The company has introduced two HEVC — short for high-efficiency video codec — channels on its GSAT-15 beams.
HEVC, also known as H.265, requires only 55%-60% of the bandwidth compared to the MPEG-4 compression technology currently being used by all players in India for HD transmission.
This allows a higher number of channels to be broadcast by the provider on the same satellite capacity.
In other words, a single satellite transponder (36 MHz) will be able to carry about 24 HD channels instead of the 14 channels using the new technology.
This means that the 4 transponders that Sun Direct uses for HD transmission will be able to carry 96 HD channels instead of 56 HD channels at present.
This will potentially make the Chennai-based player a contender for the No.1 HD service provider in India by the number of channels. It currently charges around Rs 220 per month for 56 HD channels, including 11 Hollywood movie channels.
The No.1 position currently belongs to Tata Sky, which offers 80-90 HD channels and services at present. HEVC will also help Sun Direct overtake Airtel Digital, which is currently at No.2 position with 70 HD channels.
Currently, there are three video compression algorithms being used by cable and satellite TV providers in India – MPEG 2, MPEG 4 (h.264) and now, HEVC (H.265).
Most of the cable operators, as well as Dish TV and ABS Free Dish, use the MPEG 2 standard, which is the oldest and the least efficient encoding and compression mechanism.
However, Dish TV and ABS use MPEG-2 only for their regular channels, and use MPEG-4 (H.264) for their HD channels.
The key reason why no one has moved to the HEVC technology, despite it being considered a mature and affordable platform, has to do with box support.
HEVC boxes started becoming affordable only in the last two years, but since most of the DTH boxes in use in India were sold well before that, they do not carry support for the standard.
As a result, if Tata Sky or Airtel Digital switches to the new codec, their consumers simply won’t be able to watch the channels.
To enable them would require these companies to replace the existing boxes with new ones, which wouldn’t make financial sense given the high number of boxes compared to satellite spectrum.
Satellite spectrum costs about Rs 25 cr per year per 100 MHz, or about Rs 100-125 cr per operator per year.
At Rs 1,200 each, the cost of replacing a 8 million boxes would be close to Rs 1,000 cr for a single operator. As a result, operators prefer to spend an extra Rs 50 cr per year to buy more spectrum instead of replacing the boxes.
Sun Direct has an advantage in this matter as it had negligible HD subscribers till last year because a fire knocked out most of its satellite capacity in 2010, delaying its HD roll-out to 2017.
As it started seeding HD boxes so late, it was able to include H.265 technology in them, allowing it to now adopt the cost-saving strategy.
Other operators are expected to introduce HEVC in their 4K boxes as 4K will be practically impossible to deliver on MPEG-4 platform.