2018 was a good year for Ultra HD. Not only were premium sports events available in UHD, including the Pyongyang Olympics and the World Cup, but we also saw more operators getting serious about UHD HDR by deploying end-to-end solutions.
On the consumer side, the sales of UHD TV sets continue to grow. More than 50 percent of TVs sold today are UHD, bringing the UHD penetration rate in developed countries to 15 to 20 percent in 2018, according to IHS. Recent Futurescope research found that about 20 to 30 percent of subscribers around the world have opted for the UHD premium Netflix tier.
When consumers show they’re excited and ready to support a new video format, content providers have to follow and deliver the content. Here are three ways that the industry can get ready for UHD in 2019.
Step 1: System interoperability
One of the first steps toward global acceptance of a new format is interoperability. The various systems that are used to deliver UHD and UHD HDR have to be able to communicate with each other. On the interop testing side, and through the various plugfests conducted by the Ultra HD Forum, we are starting to see more compliant decoding devices (i.e., set-top boxes) and rendering devices (i.e., TVs) that can properly reproduce the Forum’s Phase A specification. The maturity of the entire ecosystem has greatly improved in the last 12 months, which should give operators the confidence they need to deploy UHD Phase A services in 2019.
Step 2: Partner up
To successfully deliver UHD, there must be tight collaboration between the technical operator, the broadcaster and a distributor. During the FIFA World Cup a plethora of HDR content was shot. Out of the 270 delivering UHD, 24 took the challenge to broadcast or stream in the HDR format. We have seen successful UHD HDR deployments on most network architectures, including DTH with DirecTV and Canal+, IPTV with PCCW and KPN, cable with NC+, and OTT with BBC, which proves UHD HDR can be deployed across multiple environments. The delivery of UHD HDR signals was mostly to STBs, except for BBC, which streamed to connected UHD TVs. Of course, to be successful, this required a very close collaboration between the technical operator (HBS for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the broadcaster (whether it was FOX or TF1) and a distributor (DirecTV, KPN or NC+).
The Ultra HD Forum performed live testing during the event and had a debriefing session with HBS, which served as the technical operator, and some of the distributors in December 2018. At this event, everyone agreed that strong collaboration is important.
Step 3: Overcome streaming quality issues
Consumers commonly complain about the UHD quality of Netflix content. When you’re watching a 4K HDR Blu-ray disc, most of the time the content is produced in 2K and upconverted to 4K before pressing, due to CGI processing. That same content is made available for streaming after the ABR encoding stage. At the source, you do not get always UHD resolution for movies. For VOD streaming, a ladder of several resolutions — from 2160p down to 720p — are created, and depending on the network capability, the best profile will be served to the home, which is not always UHD. In the case of Netflix content, since the company is putting its caching server in the ISP network, the streaming quality should be good. Yet, in some heavy network load cases, you will only get HD quality.
During the 2018 World Cup, when the BBC successfully streamed UHD coverage of matches at 36 Mbps and 24 Mbps. The majority of sessions were in UHD. How’d they do that? Because with good network conditions, using a public CDN (with a limitation of 50,000 concurrent sessions) UHD delivery to the home can be a reality. The received content goes to your UHD TV set, which is very likely to have a high-quality HD to UHD upconverter.
The key lesson here is that you can always watch UHD on a UHD set, but depending on the type of production workflow, and network conditions, that may not always be the reality. Achieving a true end-to-end UHD workflow is still a challenge that the industry needs to overcome in 2019 in order to deliver true UHD streaming quality.
In 2019, as the industry continues to work on improving interoperability, establishing tight collaboration between the chain of broadcasters, operators and distributors, and eliminating quality issues that may be caused by production and network related issues, we will get one step closer to global UHD distribution.
– Thierry Fautier VP Video Strategy at Harmonic and President of the Ultra HD Forum