The 4K set-top-box segment is finally starting to see some action — and that could be good news for the flagging pay-TV sector.
US satellite leader DIRECTV this week announced the 4K Genie Mini, which, true to its name, is small in size (about the size of a paperback book). But it packs big resolution: it’s compatible with most 4KTVs, and can support the variety of DIRECTV 4K UHD titles, including new releases, popular films and nature documentaries like The Godfather, Transformers, Braveheart, Star Trek and more.
DIRECTV launched 4K Ultra HD programming in November 2014 through its Genie HD DVR, which is currently in millions of DIRECTV customer homes.
“Customers who want the best picture quality are creating more demand for 4K,” said Henry Derovanessian, senior vice president Consumer Premise Engineering, DIRECTV, part of the AT&T family. “The new 4K Genie Mini allows us to meet that demand by expanding 4K access to more of our customers nationwide.”
The rollout of STBs is an important piece of the 4KTV puzzle. In addition to compatible TVs themselves and content, there has to be a STB that can encode, compress and translate the signals from the pay-TV network. This is a segment of the ecosystem that’s been lagging because it’s technically complex to do. With the advent of better compression technologies, that’s starting to change.
DIRECTV isn’t alone in rolling out 4K boxes, though. Comcast is prepping an Xfinity X1 set top box later this year that will support 4K programming. Comcast is calling its new set-top box the Xi4, and in 2016, Comcast also plans to launch another version of the box that supports high dynamic range video, which should deliver some much-needed contrast and colour improvements.
Meanwhile, Comcast said that it was rolling out "hundreds" of 4K titles on Comcast's Ultra HD service later this year, including nature programming like Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia, as well as full seasons of shows from SyFy, USA and Starz like Defiance and Outlander.
Across the Atlantic, French broadband and IPTV service provider Free has turned to Broadcom to deploy a 4K/Ultra HD Android TV STB. The new device is powered by Broadcom's BCM7252 STB system-on-chip (SoC). Dubbed the Freebox STB, it delivers a comprehensive suite of streaming, terrestrial, on-demand and recorded content at up to four times the resolution of current HD television.
"As an early innovator with our triple-play service for subscribers in France, Freebox has demonstrated its commitment to affordably deliver the latest in entertainment to our subscribers," said Sebastien Boutruche, Free GM. "With our new Ultra HD Android TV set-top box, our customers will enjoy the stunning clarity of Ultra HD 4K content right in their homes."
Free's Android TV set-top box is also using Broadcom's BCM43570 for Bluetooth remote control and 802.11ac Wi-Fi streaming and connectivity to create a viewing experience based on Android apps and games from Google Play, alongside features such as voice search and Google Cast.
"We are very excited to be working with Freebox on this ground-breaking new platform," said Rich Nelson, Broadcom senior vice president of marketing for the broadband and connectivity group. "Supporting Android TV, Broadcom's set-top box and connectivity devices enable Freebox to bring exciting 4K content to their subscribers in addition to all the benefits of the Android TV ecosystem."
More offerings are sure to follow these first movers, and in all, will help the worldwide pay-TV market surpass a billion subscribers by 2020, according to ABI Research. That’s up from 923.5 million subscribers at the end of last year.
"As competition in the pay-TV market increases, quality of content, innovations and service pricing are among the important factors for pay-TV operators to maintain customer base," commented industry analyst Khin Sandi Lynn, citing 4K as a critical pillar of the ecosystem. "ABI Research forecasts that the global pay-TV market will generate $313 billion service revenues by 2020."