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@nebul2’s 14 reasons why 2015 will be yet another #UHD #IBCShow

Ultra HD or 4K has been a key topic of my pre and post IBC blogs for over 5 years. I’ve recently joined the Ultra HD Forum, serving on the communications working group. That’s a big commitment and investment, as I don’t have any large company paying my bills. I’m making it because I believe the next 18 months will see the transition from UHD as the subject of trials for big operators and precursor launches to something no operator can be without. Time to get off the fence. I once wrote that the 3D emperor didn’t have any clothes on; well, the UHD emperor is fully clothed.

Of course much still needs to be achieved before we see mass adoption. I don’t know if HDR and 4K resolution will reach market acceptance one at a time or both together, and yes, I don’t know which HDR specification will succeed. But I know it’s all coming.

Below is a list of 14 key topics ordered by my subjective (this is a blog remember) sense of comfort on each. I start with areas where the roadmap to industrial strength UHD delivery is clear to me and end with those where I’m the most confused.

Note on vocabulary: 4K refers to a screen resolution for next gen TV whereas UHD includes that spatial resolution (one even sees UHD phase 2 documents refer to an 8K resolution) but also frame rate, HDR and next generation Audio.

So as I wander round IBC this year, or imagine I’m doing that, as probably won’t have time, I’ll look into the following 14 topics with growing interest.

1. Broadcast networks (DVB)

I doubt I’ll stop by the big satellite booths for example, except of course for free drinks and maybe to glimpse the latest live demos. The Eutelsat, Intelsat or Astras of this world have a pretty clear UHD story to tell. Just like the cableCos, they are the pipe and they are ready, as long as you have what it takes to pay.

2. Studio equipment (cameras etc.)

As a geek, I loved the Canon demos at NAB, both of affordable 4K cameras and their new ultra sensitive low-light capabilities. But I won’t be visiting any of the studio equipment vendors, simply because I don’t believe they are on the critical path for UHD success. The only exception to this is the HDR issues described below.

 3. IP network; CDN and Bandwidth

Bandwidth constricts UHD delivery; it would be stupid to claim otherwise. All I’m saying is that by putting this issue so high on the list everything is clear in the mid-term. We know how fast High-Speed Broadband (over 30MPS) is arriving in most markets. In the meantime, early adopters without access can buy themselves a UHD Blu-ray by Christmas this year and use progressive download services. The Ultra HD Alliance has already identified 25 online services, several of which support PDL. Once UHD streams get to the doorstep or the living room, there is still the issue of distributing them around the home. But several vendors like AirTies are addressing that specific issue, so again, even if it isn’t fixed, I can see how it will be.

 4. Codecs (HEVC)

The angst around NAB this year when V-nova came out with a bang has subsided. It seems now that even if such a disruptive technology does come through in the near-term, it will complement not replace HEVC for UHD delivery.

The codec space dropped from a safe 2 in my list down to 4 with the very recent scares on royalties from the HEVC Advance group that wants 0.5% of content owner & distributor’s gross revenue. Industry old-timers have reassured me that this kind of posturing is normal and that the market will settle down naturally at acceptable rates.

 5. Head-ends (Encoders, Origins, etc.)

I always enjoy demos and discussion on the booths of the likes of Media Excel, Envivio, Harmonic, Elemental or startup BBright and although I’ll try to stop by, I won’t make a priority of them because here again, the mid-term roadmaps seem relatively clear.

I’ve been hearing contradictory feedback on the whole cloud-encoding story that has been sold to us for a couple of years already. My theory – to be checked at IBC – is that encoding in the cloud really does make sense for constantly changing needs and where there is budget. But for T2 operators running on a shoestring – and there are a lot of them – the vendors are still mainly shifting appliances. It’s kind of counterintuitive because you’d expect the whole cloud concept of mutualizing resources to work better for the smaller guys. I must have something missing here, do ping me with info so I can update this section.

 6. 4K/UHD resolutions

While there is no longer any concern on what the screen resolutions will be, I am a little unclear as to the order in which they will arrive. With heavyweights like Ericsson openly pushing for HDR before 4K, I’m a little concerned that lack of industry agreement on this could confuse the market.

