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Special Report: Why telcos need to keep an eye on 4K TV

TV isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the days that the whole family would sit around the TV set of an evening, watching whatever the sole broadcaster decided to air. As well as much more internal competition from a myriad of digital channels, TV has to compete with other entertainment sources, mostly delivered via the internet.

But broadcasters and vendors are not prepared to cede the market to the new upstarts; they are fighting back. It started with 3D, which proved to be a false start and a very expensive mistake, but it looks like the winning formula will revolve around so-called 4K TV.

So what is 4K TV? The term is a short-hand description for content produced at a resolution of around 4,000 pixels; to be precise, 3,840 by 2,160 pixels. Remember that HD TV has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels and so can be regarded as 2K. It’s also known as ‘Ultra high definition television’ (UHDTV) and has been standardised by the ITU. Note though, although there is an agreed technical standard, there is no universally agreed broadcast standard, and broadcasters in Europe are still waiting for the EBU to set one. Just to confuse matters even more, there’s an 8K version of UHDTV but that is a long, long way from commercial adoption.

Although at first glance it appears that 4K is twice as detailed as today’s HD format, it’s actually four times bigger – there are four times as many pixels in the signal (a total of 8.3 megapixels. That means four times the bandwidth that broadcasters and ISPs need to contend with, assuming current compression techniques.

There is a 4K standard for digital cinema, developed by the Digital Cinema Initiatives consortium, although it’s not an exact match (4,096 by 2,160 for a slightly wider picture). Plus there are various post-production and storage formats being developed and used.

“Content creators are pushing 4K as a differentiating element, to compete with consumer content,” said Marco Vernocchi, global head of media and entertainment at Accenture, speaking at the IBC broadcast industry event this year. “They need to create something of higher and higher quality. The manufacturers, the TV sets, are getting ready for that.”

4K Roll-Out

The problem with 4K at the moment is lack of commercial content. Content is being produced in 4K by some forward-thinking production companies, but they are in the minority so far.

In the UK, the Digital TV Group (a huge collection of broadcasters and anyone else who is even remotely concerned with TV) has formed the UHD-Forum to help ease the way for the technology’s launch. The BBC tested 4K live production at the Wimbledon tennis tournament this year. Sky has also conducted a trial broadcast of a Premiership football game. NNT in Japan has conducted streaming trials, and rumour is that they may broadcast the 2014 World Cup to Japanese consumers via 4K.

“The BBC is taking 4K very seriously – although my expert colleagues prefer to call it Ultra HD (or UHD), which is less specific to ’4K’ and expresses the trend towards very high resolutions in general,” said Mark Harrison, Controller of Production for BBC, speaking ahead of his presentation at the forthcoming Digital TV World Summit in London on 3 December.

“If your programme looks like a Hollywood movie you need everything about it to feel of a similar standard,” he added. “UHD is not just about more pixels, it also has the potential for better pixels. The new standard can deliver much more colour than HD and can run at more than twice the frame rate. That makes genres like sport look great on big screens; but also makes everything look better on small screens too. Stunning pictures invite everything else to be stunning – script writing, presenting, special effects. So my prediction is that as picture quality goes on increasing, so will the overall quality of TV.”

But for a broadcaster to make the leap to 4K would require a serious investment, and after the disaster of 3D TV (despite all rational people screaming out loud that it will never take off) there is little incentive for further investment. At least the move would be an evolution, rather than a revolution, and existing production processes just need to be upgraded (rather than completely replaced, as is the case for 3D).

Many effects and post-production companies are using 4K to shoot footage, especially background plates for compositing work. It’s already part of the job, so it will be easier to extend its use throughout the programme-making process.

It would also require the availability of more 4K TV sets. Some sets are available now, for a staggering £4,000 or thereabouts for decent brands, but more are needed and at a lower price point.

Interestingly, TV set manufacturers are not selling their 4K screens on the back of TV content (which doesn’t really exist, apart from up-scaling HD), rather, they are focusing on movies, gaming and home viewing of photographs. It’s the convergence of TV and computer that the industry has been predicting for decades.

4K Transmission

And then the next question is how do consumers receive and view 4K content? There are no over-the-air 4K channels, and Blu-Ray players are no good (although 100GB discs are in development). The only way to view 4K at the moment is to download or stream the content (such as via the new Sony FMP-X1 media player). And that’s going to be a problem for telcos.

Broadcasters, especially the Free-to-air ones, have limited spectrum. This is getting even smaller as the mobile players grab ever-increasing amounts to support their drive to 4G and beyond. They might not have the ability to launch 4K channels, even if they wanted to.

Not a problem for internet-based providers though. They can up their resolutions as much as they like – but are obviously reliant upon the ISPs to deliver the content. And that famous unanswered question has to be asked again: “who pays?”

