 4K TVs first came out. I had a hard time justifying it to the wife, but at least this is my field, my profession. And even I can't just come home and say this TV is no good, we need a new TV. Once you have invested a bunch in a new TV, you're not going to go and buy a new one right away.
So the bigger issue for HDR is backwards compatibility. It's like you may get HDTV but not have 5.1 audio set up. So how does that TV sound in stereo? It has to still sound good.
It's like a restaurant, you know. If people have a bad experience, then they don't come back.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation