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Swiss television: The switch to UHD will come in stages – and not before 2024

The future should actually begin in 2021. The Swiss Radio and Television Company (SRG) also wants to broadcast its programs in Ultra HD / 4K (UHD) in the future. The necessary preparations have been going on for a few months. Actually, the broadcast via satellite should be switched to UHD in the next year, it was said last. Actually.

Then the SARS-CoV-2 virus rolled over the world and also disrupted the SRG’s plans. Technical and sales problems hampered the “UHD Ready” strategy. The Swiss electronics retailer reacted skeptically: The dealers signaled “that the market is not yet ready,” says SRG company spokesman Edi Estermann. Not ready for a new codec yet.

At the beginning of the year, SRG announced that it would broadcast its program via satellite with a new video codec from 2021. Above all, it was also about potential savings. With UHD, the new HEVC / H.265 codec will replace the old MPEG4 / H.264 standard. But H.265 can also reduce the amount of data noticeably in Full HD (1080p50 with 1920 × 1080 pixels with 50 full frames) thanks to more effective compression. This is a good idea, because in a few years the SRG not only wants to significantly increase the image quality on the satellite, but also want to save one of two transponders. And for this, the data rate per transmitter must be reduced.

The quasi public-law institution has also recently had a considerably lower budget. On the one hand, advertising revenue fell (currently also significantly because of the Corona crisis), and after the referendum in spring 2017, the SRG promised to spend less money than the “No Billag” initiative wanted to abolish fee-financed radio and TV.

In order to be able to shut down a transponder, the SRG programs on the TR 17 transponder to be switched off will be bundled with the programs of the TR 123 transponder in the 2nd quarter of 2021, reconfigured and played out as a so-called MPTS (Multiple Program Transport Stream). This reduces the data rate per channel “using statistical multiplexing” (SRG) to just under 6 Mbit / s. Internal tests have shown that the image quality is “comparatively good and almost the same” as usual. So far, a program via satellite had a good 10 Mbit / s available. The 25 SRG radio programs and a revised HbbTV offer are also on the newly configured MPTS.

“Further distributors” (WV) of the radio and TV programs – such as the cable network operators or IPTV providers – who previously took over the satellite signal have a new alternative to this. As of this year, SRG has also made its two satellite transport streams available on a wired basis from two data centers, where retransmitters can receive them via fiber optics and, for example, feed them into the head end of the cable networks. The new offer – it is called “Redistributor Playout” (WVPO) – is already being used by major IPTV and cable TV providers.

The new MPTS – still encoded with H.264 and in 720p50 resolution – will also be mirrored “on the line” in spring 2021. For the time being, the WVPO will offer the same line-based service as the satellite: the MPTS plus the two previous transport streams (formerly TR 17 and 123). In this way, SRG can make the change as easy as possible, especially for smaller cable network operators and IPTV providers, explains SRG spokesman Niklaus Kühne. The reorganization of the satellite streams could otherwise cause additional work in the headends of the retransmitters. Instead, distributors could easily switch from the satellite signal (DVB-S2) to the line supply.

This MPTS is not expected to be converted to H.265 and Full HD until 2024, both on the satellite and on the line. Meanwhile, it is also becoming apparent that the satellite platform will ultimately be the last to use the new H.265 codec. And switching satellite distribution to UHD is completely in the stars for the time being. Which is not a major tragedy anyway, because according to the latest figures, only around five percent of the Swiss watch the SRG program via satellite.

But to be absolutely sure about the planned changes, you have to wait and see. Depending on the market development, the conversion to H.265 will be adjusted, says SRG-CTO Damien Corti to heise online. “When planning with a planning horizon of several years, it is in the nature of things that one periodically checks whether the former expectations still apply or whether they need to be revised.”

And in these turbulent times, it might be better that way. Various large events with which the SRG wanted to advertise UHD have been canceled or have been canceled until further notice due to corona. The European football championship and the Olympic Games have been postponed. Nonetheless, in its UHD strategy, SRG plans to broadcast specials on many events as far as possible in its own “UHD event channel” by 2024, with the WV being given the opportunity to take over this content in UHD.

Regardless of this, many viewers of the SRG stations should soon be able to enjoy higher quality picture quality. From the beginning of 2021, Swisscom, UPC & Co. will be able to obtain data streams of different quality and transmission rates directly from the SRG’s WVPO. For the still planned Alpine World Ski Championships in the Dolomites in February 2021, it should start with Full HD. Accordingly, not only changes to the video codec are planned, but also a “significant improvement in image reproduction with almost the same bandwidth required as for HD” (SRG). This means an optimization of the color volume, i.e. the integration of HDR (High Dynamic Range) and BT.2020 (extended color space) as well as an increase in color depth from 8 to 10 bits.

These improved program signals should then be able to be picked up by the distributors as Single Transport Stream (SPTS) encoded in Full HD and H.265. Then each of the seven SRG channels is transmitted as a separate data stream via multicast and individual address as well as using CBR (constant bit rate) to the viewer’s set-top box (STB). “With CBR, a stream of high quality and with a constant bit rate and coding is produced and distributed,” explains Ingmar Schmidt from Swisscom.

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