Thursday, January 02, 2014

New vistas in television technology

Even as many countries around the world have switched their radio and TV broadcasts to digital, Sri Lanka seems to be lagging behind. There is very little awareness among the public that around eight channels are currently being broadcast in Sri Lanka in the higher-resolution digital format.

The catch is that your TV set should have a DVB-T (Digital Video Broadcast-Terrestrial) tuner.

Unfortunately, most people do not even know whether their TV set has a built-in DVB tuner. Most people have already replaced their ageing CRT TVs with the latest LCD versions and within the next three-four years, the entire television population of the country would be LCD (contrary to popular belief and sales talk, there are no LED TVs - the LED just refers to the back-light of the LCD panel).

However, this expansion would not mean anything if they do not have built-in DVB-T tuners and a vast majority of them still do not.

There is still no word on a cut-off date for the digital transition, which other countries have already achieved. That should be publicised and all TV importers and local assemblers/manufacturers must be told to sell only those sets which have digital tuners built-in. Set Top Boxes (STBs) can be made available later for those whose sets do not have DVB-T tuners.

Some TV stations already work in High Definition (or even higher resolutions) internally, so the transition will be smooth for them. This is why you see black bars at the top and bottom of your normal 4:3 (CRT TV) screen, because they already work in a wide-screen format. This is most apparent in the digital broadcasts, where you can see the ‘native’ wide-screen aspect ratio on a wide-screen LCD set.

There are many benefits of going digital: The pictures will have a higher resolution and more clarity, viewers can keep their existing antenna, surround sound options will be available (most TV stations broadcast sound digitally even now on the NICAM system), interactive features can be included, programs can be indexed and recorded and most importantly, the analogue spectrum presently used for analogue TV broadcasts can be given over to other users through a bidding process.

However, there is another option in the wings that can be considered if there is no immediate sign of converting to high definition digital broadcasts. It is called 4K or Ultra High Definition (UHD).

Broadcasters worldwide, including streaming operators such as Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, will be trialling 4K Ultra HD broadcasts from next year, which have four times the resolution of 1080-line high definition broadcasts at close to 4,000 lines. These 4K broadcasts will also be made from the 2014 Soccer World Cup in Brazil and the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Granted, it will take a few more years for the format to go mainstream, as TV networks which had barely made the transition to 1080-line HD have to upgrade their equipment once again to 4K. Broadcast regulators and manufacturers are also finalising 4K broadcast standards.

On the other hand, Sri Lankan networks have the ability to leapfrog straight to 4K once these standards are defined because some of them had done little or no investments in digital or HD so far.

Right now, everything points to a 4K future. TV sets capable of displaying 4K resolution can already be purchased in Sri Lanka.

They are a bit expensive compared to even the priciest normal HD sets, but within the next 4-5 years prices will fall dramatically and you will only be able to buy 4K sets anyway (Try your luck finding anything less than 1080p on a 40” or above set now – the same thing will happen with 4K).

With economies of scale kicking in, there will be very little difference in panel prices and manufacturers will incur no additional costs in selling 4K LED-LCD panels.

Besides, the newer OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) TV sets which require no back-lighting and consume much less power will also become cheaper and more widely available (they are not yet available in Sri Lanka).

Professional 4K broadcast equipment are also falling in price rapidly so that TV stations will be able to afford the equipment on more or less the same budget allocated to a normal HD broadcast suite.

Even ordinary consumers can buy 4K video cameras and editing equipment off the shelf now.

Moreover, in a few years’ time, it will no longer be necessary to watch TV on a conventional set.

Both terrestrial and satellite TV channels will easily be accessible through your laptop, tablet, phablet or smartphone all of which will also support 4K resolution.

Such services are already available in many countries and even here in Sri Lanka, some mobile companies offer a limited number of terrestrial and satellite channels ‘on the go’.

But users will be able to enjoy a far superior service through a combination of digital TV and perhaps 5G cellular service (an evolution of 4G), due to come on stream around 2018-2019. Internet technology too will have advanced by that time and streaming 4K content to end user devices (TVs, smartphones etc) will be much easier and faster.

New technology will also make it much more feasible to beam live TV to vehicles on the move.

There are endless possibilities with 4K some of which we cannot even predict now. In the early days of TV, there were many who predicted the death of radio. They were proved spectacularly wrong as radio has thrived around the world. We are still stuck in the FM (Frequency Modulation) age in radio whereas many other countries have moved over to the Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) technology, which gives crystal clear reception and high fidelity sound. It is also possible to transmit station and song information via DAB to users’ radios.

DAB can also be paired with the Radio Data System (RDS) which can relay traffic and weather information, which is especially useful to those travelling by vehicle. DAB radios are already affordable and come in a variety of sizes. In a couple of years, in-vehicle Internet will be sufficiently advanced to provide access to Internet radio stations as well, so that someone driving in Colombo will be able to listen to a local station in Sydney, Australia without any interruption.

Satellite radio services aimed at vehicles, now available only in a few countries, will also be more widespread.

Our authorities must take preliminary steps to move to DVB/4K and DAB without delay so that we would be able to reap the dividends of this technological revolution in TV and radio broadcasting.

By Pramod De Silva -Sunday Observer