 7. Security for UHD

Content owners and security vendors like Verimatrix have all agreed that better security is required for UHD content. I see no technical issues here – just that if the user experience is adversely affected in any way (remember the early MP3 years), we could see incentive for illegal file transfer grow, just when legal streaming seems to be taking of at last.

 8. TV sets & STBs

Well into second half of my list, we’re getting into less clear waters.

When it’s the TV set that is doing the UHD decoding, we’re back at the product cycle issue that has plagued smart TVs. It’s all moving too fast for a TV set that people still would like to keep in the living room for over 5 years.

On the STB side, we’ve seen further consolidation since last year’s IBC. Pace for example is no longer; Cisco is exiting STBs etc. It seems that only players with huge scale will survive. Operators like Swisscom or Orange can make Hardware vendors’ lives harder by commoditizing their hardware using software-only vendors such as SoftAtHome to deliver advanced features.

 9. Frame rates

This is a really simple one but for which consensus is needed. At a 4K screen resolution the eye/brain is more sensitive to artifacts. Will refresh rates standardize at 50Hz or 60Hz? Will we really ever need 120Hz?

It’s clear that doubling a frame rate does not double the required bandwidth as clever compression techniques come to play. But but I haven’t seen a consensus on what the bandwidth implication of greater frame rate will actually be.

10. Next Gen Audio

There are only a few contenders out there, and all have compelling solutions. I’m pretty keyed up on DTS’s HeadphoneX streamed with Unified Streaming packagers because I’m helping them write an eBook on the subject. Dolby is, of course, a key player here but for me it’s not yet clear how multiple solutions will cohabit. It isn’t yet clear how if and when we’ll move from simple channel-based to scene based or object based audio. Will open source projects like Ambiophonics play a role and what about binaural audio.

11. HDR

High Dynamic Range is about better contrast. Also, the brain perceives more detail when contrast is improved, so it’s almost like getting more pixels for free. But the difficulty with HDR and why it’s near the bottom of my list is that there are competing specifications. And even once a given specification is adopted, its implementation on a TV set can vary from one CE manufacturer to another. I final reservation I have is the extra power consumption it will entail that goes against current CE trends.

12. Wide Color Gamut

As HDR brings more contrast to pixels WCG brings richer and truer colors. Unlike with HDR, the issue isn’t about which spec to follow, as it is already catered for in HEVC for example. No, it’s more about when to implement it and how the color mapping will be unified across display technologies and vendors.

 13. Work flows

Workflow from production through to display is a sensitive issue because it is heavily dependant on skills and people. So it’s not just a mater of choosing the right technology. To produce live UHD content including HDR, there is still no industry standard way of setting up a workflow.

 14. UHD-only content

The pressure to recoup investments in HD infrastructure makes the idea of UHD content that is unsuitable for HD downscaling taboo. From a business perspective, most operators consider UHD as an extension or add-on rather than something completely new. There is room for a visionary to coma and change that.

Compelling UHD content, where the whole screen is in focus (video rather than cinema lenses) gives filmmakers a new artistic dimension to work on. There is enough real estate on screen to offer multiple user experiences.

In the world of sports a UHD screen could offer a fixed view on a whole football pitch for example. But if that video were seen on an HD screen, the ball probably wouldn’t be visible. Ads that we have to watch dozens of times could be made more fun in UHD as their could be different storied going on in different parts of the screen, it would almost be an interactive experience …

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Live OTT streaming – Industry feedback from CDN World Summit London 2014

Last week I led a round table on the future of live OTT TV and it’s implication for CDNs during the last session of Informa’s CDN World Summit in London.

My first point to open the debate was on QoE. I pointed out that mobile telephones are a giant step backwards in term of voice QoE and service availability compared to good old fixed lines. However we’re all happy to renew dropped calls lose coverage or ask our correspondents to repeat on our mobile phones because we gained so much more than service QoE with mobility. I then suggested users might accept a similar trade-off and embrace lower QoE for OTT TV than broadcast, in exchange for lower costs, mobility, greater choice and personalisation. The reactions around the table made me think I’d just insulted the queen. There was emphatic disagreement. TV is TV and will always be TV said the TV operators and nobody dared take issue. I guess that’s what happened in the boardrooms of railway companies when airplanes arrived. One of the non-TV-operator participants did agree that maybe – except for sports – QoE might be traded-off for greater choice. At this point, the challenge of content navigation was brought up for search and recommendation.

