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HDTV and IPTV (part one)

Earlier this year, I visited the annual International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) in Amsterdam. IBC is the one of the world’s largest events in broadcasting, focused on everyone who has anything to do in creation, production, management, and delivery of content for the entertainment industry.
Main topics at the conference were the technical, commercial, and business components of two items that I consider to be at opposite sides of the spectrum: HDTV and IPTV. Are these the killer app’s that will generate massive new internet traffic? I’ll dive into TV trends and technology in this two-part blog, starting with HDTV.

Obvious advantages exist for motion picture production systems using HDTV: The change from traditional photographic film to digital quality production systems allows studios a hundred-fold reduction of film processing and maintenance costs. Digital projectors at theaters offer a 4 Mpix projection quality that is comparable to 35 mm film projectors.
For consumer HDTV, the situation is different: Both end-users and broadcasters will need to invest in new technology, without significant benefits other than the higher quality.

Digital TV has been introduced some years ago in NTSC countries such as the US, Canada, South-Korea, and Japan. Key reasons for this early adoption of digital TV have been the home theater market and the poor quality of the existing NTSC (“Never The Same Color”) television system. The PAL and SECAM systems used in other parts of the world have a better inherent quality, hence the reluctance of these markets to move to digital TV.

Digital TV is not the same as HDTV. Most broadcasters focus on providing a digital version that, under good conditions, offers only slight advantages over the current analog TV, with HD enhancements planned in the future. Digital broadcasting over the air takes less spectrum. Broadcasting regulators have been eager to push the transition from analog to digital TV to free up spectrum that can be auctioned to mobile phone providers. In most countries, the transition from analog to digtal aerial broadcasts will be completed in the next ten years.
Cable operators are also eliminating analog TV. The digitization of the TV channels, however, is less important in this move than the benefits of having consumers connected to set-top boxes that offer triple-play scenarios.

A key item in HDTV is the aspect of interlaced versus progressive signals. Interlaced means that only half of the lines of an image frame are presented in one update. The other half is presented in the next update. Progressive means that all lines are written at the same time. An NTSC 480p frame indication therefore offers a more stable video signal with twice the transmission speed of a 480i frame structure.
Two main standards for HDTV are around: 720p (meaning 1280x720 pixels in progressive mode at 16:9 screen aspect ratio) and 1080i (meaning 1920x1080 pixels in interlaced mode at same screen aspect ration). The former has lesser resolution but higher quality in action scenes. The latter offers better quality for slow-moving frames and requires a smaller bandwidth. The interlaced standard has been designed for compatibility with regular TV screens. The 720p version offers better compatibility with LCD or plasma screens.
There’s also one True-HDTV version: 1080p. This standard has been adopted by film studios for content production. It requires twice the transmission rate of the 1080i format. At IBC, the European Broadcasting Institute presented comparisons between 720p, 1080i, and 1080p TV standards, with remarkable differences.

Photographers amongst us will not be impressed: True-HDTV format is only 2 Mpix. Several “Ultra” HDTV definitions are in the works: NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) demonstrated its 7680x4329 system, while the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) recently demonstrated a first streaming version of 3840x2160 motion pictures. Needless to say that the transmission demands for such data streams are huge, and the chance of end-user Ultra HDTV taking off in the next five years is zero.

Multiple other issues are associated with HDTV introduction. Content distribution is one of them. HDTV motion pictures do not fit regular DVD media. HD-DVD and Blue-Ray technology is in place to boost the layer capacity of a DVD to 15 GB and 25 GB, respectively. The competition between the two standards has a negative impact on their market introduction and will reduce the overall payback interval of this product. New holographic discs with a storage capacity of several TB have already been announced.

The current TV replacement ratio is in the range of ten years. To speed up HDTV sales, especially in PAL/SECAM countries, a significant increase of content (HD motion pictures, TV channels, major sport events) will be needed. Current global sales rate, although rapidly growing, is in the range of 10 million HD sets per annum (on a total of 1.5 billion TV sets). For Europe, the next significant replacement wave will probably happen in 2008, when the European Cup will take place.

In summary: Although great for motion picture studios, HDTV is not the killer application that we consumers and internet providers have all been waiting for. The higher quality aspect falls in the “nice to have” category. A parallel exists in the music industry, where the Super Audio CD (SACD) is promoted in a world where low-quality mp3 audio is now standard. HDTV is primarily used by the providers as a marketing vehicle to position other digital services that do offer additional revenue options.

In part two of this blog I’ll give my perspective on the key items that differentiate IPTV from HDTV: Choice of content and applications, and data compression.

Gert Nieveld 2006/11/21

Comment: HDTV and IPTV (part one)

Hello Gert,

It's been a long time ago when we discussed transmission systems (8TR695, 1990/1991). I think your observations on HDTV or mainly spot on, as the video revolution will come from the massive user base of consumer grade Digital Video Camera's and HDTV is still far too oriented at professional broadcasters. Nevertheless, there are already HD quality consumer cameras out there for a reasonable price that could foster a massive growth in the YouTube and it's likes area, when upload bandwidths become available in the 10s of Mbit/s (as it is with various FTTH network roll outs).

I'm very interested in your second part, in particular whether you plan to discuss IPTV versus YouTube style services and Delay-TV via the Internet that seems to get far more traction than most expected. Also transmission over the Internet to already high definition computer screens might alter video use far more than currently foreseen. I just think about the hospitals that hang video cameras for parents in the baby nursery departments and provide them with password secured access or the clowns and actors that 'play and entertain' via video a group of very ill children that are cloistered to their home.

Hope to see you discuss that kind of applications of video over the Internet too. It changes TV as-we-know-it far more than most format enhancements.

Hendrik Rood – Fri, 2006 – 12 – 08 18:26


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