As 4K channel launches in Korea, ATEME's Fouchard says STB makers 'ought to be worried'

LAS VEGAS--Set-top box manufacturers have the ability to make multiple services available through a single consumer premises unit, but when it comes to the approaching 4K storm, they "ought to be worried," according to Benoit Fouchard, ATEME's chief strategy officer. Alternatives to STBs are being developed to meet the 4K demand, particularly by smart TV manufacturers, and a new 4K cable channel launching in Korea on Thursday bypasses the set-top box for a 4K-ready TV.

Fouchard told FierceOnlineVideo here at the NAB Show that the growth of 4K is being driven by television manufacturers more than any other segment of the industry. The global market for TV sets is down, he said, and so manufacturers like Samsung are pinning their hopes on 4K to kick sales back into gear.

To do that, Samsung and LG Electronics, working with ATEME--which provides encoding and decoding services for a number of compression protocols including HEVC and MPEG-DASH--collaborated with Korea's cable operators--including TBroad, C&M, CMB, CJ Hellovision, and Hyundai HCN--to help them launch a 4K cable channel serving much of the Seoul metro area. UMAX will go live on Thursday, Fouchard said in the interview, and is available to cable subscribers in the area at no additional cost.

(Korea's terrestrial broadcasters, KBS, MBC, and SBS, are participating in a plan announced in 2012 to bring a free over-the-air 4K channel to the area. Licenses for the channel will be issued from May 2014.)

The 4K, 60 frames-per-second HEVC channel will have another striking feature: It will have "no set-top dependency," Fouchard said. Instead, viewers will access the channel using a USB stick inserted in a Samsung or LG 4K-ready television set. The channel will have 40 programs initially, expanding to 100-plus programs. Sports programming is planned for September, he said, with broadcast of the Asian Games a possibility.

ATEME was selected by the cable operators because of the picture quality its TITAN encoding solution brings, and because its decoder is "bolted" to Samsung and LG televisions, Fouchard added.

Past 4K tests have been done primarily for broadcasting professionals, making UMAX the first channel specifically developed for consumers.

Beyond the UMAX test, LG and Samsung are also looking at decoding 4K signals directly through a 4K-ready television, without a USB dongle. In fact, LG demonstrated a television at CES that had embedded HEVC decoding capabilities. That's "the way to go in the short term for 4K television," Fouchard said.

Meantime, a set-top box that can specifically decode 4K protocols has yet to hit the U.S. market, although ST Microelectronics is showcasing an STB that uses the HEVC protocol. Additionally, Broadcom's BCM7445 video decoder is the first system-on-chip product that can be installed in set-top boxes. ATEME is working with both manufacturers to make sure its TITAN encoder is compatible with their hardware.

ATEME has also announced a new partnership with Deluxe Media "to fulfill multiple major commercial contracts for Ultra High Definition video for distribution in both Video-on-Demand and physical formats," according to a company release.

Deluxe is putting together a catalog of 4K content from several unnamed major Hollywood studios and will work with ATEME to create compression masters for UHD distribution. The content will rely on HEVC decoding capabilities built into 4K-ready TV sets, making an HEVC-capable set-top box unnecessary.

For more:
- see this ATEME release
- and this January release

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Corrected April 8 to clarify UMAX cable channel versus a planned over-the-air channel in Korea.