Analysis: a game of leapfrog

The firms that create and deliver content plan to be in the vanguard of next-generation technology. E&T reports from IBC 2008 in Amsterdam.

Consumers in Europe have been investing in new larger, flatter and, most importantly, higher-definition televisions in the past three years, but there has been a dearth of HD programming from terrestrial and cable broadcasters.

Coupled with the damaging battle between the competing Blu-ray and HD-DVD standards, which Blu-ray finally won earlier this year, most viewers have been dealt a bad deal by the global broadcasting industry.

Speaking to several companies who supply technologies, it is obvious that the industry is well aware of consumers' frustrations. Therefore, with the next generation of broadcast content creation, management and delivery technologies, the industry plans not to keep up with the TV manufacturers but to leapfrog them.

The Broadcast Technology Futures Group, a collaboration including NHK of Japan, the BBC and Italy's RAI, used IBC as the showcase for the world's first live satellite transmission of an ultra-high-definition broadcast. Delegates and visitors were able to view NHK's Super Hi-Vision (SHV) system, which delivers 8K resolution (approximately 16 times more detailed than current 1080p HD standards) with 22.2 audio sound.

The demonstration was broadcast to Amsterdam's RAI Convention Centre from a live camera in London over a fibre connection and from a server in Turin, Italy, via satellite.

NHK aims to bring SHV to the home in ten years, said Keiichi Kubota, director general of NHK's Science & Technical Research Laboratories, which is working on a range of SHV equipment, including TV sets.

However, Kubota points out that only TV sets over 70in would benefit from such resolutions. "From a technical point of view, it is difficult to make SHV sets smaller and still appreciate the quality," he said.

But it isn't just about pixels. Satellite and media services provider Arqiva demonstrated the first transatlantic 3D HD broadcast at the show, when over 1,000 delegates watched a live interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of Dream Works Animation SKG.

The viewers were able to converse with Katzenberg while he was broadcast in stereoscopic vision viewable with special glasses which filtered out certain frequencies of light in each lens to give the 3D effect.

IBC chose Arqiva to provide the satellite connectivity between the US and Europe, with other key technologies being provided by Real D, Christie and 3Ality Digital.

The industry has to provide the infrastructure to handle high-definition broadcasts. The recipe for this is simple - more bandwidth, more processing power and more data storage. There was plenty of evidence on the show floor that the broadcast industry is cooking something tasty.

Perfect broadcasting

Nothing can be more demanding an environment than the broadcast newsroom. Here there is no room for latency, bottlenecks and system crashes, as broadcasters are often dealing with broadcasts from some of the most inhospitable locations around the world.

Often these broadcasts rely on satellite uplinks. Inmarsat, one of the main players in this field, currently offers equipment for foreign correspondents that can upload content at a consistent bit rate of 256kbit/s through its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN). That is enough to provide live broadcasts in standard definition of about 15 frames per second, but the company plans to ramp up the bandwidth capability from next year. "In 2009 we will be able to offer a consistent rate of 384kbit/s - and this should mean that broadcasters will be able to stream at about 25 frames per second," said Inmarsat's Robert Bishop.

Although this isn't high-definition, it demonstrates a commitment to deliver higher bandwidth from virtually any corner of the globe.

Processor load

The studio environment itself also needs an upgrade. Standard definition television signals have to travel around the various coaxial cables in a raw format to ensure that there is no signal degradation. But the bit rate required for standard definition alone is 1.5 gigabits per second. For high-definition 1080p video, you need to double this.

After moving the uncompressed signal around the studio, once a video is ready to be broadcast it has to be converted on-the-fly into the correct formats for the various broadcasting channels, which may be satellite TV, terrestrial, cable, Internet or mobile devices. This process is known as transcoding, and requires massive processing power.

Broadcast International was at IBC co-exhibiting with IBM, as its transcoding solution uses IBM's Cell processor as the engine to convert these signals for a number of broadcasters around the world.

"The Cell processor has the equivalent processing power of eight Pentium 4 chips. We have partnered with IBM to create a new video compression solution that is providing better compression that the industry has had before," explained Rod Tiede, chief executive of Broadcast International.

But in order to deliver the new high-definition streams, the delivery has to be far better than the current standards - particularly in the case of digital terrestrial TV. The current standard, DVB-T, was conceived before the current high-definition revolution in television sets.

In June this year, the BBC began test transmissions using the new DVB-T2 standard, which promises a greater and more efficient data throughput.

Peter McAvott, head of the DVB Project Office, said: "You will get a 50 per cent equivalent gain in data throughput from the current 24 Mbit/s to 36 Mbit/s, which in practice will mean more interactivity and higher definition channels."

Proper broadcasts in DVB-T2 will begin from November 2009 according to UK communications regulator Ofcom, by which time most TV sets and set-top boxes should also be supporting the new standard.

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