View of the future 

As part of our future technology special issue, ERT visited the HQ of leading satellite operator SES in Betzdorf, Luxembourg, for an exclusive interview with Thomas Wrede, vice-president, new technology and standards, SES Video. He gave Sean Hannam a glimpse into what’s next in satellite broadcasting, and UHD, and shared his views on the smart home and the future of TV viewing

Q: What are the latest trends that you’re seeing in the satellite broadcast industry?
Thomas Wrede:
There are some big trends in our industry – a lot of content and material is moving into the cloud. As consumers, we rely tremendously on cloud technology – in many countries, big data centres with enormous connectivity are being built. Cloud technology is a big change in the industry.

What’s interesting for our customers is that there are quite a number of business opportunities related to the cloud, such as video encoding. In my view, this is just the beginning – cloud computing and using the cloud in the context of media delivery. It will have a big influence on our industry and the creation of satellites with very high throughput ability for data.

The other important trend is that the quality of how media and content is presented to the end consumer is always being enhanced. High Definition is a very established technology, although, if we look at our satellite system, depending on the market, HD is barely 30 per cent.

For satellite operators, this represents quite a growth potential. In the North American market, HD is closer to 50 per cent. In Europe, depending on countries, it’s in the 28 to 30 per cent ballpark. If we are able to move that 30 per cent to 50 per cent and above, it will be a huge opportunity. The ‘bread and butter’ for the media part of SES is the transition from SD to HD – there’s a lot to gain.

If you look at emerging markets, like Africa, 95 per cent of all services are SD. Moving that to HD, offering satellite platforms and promoting the advantages of satellite delivery is a big thing.

Equipment and monitors in the Digital Network Operations (DINO) Room at SES HQ
Equipment and monitors in the Digital Network Operations (DINO) Room at SES HQ

Q: What role will SES and satellite play in the smart home?
At this point in time, SES and other satellite operators are finding out what services they can offer in the IoT space and 5G communications. We are preparing for that. We have already procured a number of high-throughput satellites with frequency reuse and spot beams – we can vastly increase the throughput of the satellite.

In a few years, we’ll be able to make satellites more flexible. Imagine a future where satellites will be much more agile and have fully steerable, phased array-type antenna technology and a fully digital payload. Satellites will hopefully become cheaper. Our engineering team is also having discussions with industry players on refuelling satellites – that will take satellite communications to another dimension.

We’re also investing in satellites at a different orbit – SES is traditionally a geostationary satellite company, but we now operate 12 satellites in the medium earth orbit at a distance of 8,000 kilometres from the Earth’s surface, versus 36,000 [geostationary orbit]. This reduces latency [time delay] – it means we can deliver more latency-critical applications.

Q: What new technology is exciting you?
I like voice control for home automation.

Q: What’s your personal take on the smart home? Do you think voice control will help to overcome some of the issues, such as conflicting technologies from different brands, who all have their own proprietary solutions?
I think we will have to hang in there and wait and see – there is competition. In the past 10 to 15 years, there have been different bus standards in home automation – industry players pursue different protocols, partly to protect the initial markets they’ve created.

Personally, I think it’s wrong – it should all be standardised. I should be able to buy a Miele washing machine, a Siemens dishwasher and a Philips product, and they should all work together in the automated home, over the same network. Today, that is not the case. On one hand, you might say that’s fine, because it creates competition, but on the other hand, I’m absolutely convinced that it just delays the rollout of home automation. Prices are staying too high and consumers are confused about which technology to use.

Q: You mentioned ‘confusion’. What’s the latest on UHD? Are consumers still confused by it?
TW: I think the consumer will always adopt new technology when it has some significant advantages over old technology. The classic example is black and white to colour and then SD to HD, which also came with the possibility of getting rid of a CRT screen and getting a flat screen TV – it was an easy sell. Now we move from HD to UHD, but we already have flat screens.

Initially with UHD, the only differentiator is higher resolution, but that comes with a caveat – our human viewing apparatus. The quality perception is dependent on the distance from the screen and the size of it. With UHD Phase 1, for a consumer to benefit and to fully enjoy the better pixel resolution, they need to purchase a larger set or get closer to the screen. This means that selling and promoting UHD for our customers – the operators – and monetising it – is a bit of a challenge.

Thomas WredeThe fortunate thing for the whole industry is the fierce competition of the flat-screen panel manufacturers – it means that virtually every set larger than 49in is UHD. These manufacturers are pushing UHD into homes.

As of October 2018, there will be more UHD TVs sold worldwide than SD and HD together – for me that is remarkable.

