Category: The Front Line

Spectrum Repacking and Channel Scans

In the wake of last year’s big spectrum auction, the FCC is chopping even more spectrum away from UHF TV stations and expecting (somehow) to jam all the remaining TV stations into low band VHF (2-6), high band VHF (7-13), and truncated UHF (14-36) channels.

In my neighborhood, stations are already packing up and moving. While conducting a recent test of a “smart” indoor UHF TV antenna, I grabbed some spectrum analyzer plots of all three television frequency bands. As expected, the RF spectrum from channel 56 to 87 (channels 2-6) was largely unusable due to high levels of impulse and main-made noise.

The high band VHF spectrum wasn’t much better, with some continuous RFI kicking up the noise floor by almost 20 dB. But it was the UHF spectrum I was interested in, and several former broadcasters were noticeable by their absence. Channels 29, 35, and 39 – previously in use for Univision, independent, and PBS stations – had all gone dark.

To get around the lack of available channels, TV stations are “channel sharing,” something the FCC frowned on as recently as a decade ago. What that means is that stations divvy up the available bits in an MPEG2 encoder and multicast several minor channels on one physical RF channel. This technique was almost impossible to pull off twenty years ago when digital TV broadcasts and HDTV were just getting started.

Now, thanks to very powerful processors and tricks like adaptive variable bitrate encoding and statistical multiplexing (a/k/a “stat muxing”), it’s not difficult at all, even though the jury is still out on the quality of HD and SD video using much lower bit rates that were not possible in 1998. NBC has done this in Philadelphia and New York, combining Telemundo channels with NBC programming and making room for one HD service from each.

Locally, an independent station in Allentown (WFMZ) will relinquish its 5-megawatt signal on UHF-46 and move to VHF-9, sharing bits with WBPH and the Lehigh Valley PBS station, WLVT (formerly on channel 39). This will have happened by the time you read this column and I’ll be curious to see just how much image quality has deteriorated for each minor channel after the new transmitter lights up.

Keep in mind that many stations auctioned off their channels in return for a nice pay day. Public stations in particular pocketed some serious change, money that went into facilities upgrades and balancing their budgets. If their multicast services hold up well with the latest in MPEG2 encoding, then they’ll come out of this smelling like a rose.

What this means to you as an OTA viewer is that you will need to re-run channel scans to catch all of these moves – otherwise, you’ll tune to a channel that has gone dark and will be standing there, scratching your heads in bewilderment. I’d perform a channel scan twice a month from now through the end of the year. (You might also pick up some newer, low-power translators and repeaters along the way, and you may find some channels are gone for good.)

Blu-Ray: On The Endangered Species List?

One of the problems with market research is that you often wind up with conflicting data from two or more sources. Or, the data presents a “conclusion” that’s all too easy to “spin” to advance an argument or make a point.

Ever since the two adversaries in the blue laser optical disc format squared off with pistols at twenty paces in 2008 (and one lost), the clear trend of media consumption has favored streaming and digital downloads. Entire business models have collapsed as a result, including Hollywood Video and Blockbuster Video sales and rental stores. The last two Blockbuster outlets in Alaska are closing, leaving just one solitary brick-and-mortar operation in Oregon.

With Netflix now serving over 100 million subscribers around the world and Amazon rumored to be working on a smart TV for delivering Prime video, the tide hasn’t stopped rising. Purchases of digital downloads and streaming media surpassed physical media in dollar value way back in 2015 and the gap continues to widen as more customers take advantage of fast broadband, smarter DVRs, and improved codecs for reliable delivery of Full HD AND 4K video over networks.

My industry colleague Greg Tarr recently posted a story on the HD GURU Web site quoting NPD Group analyst Stephen Baker as saying that, “…Ultra HD Blu-ray player sales increased by more than 150% over 2017 and the revenue is up 61%. The {Average Selling Price] ASP is $165 this year compared to $272 for the first 5 months of 2017.” Baker further pointed out that that sales of Ultra HD Blu-ray players in the United States increased 82% in May and revenue increased 13% with an ASP of $168. NPD estimates that 4K Ultra HD players represented about 15% of Blu-ray unit sales for the first five months of 2018.

Well, that certainly sounds like great news, doesn’t it? But some perspective is in order.

First off, all of these $168 players (which once cost north of $300 – $500 not long ago) also have built-in WiFi connections and can stream content from the likes of Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, and Hulu. And of course, they’re backward-compatible with standard Blu-ray, DVD, and CD audio formats.

