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Over-the-air 4K broadcast of French Open? You bet

The new HEVC standard can squeeze 3,840x2,160 pixels at 50 frames per second into a radio-frequency broadcast. Not many have the high-end electronics needed to watch, though.

Envivio's software can encode UltraHD video with HEVC compression at 60 frames per second.
Envivio's software can encode UltraHD video with HEVC compression at 60 frames per second. Envivio

A French broadcaster just cut all the cables for 4K TV.

Using new compression technology called HEVC or H.265, TDF is broadcasting the French Open tennis tournament live over the air at the very high resolution of 3,840x2,160 -- four times as many pixels as with ordinary high-definition video -- at 50 frames per second.

Not just anybody will be able to watch it, though. Not only do you need a 4K TV, but it needs to be equipped with DVB-T2 demodulator electronics and an HEVC decoder. Panasonics's Ultra HD TVs fit the bill, said Envivio, a company whose software is being used to encode the 4K video stream.

Although most people won't be able to appreciate the high resolution right now, it does mark a milestone in digital broadcasting. TV stations benefit from having a large swath of wireless spectrum to send their radio signals, but nowadays aren't getting any new spectrum to accommodate higher resolutions.

Supporting higher resolution is one of the reasons that video experts from a host of companies and organizations collectively created the HEVC standard. It's a sequel to the AVC/H.264 technology that's very widely used today for HD video.

"The sharpness and rich quality of the video is absolutely stunning, and we are excited to present this emerging technology for the first time in France," gushed Alain Komly, deputy director at TDF, in a statement Tuesday.

Much of the developed world has moved away from over-the-air broadcast to TV delivered over a cable that can offer high bit rates for high-resolution TV. Those cables increasingly send video over the Internet with sites like Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube. Even there, new compression technology is important, though: Internet service providers are struggling with the new data-transfer demands, too.