4KTV: Are Operators and Their Networks Ready? Not Just Yet

Erik Keith
Erik Keith

Summary Bullets:

  • Despite the hype surrounding 4K/UHD TV/video, the fact is that most broadband networks are not yet capable of supporting broadcast-quality 4K services, according to Akamai and other industry sources.
  • While new access network technologies, and new architectures, will enable the delivery of 4K TV/video, including linear, multichannel services, we are still several years away from 4K becoming a mass-market reality.

Several months ago on Twitter, prompted by a tweet announcing “Panasonic’s Ultra HD Blu-ray player could make discs matter again,” I replied, “#4K #Bluray memory space on current discs can be solved by #Laserdisc/LP-sized format (!), but it will never happen.” For those of us that spent a good portion of our youth enjoying music via vinyl records played on turntables, a return to a 12-inch (30-cm) laserdisc-sized physical format would certainly be a blast from the past. Some of us might even enjoy the novelty of such a now-massive format. Of course, this proved a far-fetched pipedream, as evolving, multi-layer technology will enable the continuing usage of the existing CD/DVD/Blu-ray-sized format.

Going even further back, I recall a columnist in Sound & Vision magazine stating years ago that Blu-ray discs would be the “last physical format.” While he might also be wrong – given that 4K Blu-ray discs and players will in fact come to market – his point was that the future of all video delivery, regardless of resolution, is in streaming. Netflix is already doing this with some of its proprietary content such as the popular House of Cards series. Of course, we are still in the very early days of 4K, and there are still a good number of hurdles to overcome before 4K becomes as easily watched – never mind pervasive – as current HDTV services.

For streaming-based 4K services, the single most important and simplest of these barriers to 4KTV is the access network over which the high-bandwidth 4K services can be delivered. Based on research conducted by Akamai last summer, only 17% of broadband-enabled homes in the U.S. are “4K ready,” while the percentages are slightly higher in Europe (in the 20% to 30% range). Akamai’s fundamental requirement for 4K/UHD service delivery was defined as sustained throughput of 15 Mbps, i.e., not the advertised, “billboard” speeds touted by operators in their triple play marketing schemes.

15 Mbps of sustained Internet/data streaming throughput should not be a problem for most broadband providers, but as many of us know, this assumes that the operator is not rate-limiting over-the-top (OTT) providers such as Netflix, Amazon, Hulu et al. In 2014, Netflix had to negotiate de facto carriage agreements with both Comcast and Verizon in order to ensure acceptable quality of service (and for end users, quality of experience) for their current services (never mind net neutrality implications). Such agreements, in combination with ever-increasing end-user connection speeds, should pave the way for broadcast-quality streaming of 4K content.

For linear broadcast, multichannel 4K services, meaning those delivered by the traditional pay-TV service providers such as cable, telco and satellite operators, the transition to 4K has the potential to be more seamless, depending on their specific network architectures (i.e., cable operators alone are migrating from DOCSIS 3.0 to 3.1 and then CCAP-based networks). For operators leveraging a traditional cable architecture (linear TV services via RF), carving out spectrum for bandwidth-intensive 4K services (including channels) will be required.

To this end, the transition to 4KTV might be the best opportunity for operators to retire/sunset their standard-definition tiers. For example, on the Verizon FiOS TV channel lineup, channels in the 01-499 range are standard definition, and are mostly redundant/duplicated in the HD tier (500 and above). Of course, Verizon could also choose to move to an all-IP video model and abandon its current cable TV-over-FTTH architecture. (Since the inception of FiOS TV, Verizon has leveraged the cable model of RF delivery for linear broadcast TV with a dedicated wavelength, while utilizing the IP/broadband wavelength for its on-demand services).

So, for now, true 4K/UHD service remains a rare bird, despite the increasing hype about 4KTV set sales and projections (never mind the lack of content). There is no doubt that 4K is coming, but it will also take several years before the majority of pay-TV operator networks can support 4K services over both the linear, multichannel broadcast feed and as a broadcast-quality OTT service. With that said, who’s ready for 8K?

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