Given the ridiculously low prices on Ultra HDTVs these days (such as 55-inch models with HDR 10 support for as low as $450), many consumers may simply be in a major TV and home entertainment upgrade cycle. I bought my first 1080p TV in 2008, a 42-inch Panasonic plasma, for about $1200. And I’m now ready to upgrade from a 2012-vintage, 47-inch 1080p LCD model, to a 55-inch or 60-inch smart 4K set, which with HDR support will cost me about as much as that 42-inch Panasonic from 2008.

Will I pick up an Ultra HD player too? Hey, for $150, why not? And will I watch a lot of UHD Blu-ray discs on it? Probably not, since I will be able to stream Netflix and Prime video at 4K resolution. Will that streamed 4K content look as good as a physical disc playing out at more than 100 Mb/s? Maybe not, but on the other hand, I won’t have to buy or rent any more discs. And based on my experience the other night watching “The Catcher Was A Spy” from Amazon Prime, I will be quite happy with the result.

Yes, you can buy a 4K TV at Shop Rite, available in the bread aisle. (Photo courtesy Norm Hurst)

As the saying goes, facts are stubborn things. The facts are; physical media sales have been in slow and steady decline for over a decade (and continue to decline) and Ultra HD BD disc sales constitute a small portion of overall media consumption. For that matter, so do sales of players: Research firm Futuresource predicts that global UHD Blu-ray player unit shipments should hit just 2.3 million, with more than 50% of those sales taking place in North America.

To put that in perspective, ABI Research forecasts that worldwide Ultra HD flat panel TV shipments will surpass 102 million in 2018, representing 44% of all WW flat panel TV shipments (about 232 million). So even with “record” sales growth, Ultra HD Blu-ray player sales will only constitute about 2.2% of Ultra HDTV sales, with the bulk of those player sales taking place in North America and Europe.

ABI also predicts that just shy of 200 million Ultra HDTVs will be sold in 2023 worldwide, with the majority taking place in China (which doesn’t use our Blu-ray format but instead relies on “China Blue,” the old HD-DVD standard). Coincidentally, Tarr’s article states that, “…market research predicts that blue laser optical disc player shipments will decrease from 72.1 million in 2017 to 68 million in 2023. Unit shipments for the global Blu-ray media market are expected to decrease from 595 million in 2017 to 516 million in 2023.”

That trend would seem to be at odds with TV purchases, according to an April press release from Futuresource. “We believe 4K UHD TV sets will ship over 100 million units this year, equivalent to two-thirds of the entire large screen market,” comments David Tett, Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “Consumers increasingly want larger screens, and this is playing nicely into the 4K UHD proposition. HDR is expected to be present in 60% of 4K UHD sets this year.”

Digesting all of this data reveals that (a) 4K TV sales continue grow to worldwide (which is also being driven by a changeover from Full HD to 4K TV fab production, but that’s another story), (b) 4K TV sales will constitute an ever-larger percentage of overall TV sales by 2023 – if not close to 90%, (c) more and more consumers are streaming and downloading digital video than purchasing optical discs, (d) even with strong sales through the first six months of 2018, Ultra HD Blu-ray players are selling at a rate of just two for every 100 Ultra HDTVs purchased, and (e) overall sales of Blu-ray players of all kinds are in steady decline.

I fully expect to hear all of the arguments for UHD Blu-ray, picture quality being one of them. But if I can stream UHD content with HDR at acceptable quality levels, why do I need to buy discs? I’ll have access to an enormous cloud library and I’ll be more environmentally conscious, too. Besides, I rarely watch a movie more than once (look at the piles of old DVDs people try to get rid of at garage sales or foist on libraries). There’s plenty of good content available from video-on-demand.

Ultra HD video content with HDR @ 16 Mb/s that looks as good as UHD Blu-ray? Yep, Fraunhofer IHS showed it at NAB 2016.

And UHD BD supporters neglect to consider all of the continual advancements being made with codecs. A couple of years ago, Fraunhofer showed absolutely stunning Ultra HD video with dynamic HDR on a 65-inch UHDTV, encoded with HEVC H.265 at an average bit rate of 16 Mb/s – 15% of the peak streaming rate for Ultra HD Blu-ray – and they were encoding tricky stuff like confetti, wind-whipped waves, and moving objects with plenty of changing specular highlights. All heavy lifting.