That got us talking about “long-tail live TV” and if it might ever makes sense, i.e. being able to watch a unique live stream that you really care about. That access might make you so grateful that even if the quality wasn’t always pristine you’d still be happy. This idea is buoyed up in an OTT rather than broadcast context. Indeed all the TV markets I’ve worked in, even if they have many hundreds of channels available, invariably have 10 or fewer channels that any one community is prepared to pay for. One of the key promises of OTT is to abolish markets, typically under a satellite footprint. All those start-ups targeting Diasporas are going to find tough competition as the big guys come into their nascent markets more and more.

From a financial modelling point of view, the satellite broadcasters around the table were pretty excited about the fact that for live OTT, if you have a tail-end channel that nobody is watching, your Opex goes down to zero. This for them was the real opportunity in live OTT.

Consensus was easy to get on the fact that live OTT TV brings mobility, however nobody was clear yet about a killer use case where this is really important. Watching videos on the tube or train is still very much a download experience and rarely legal at that.

When I brought up the question of when rather than if, Netflix starts live streaming nobody felt ready to pick up the gauntlet. I’ll keep that for another day.

Our debate wound up over an interesting discussion on the blurring of boundaries between linear and on-demand content. Typically a shopping channel can be played out from an automated server with people being able to interact and turn a multicast stream into a unicast one. The final feedback from two operators round the table was that Multicast is only really a panacea for large Telcos that own a network. For the rest of us the cost benefit analysis turns out much worse in the real world than on the drawing board of business planning.

This left me with the clear impression that there are still problems out there looking for solutions, not the other way round for a change. As many network and service operators want to build their own solutions rather than relay on the global CDN operators, we’ll probably see a major player emerge from the likes of Anevia with its edge caching, Broadpeak with its Nano-CDN, Media Melon with its QoE analysis or Octoshape.

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9 new trends to help my visit the TV Connect 2013 show floor

Many of us whinged and whined about the name change from IPTV World Forum to IP&TV World Forum because the names were too difficult to tell apart (if you are still looking, it was the adding of the ‘&’ in IP&TV). By naming the event TV Connect the organizers have now moved away far enough for the new name to stick. Now though it must be differentiated from the “Connected TV” events.

This year’s event is too big to just simply attend. I put on my thinking hat to ponder where things are going over the next three years, in order to decide who and what to see in Olympia. The trends below are new impressions of things I’m just beginning to understand, not the obvious ones like drowning in content.

For each trend I’ve suggested, in this blue font, which exhibitor I’ll be looking to see at the show. Please add a comment if you think I’ve missed something important, which of course I have.

Trend 1: Moore’s law looks like slowing down at last

My 2-year old gaming PC still plays all the latest games! Who’d have imagined, Apple still selling iPhone 4’s from its website three years after initial release?

At the same time, if the advantages of Broadband up to a “good DSL” speed  (i.e. from ~10MBPS) seems obvious, many operators are struggling to sell “fibre” speeds (from ~100MPS and above) unless there’s no price increase.

Raw processing power is no longer enough in the TMT sector to reach the mass market beyond geeks & early-adopters, and soon raw bandwidth won’t be enough either. Services must serve a deeper purpose. Ok, how can that be done?

At TV Connect I’ll be looking how the numerous device makers (just for the letter A there are already: Amino, Airties, ABox42, …) have improved the packaging and User eXperience of their products without necessarily changing all that much under the hood since last year.

Trend 2: Analytics everywhere

Big Data is a trendy topic currently at the height of its Hype cycle, which also represents a genuinely new approach. After over a decade of promises, the ability to ingest richer data and process it near to real time is finally here. At last, operators can focus on user experience rather than just connectivity.

I’ll try to scratch under the surface of the “Big Data” words I expect to see plaster onto many booths.