When HD TV emerged, broadband networks were not up to the job of distributing this content; their capabilities lagged way behind. It was left to the cable and satellite companies to lead the way. But today, broadband is more than capable of delivering 4K content, and so it will be broadband that leads the way.

Today’s HD broadcasts use the ITU approved H.264 codec, but this will be inadequate for 4K. Hence the ITU’s adoption of the new H.265 standard, which doubles the compression capabilities of its predecessor. It also has the benefit of being future proof, as it can also support 8K.

For content producers who need to know this stuff, the H.265 codec (also known as ‘high efficiency video coding, HEVC) supports 8-bit and 10-bit video in 4:2:0 format, but work is already underway to improve this to offer 12-bit video and both 4:2:2 and 4:4:4 formats. In other words, it’s not just resolution, it’s also designed to ensure the absolutely best picture quality. 4:4:4 is full uncompressed quality, 4:2:2 reduces bandwidth requirements by a third, whereas 4:2:0 knocks it down by a half. It’s a trade off between compression for reduced data needs and the desire to keep the picture looking as close to the original as possible.

Netflix is already testing 4K delivery. Last month it sneaked a couple of 4K videos into its catalogue as it builds on its internal testing processes. The titles are apparently encoded at 24 frames per second. Word is that Netflix wants to launch 4K commercially next year, possibly starting with season two of its exclusive ‘House of Cards’ series. During its last earning call, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said he wants the company to be “one of the big suppliers of 4K next year.”

“We think streaming of 4K TV services will require minimum broadband speeds of about 100Mbit/s to work properly, but only businesses and production houses currently have that kind of speed,” Craig Nelson, of the Internet Service Providers Association, told the BBC. “A lot will depend on the compression technologies, or codecs, service providers use.”

That 100Mbit/s is a bit of a scare number though, rather than a real-life expectation, as you might expect from the ISP Association. Netflix recently experimented with 1080p HD streaming (unlike the interlaced version that broadcasters offer) and stated that a connection of 6-12Mbit/s was required. Times that by four and you have a requirement of up to 50Mbit/s for 4K streaming.

Downloading 4K is just as frightening, with Sony saying that an average movie would take up about 40-60GB. Whilst you don’t need superfast networks to download (although they obviously make the experience quicker), anyone on a capped data contract would soon face penalties.

The good news is that ISPs and mobile operators have time to get their networks ready, as any switch to 4K won’t happen overnight. But 50Mbit/s networks are currently very few and far between, and even then headline speeds never match reality (even my 69Mbit/s service only ever makes it up to about 40Mbit/s on a good day – thank you PlusNet and BT… I don’t suppose I’ll be getting a refund on bandwidth you consistently fail to deliver?)

And that question again, “who pays?” Maybe the advent of 4K will finally get some sensible agreement between content providers, distributors, network operators, service providers and users. 4K won’t “break the internet”, but it will likely be the single largest application use, and as such the industry can’t dodge the payment question.

4K Market

According to ABI Research, Asia-Pacific, notably, China, is expected to lead 4K in terms of TV unit shipments. However, the North American market is anticipated to be the first region to eclipse 5 per cent (in 2017) and 10 per cent (by end of 2018) of TV households.

“Unlike 3D, which required awkward glasses, 4K has the legs to become an industry norm,” said Practice Director Sam Rosen. “This isn’t a sprint, however, and it will take time for the necessary infrastructure, installed base of devices, and content to come together before 4K becomes an integral part of how the typical TV household consumes video content.”

ABI forecasts early 2018 for widespread adoption in some regions. The firm adds that consumers are conditioned from the mobile market to perceive value in higher resolution screens, with marketing such as Apple’s Retina Display branding the experience. This halo should carry over to 4K TVs. In addition, as new products that support 4K hit the market, like the upcoming next generation consoles from Microsoft and Sony or select Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 based mobile devices, consumer awareness will continue to expand.

According to Cisco, video traffic will account for 69 per cent of all consumer internet traffic by 2017. Add VOD and P2P to the mix and this percentage increases to 90 per cent. The vendor also estimates that two-thirds of all mobile data traffic will be video by 2017.

Owners of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 might already by experimenting with the devices camera, which is one of the first to support 4K video recording – although they would need very high resolution screens to view the content. Even Apple’s latest retina screens fall short at ‘just’ 2,880 by 1,800 pixels on its 15-inch MacBook. There are some 4K displays available though (Asus appear to be leaders here), although it requires a lot of tinkering if you want to achieve the proper 60Hz refresh rate. You can even upload your 4K videos to YouTube and Vimeo right now

It might also be online gaming that pulls 4K into our homes, rather than home-made content or even broadcast TV content. But 4K is looking inevitable and it’s going to become widespread before the end of the decade. Telcos, prepare for a serious uptake in broadband usage.

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