Granted, it took two computers to do the software encoding and decoding. But those two computers can easily be reduced to a set of chips with firmware and a powerful CPU and installed inside my next TV.

So what would I need an optical disc player for?

InfoComm 2018 In The Rear View Mirror

If you managed to make it out to this year’s running of InfoComm, you might have summarized your trip to colleagues with these talking points:

(a) LED displays, and

(b) AV-over-IT.

Indeed; it was impossible to escape these two trends. LED walls and cubes were everywhere in the Las Vegas Convention Center, in many cases promoted by a phalanx of Chinese brands you’ve likely never heard of. But make no mistake about it – LEDs are the future of displays, whether they are used for massive outdoor signage or compact indoor arrays.

With the development of micro LED technology, we’re going to see an expansion of LEDs into televisions, monitors, and even that smart watch on your wrist. (Yes, Apple is working on micro LEDs for personal electronics.)

Projector manufacturers are understandably nervous about the inroads LEDs are making into large venues. Indeed; this author recently saw Paul Simon’s “farewell tour” performance at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, and the backdrop was an enormous widescreen LED wall that provided crystal-clear image magnification (very handy when concertgoers around you are up and dancing, blocking your view of the stage).

 

As for the other talking point – well, it was impossible to avoid in conversations at InfoComm. Between manufacturers hawking their “ideal” solutions for compressing and streaming audio and video and all of the seminars in classrooms and booths, you’d think that AV-over-IT is a done deal.

The truth is a little different. Not all installations are looking to route signals through a 10 Gb/s Cisco switch. In fact, a brand-spanking-new studio built for ESPN in lower Manhattan, overlooking the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge, relies on almost 500 circuits of 3G SDI video through an enormous router. Any network-centric signal distribution within this space is mostly for IT traffic.

That’s not to say that installers are poo-pooing AV-over-IT and the new SMPTE 2110 standards for network distribution of deterministic video. It’s still early in the game and sometimes tried-and-tested signal distribution methods like SDI are perfectly acceptable, especially in the case of this particular facility with its 1080p/60 backbone.

Even so, the writing on the all couldn’t be more distinct with respect to LEDs and network distribution of AV. But there were other concerns at the show that didn’t receive nearly as much media attention.

At the IMCCA Emerging Trends session on Tuesday, several presentations focused on interfacing humans and technology. With “OK Google” and Alexa all the rage, discussions focused on how fast these consumer interfaces would migrate to AV control systems. An important point was made about the need for two-factor authentication – simple voice control might not be adequately secure for say, a boardroom in a large financial institution.

What would the second factor be? Facial recognition? (This was a popular suggestion.) Fingerprints? Retinal scans? A numeric code that could be spoken or entered on a keypad? The name of your favorite pet? Given that hackers in England recently gained access to a casino’s customer database via an Internet-connected thermometer in a fish tank, two-factor authentication for AV control systems doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

Another topic of discussion was 8K video. With a majority of display manufacturers showing 4K LCD (and in some cases OLED) monitors in Vegas, the logical question was: Could resolutions be pushed higher? Of course, the answer is a resounding “yes!”

Display analysts predict there will be over 5 million 8K televisions shipped by 2022 and we’re bound to see commercial monitors adapted from those products. But 8K doesn’t have to be achieved in a single, stand-alone display: With the advent of smaller 4K monitors (some as small as 43 inches), it is a simple matter to tile a 2×2 array to achieve 7680×4320 pixels. And there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of customers for such a display, especially in the command and control and process control verticals.

The other conversations of interest revolved around the need for faster wireless. We now have 802.1ac channel bonding, with 802.11ax on the horizon. For in-room super-speed WiFi, 802.11ad provides six channels at 60 GHz, each 2 GHz wide or 100x the bandwidth of individual channels at 2.4 and 5 GHz.

But wise voices counsel to pay attention to 5G mobile networks, which promise download speeds of 1 Gb/s. While not appropriate for in-room AV connectivity, 5G delivery of streaming video assets to classrooms and meetings is inevitable. Some purveyors of wireless connectivity services like AT&T and Verizon insist that 5G could eventually make WiFi obsolete. (That’s a bit of a stretch, but this author understands the motivation for making such a claim.)

The point of this missive? Simply that our industry is headed for some mind-boggling changes in the next decade. Networked AV, LEDs, 8K video and displays, multi-factor authentication for control systems, and super-fast wireless connections are all in the wings.