Trend 3: Colliding segments of QoE, UX and Security

The User eXperience (UX) domaine has only naturally linked with Quality of Experience/Service and monitoring. So I’ll be looking for how the QoS/QoE/Monitoring vendors are embracing overall User eXperience. I’ve written earlier about security companies as potential candidates for a stake in this new game, as they know exactly what is being watched by whom when it comes to premium content. In the age of abundance we have entered, a key challenge is content navigation that also means UI design, search and recommendation.

I suppose VO and Nagra come to mind first as having merged much of this, but I’ll also be checking in no particular order: Witbe, Veveo, Verimatrix, Conax, Red Bee, Mariner, Jinni, Ineoquest, Genius Digital, Agama,  …

Trend 4: CDNs going local and the Cloud coming to a TV near you

Other areas where there seems to still be some low-hanging fruit to improve User eXperience include the distribution of heavy (HD) content in networks. All operators with a fixed line network are racing to bring out their own CDNs.

Broadpeak seems to be the only CDN specialist

Some Cloud services like Dropbox or Network PVRs seem obvious. The jury is still out on others as the early disappointment of Connected TV has shown. OTT service delivery platforms (SDPs) will be another thing to look out for.

In the fog we’re all stumbling around in, I’ll try to see which of the one-stop-shops like Kit Digital, Siemens, Cisco, Ericsson or Nagra have the more powerful fog lights. Of course for a best-of-breed approach you’ll need to stop by at almost all the booths.

Trend 5: declining long-term value of Pay TV?

In the early 90s nothing worked better in the home than the fixed-line telephone. The availability and reliability of basic telephone services, whether mobile or fixed has significantly dropped twenty years later. Subscribers have been happy to trade lower prices and mobility for reliability and what we used to call quality. A similar trend can be seen with pay TV services. Early “cord-cutters” are showing that trade-offs are possible here too. Subscribers will probably trade old-fashioned TV quality for better variety, lower prices and better content navigation.

To keep the value in TV, some operators will use bundling or mashing-up TV types of service with social media and communication services.

The companies I’d talk to, to get a handle on this would be those at the forefront of social media like Accedo, or already close to operator’s triple play like SoftAtHome.

Trend 6: device wars growing fiercer

In what my friend Sebastian Becker calls a new rendition of “The Empire Strikes Back”, many European Cablecos have launched powerful boxes that have little to envy from a PC’s spec sheet, as for example with Numericable’s LaBox. At the same time, Google is still happily ploughing millions into various device-centric Google TV projects, and Sony says the PS4 will revolutionize media in the living room. Nobody understands what Microsoft is saying: new OTT devices still crop up in shops ranging from powerful all-in-one boxes to tiny USB or HDMI sticks, … and the list goes on.

So short term, should I need to advise any operators on device architecture, I’ll go for being agnostic.

To get some clarity on this I’d drop in to the OIPF booth to see how standards are helping.

Trend 7: SD à HD à 4K

I saw Sony’s 4K screen at IBC and am a true geek on this one. The 4K industry drive will succeed because it just feels so right in the gut, where 3D with spectacles in the living room never could. 4K or ultra-HD will start to impact on us within three years.

I’ll be keen to see who at the show is already on the ball with 4K, although it’ll be harder to get the timing right on this than just be the fist too early mover.

Trend 8: Capex can really shrink at last

I have written over a dozen business cases for TV rollouts around the world and if you’re small, the killer Capex item is the head-end but if you’re large, it’s the STB.

For the former, new centralized digital “headend in the SKY” services substantial Capex savings. You just send files to be encoded streamed or whatever your head-end requirements are.

As for the larger operators, the STB can still be a killer cost as are fancy devices like the LGI Horizon box. People are actually happy though to spend hundreds of dollars on devices that are even more powerful than any STB. Once the empire has finished striking back, I sense a trend for overall lowering of STB costs.

I’ll drop by the usual suspects here for an update on head ends (Elemental, Envivio, Harmonic, Ateme, etc.) but also try to understand where Avail TVN is at.