It’s good news for satellite operators, because we can deliver the quality and it will help our business – the phase-out of SD in some European, North American and Asian markets will help to establish UHD as a premium delivery of broadcast and OTT (over-the-top) content.

Q: Will we see an increase in UHD content?
That will take a few years, due to the investment cycles of broadcasters and production companies. They will produce more UHD – it’s a natural development and it’s going to happen. Our customers are learning about it.

We did early trials with Sky Deutschland in Germany – it takes a while to learn how to handle the larger data rates and which camera positions are optimal in a football stadium.

Sky have mastered it – they’ve invested in UHD trucks for sports production – and other companies have invested, so it’s evolving. If you want to sell content to Amazon and Netflix, you’d better have UHD.

We are supporting our customers with the rollout of UHD – we’re engaging in trials and helping them to start with it.

As an operator, we’re also starting to market UHD ourselves in some markets – in Germany, we run our own platform and we’ve introduced a UHD set-top box. We also run demo channels to promote UHD.

At the moment, we run 34 UHD channels worldwide – most of them are in the European markets. If you look at that number, you can see it as a glass half empty or a glass half full. After five years of talking about UHD, is that impressive or is it not? When I look back at the take-up of HD from 2003/4 to 2008/9, it’s not that bad.

There are three factors that will make UHD more attractive. The first one is to increase the colour spectrum – to bring in a technology that allows for more colour nuances, so images, such as nature, look more real. On an HD screen, with the ITU BT.709 standard that the industry has been using for 20 to 30 years, it looks artificial. ITU has created BT.2020 – it’s a new standard that vastly increases the colour spectrum and it will come in over time. It will take a few years.

The second factor is HDR (High Dynamic Range) – it will enhance a picture independent of screen size and viewing distance. It’s a great feature – I like it a lot. There’s another factor that’s coming more slowly – shooting content at higher frame rates to avoid judder in certain scenes. As consumers, I think we will have to wait five years to benefit from it.

Those are the three technologies to enhance UHD – the most promising is HDR. I think it’s very important – that’s why there’s fierce competition over it.

The industry currently has five different HDR technologies to choose from and there’s a sixth one from China on the horizon.

There’s confusion – if you’re a consumer and you’re buying a flat screen, the technology changes every two to three months. If you buy a 2016 TV, it’s not up to speed with some of the new technologies. It’s a dilemma for the consumer – if you bought a UHD screen last weekend, do you know what HDR technology it is? It’s a nightmare.

My view is when you buy an HDR- compatible UHD screen, make sure that it supports at least HDR10 and Hybrid Log Gamma. We’ll have to see how HDR10+ develops – it’s pretty early, but it’s very promising. I’m quite excited about it.

Q: Are retailers getting it right when it comes to selling UHD on the shopfloor?
I’m quite impressed by how retailers are promoting new technologies and new screens, but I don’t think it’s coming from the retailers themselves – it’s coming from the big manufacturers. I think it’s being done in a most effective way in markets like the US, Japan and western Europe – it’s less effective in emerging markets.

Thomas WredeWhere retail struggles is that the people employed in retail aren’t highly-paid engineers – they are TV technicians at best and I think they fail in understanding the developments in HDR, but, on the other hand, their target is to sell products and create revenue. They use what they are being told by manufacturers.

Q: How do you see the long-term future of TV viewing and broadcasting?
I wouldn’t be surprised if over the next 10 to 20 years, the viewing model shifted from linear broadcasting to OTT – more of an individualised offering to consumers. I think in the future you will have some linear channels – like live events and news streams – and the rest will be a mix of Netflix, Amazon Prime and YouTube, where people fetch content and have catch-up content.

As an industry, we have to learn what will be the consumer’s main content watching device. Will it be the flat screen, the notebook, the tablet, the mobile phone, or a combination of all of them? Then we will need user interfaces that are similar on all of those devices.

My personal view is that that role will be awarded to the mobile phone – it’s probably not what people want to hear, but I think it will happen. Wouldn’t you love having all the offerings on your smartphone, so that when you come home, you choose a programme [on the phone] and then you [he swipes with his finger] watch it on the big screen?

Then when you need to go on a business trip, you take the phone and carry on watching the rest of the programme on your phone on the plane. Different technologies, like the cloud, will enable that.

Q: You’ve worked at SES for over 25 years. What’s the biggest technology change you’ve seen in that time?
The move to digital – when I came here, everything was analogue. In 1991/92, we started to prepare for digital – SES was a founding member of the Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) Project, the group that did all the broadcast standards. They were exciting times.