And if you were observant at InfoComm, you know it’s coming…and quickly.

Measuring Up With DisplayHDR

For the past 16 years, the High Definition Multimedia Interface (HDMI) has ruled the roost for display connections, pushing aside VGA at first and then DVI on everything from televisions and Blu-ray players to laptop computers and camcorders. It’s evolved numerous times from a basic plug-and-play interface for televisions and AV receivers to a high-speed transport system for 4K and ultimately 8K video. Ironically, HDMI is often the input and output connection for video encoders and decoders that, in theory, could displace it from the market altogether.

But there are other players in the interfacing market, and that would be the folks at the Video Electronics Standards Association (VESA), who developed and periodically update DisplayPort. First launched in 2006, DisplayPort was intended to replace the old analog VGA connector with a newer, 100%-digital version that could handle many times the bandwidth of an XGA (1024×768) or UXGA (1600×1200) video signal.

Other forward-looking features included direct display drivers (no need for a video card), support for optical fiber, multiplexing with USB and other data bus formats, and even a wireless specification (it never really caught on). Like HDMI, DP had its “mini” and “micro” versions (Mini DP and Mobility DP).

In recent years, VESA stayed current by upping the speed limit from 21.6 to 32 gigabits per second (Gb/s), supporting the USB 3.0 Alternate Mode, adding some cool bells and whistles like simultaneous multi-display output, adopting the first compression system for display signals (Display Stream Compression), recognizing high dynamic range metadata formats, and even accepting color formats other than RGB.

Best of all, there continue to be no royalties associated with DP use, unlike HDMI. The specification is available to anyone who’s interested, unlike HDMI. And DP was ready to support deep color and high frame rate 4K video as recently as 2013, unlike HDMI.

However…unlike HDMI, DisplayPort has had limited success penetrating the consumer electronics display interfacing market. While some laptop manufacturers have adopted the interface, along with commercial AV monitors and video cards for high-performance PCs, HDMI is still the undisputed king of the hill when it comes to plugging any sort of media device into a display.

Even long-time supporters of DP have switched allegiances. Apple, known for using Mini DisplayPort on its MacBook laptops, is now adding HDMI connections. Lenovo, another DP stalwart, is doing the same thing on its newer ThinkPad laptops.

One of the many DisplayHDR-certified monitors in VESA’s booth at CES 2018.

But VESA has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Earlier this year at CES, VESA had several stands in their booth demonstrating a new set of standards for high dynamic range and wide color gamuts on computer monitors – specifically, those using LCD technology. DisplayHDR calls out specific numbers that must be achieved to qualify for DisplayHDR 400, DisplayHDR 600, and DisplayHDR 1000 certification.

Those numbers fall into the categories of 10% full white, full screen white “flash,” and full screen white “sustained” operation, minimum black level, minimum color gamut, minimum color bit depth, and black-to-white transition time. With interest in HDR video growing, the DisplayHDR specifications are an attempt to get around vague descriptions of things like color range (“70% of NTSC!”) and contrast ratios that don’t specify how the measurements were taken.

And this is actually a good thing. In the CE world, the UHD Alliance has a vague set of minimum requirements for a TV to qualify as high dynamic range. Compared to the more stringent DisplayHDR requirements, the UHD Alliance specs are equivalent to asking if you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Whereas HDMI version 2.0 (currently the fastest available) can transport an Ultra HD signal with 8-bit RGB color safely at 60 Hz, that’s setting the bar kinda low in our opinion.

In contrast, DisplayPort 1.3 and 1.4 (adds HDR metadata and support for 4:2:0 and 4:2:2 color) aren’t even breathing hard with a 12-bit RGB Ultra HD video stream refreshed at 60 Hz. And that means a computer display certified to meet one of the DisplayHDR standards can actually accept a robust HDR signal. (Note that VESA isn’t choosing sides here – DisplayHDR-certified screens can also use HDMI connections, but signal options are limited by HDMI 2.0’s top speed of 18 Gb/s.) You can learn more about DisplayHDR here.

With HDMI 2.1 looming on the horizon – a new version of the interface that liberally borrows from DisplayPort architecture – VESA will certainly have its work cut out. The accelerated trend to 4K and ultimately 8K imaging will help, as DP can get to the faster data rates more quickly than HDMI. And the DisplayHDR standards aren’t just fluff – they’re also a way to expand awareness of the DisplayPort brand.