Trend 9: Hello TV, Goodbye TV

If the 8 previous trends have a dose of gut feeling, this one – pure conjecture – feels right. I have come to realize that many of us work in the market sector we call TMT. Before I looked it up, I assumed that one of the T’s was for TV. Maybe I’m spending Too Much Time on this, but the acronym actually stands for Technology, Media and Telecoms, no TV anywhere.

So could TV have been just a passing thing? Before IPTV there wasn’t any TV on IP networks, and now in the age of multiscreen galore and OTT, is “TV” already being pushed back out of IP networks in favour of just “video”? Maybe one day there’ll just be Sports, News and Video left so beyond the three year time-frame of this blog we can all come back to the 2017 event which will be rebranded the SNV World Forum.

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CDN 3.0 White Paper

CDNs have improved in leaps and bounds in the last decade. This white paper asks if mainstream suppliers are now struggling to deliver the next big improvement. We look into whether there could be a window of opportunity for network operators to get back into the game. Live OTT streaming is considered a great catalyst for this opportunity.We finish by looking into what the future of CDN’s might look like in the next few years.

Enter your name and email address to download CDN 3.0 White Paper

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Five thoughts after chairing day one of the CDN World Summit in London this week.

1. Imminent bloodbath

There is a phoney war going one with everyone patting everyone else on the back and smiling as is if we could all stay friends. We all know that a bloodbath is coming. There is no way that all the network operators (e.g. BT), transnational operators (e.g. Level 3) content operators (e.g. Sky), existing CDN players like Akamai and new-comers like Amazon are going to all live happily ever after collaborating to deliver a great video experience. The cake is just too small.

We might just be able to cut it in up for 2 stakeholders, surely not 4 or 5. So if 2011 still sees a lot of hype and optimism, I think 2012 will see consolidation and then simplification in 2013.

2. Drowning in poor quality content

OK so lets say all the CDN ambitions flaunted at the conference are realised, what would that mean?

Well firstly you need to reinvent the TV experience. Platforms like Sky or Comcast are already struggling to offer a decent experience with hundreds of channels and thousands of videos. Add on another zero to both those numbers, then what? We will be completely lost and confused as to what to watch. Anthony Rose and the Veg 2.0 he is developing at T-Bone might be an answer we are looking for, I am eager for them to come out of stealth mode.

Secondly, there will be a quality issue. Once all the zillions of videos are at the edge, probably in some kind of rate adaptive format, who apart from the end user is going to know if the video actually played well if at all. If its all part of a paying offer that could get very sticky. The only company addressing this issue head-on at the conference, with a solution ready to roll, was Ineoquest. I will be writing more on that in a forthcoming white paper on this subject (post a comment if you would like me to include your product also, so far I have talked to Edgware and Packet Ship).

3. Content sill matters

The conference had a broad representation from the industry, but the few people from content, did not really have much to say. That may have been that we had the wrong people, but it did light up an alarm bell in my mind. Great network technology include state-of the art CDNs will indeed deliver a compelling user experience. But if we forget to get the content owners on board from the start, we may end up with a beautiful solution that has no problem to fix.

4. Standards
Standards are often late to the game. This time IETF and ETSI are both scrambling the jets to get there on time for intercept. I wish them well, but if I were a betting man that is not where I would put my money.

5. Interconnectivity
There is a worldview where Akamai continues to dominate the content delivery space so that interconnectivity eventually just becomes an issue of talking to Akamai. I no longer believe that can happen, the Akamai empire has already lived its thousand years in Internet time. So a more realistic worldview is one of interoperability. In the end, the standards guys will catch up. Getting different CDNs to talk to each other certainly seemed to be a hot topic at the CDN World Forum as. EdgeCast for one is already was saying they have it fixed interconnectivity already. As the old man said, being there first is not as important as being there at the right time

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Connected TV panel: “Is Internet delivery the future for all TV?”

Here is the Video of the panel I chaired during Connected TV Summit this May in London.

Click here

If you patient enough some interesting price data comes out. I ask the question minute 13:30, by minute 16:30 actual figures come out at 5p per GB for large-scale operators like Lovefilm, BBC would pay probably only half of that …