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Is 4K Ultra HD in Cable's Future?

Craig Leddy
Heavy Lifting Analyst Notes
Craig Leddy
3/7/2014
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During the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), exhibitors displayed new television models with much clearer pictures. The sets created a buzz despite questions about consumer demand, high prices, transmission capabilities and a lack of content for them.

But this wasn't 2014. The year was 1998, and the new marvel was high-definition TV. The first HDTV sets hit the market that year, bearing a hefty retail price of about $8,000, according to The New York Times.

At that time, New York Times writer Joel Brinkley, who later wrote a revealing book about HDTV (Defining Vision: How Broadcasters Lured the Government into Inciting a Revolution in Television), said, "Properly displayed, these images are so sharp, so clear, that for many people the improvement changes the way they relate to television. Often, first-time viewers say they have the impression they are gazing through a window rather than looking at a picture."

History appears to be repeating itself. 4K Ultra High Definition TV has arrived and is producing similar buzz, questions, and pronouncements. And once again, the US cable industry is being asked to support a technology that barely exists yet. Is Ultra HD as inevitable as HDTV, or just a flash in the pan like 3DTV?

While the marketplace sorts out that question, the technological pieces are coming together to enable service providers to deliver 4K Ultra HD, according to a new Heavy Reading Cable Industry Insider, "4K Ultra HD: Big Opportunities, Big Challenges for Cable". The new report explores the key technologies, requirements and prospects throughout the distribution chain for cable to deliver 4K Ultra HD (also known as UHD).

For cable operators to distribute UHD, they must make changes throughout the video distribution chain, including UHD bandwidth capacity, higher video compression, and UHD-capable devices in the home, Heavy Reading says. But by meeting these requirements, cable will be poised to not only offer UHD content, but also revitalize HDTV, premium services, and video-on-demand (VoD).

Comcast is taking the lead with an Xfinity 4K app for Samsung UHD TVs and 4K-capable X1 set-top boxes later this year. Comcast sees UHD as part of an effort to implement high-efficiency video coding (HEVC) -- a next-generation video compression technology that is critical for delivering 4K UHD -- and expand IP bandwidth capacity. Comcast's interest is not only to add UHD to its service mix but also to push the boundaries of HDTV itself.

"We wanted to get an early start on this. It's going to make HD look better. All boats rise on this tide. We're not going to sit back on this one," said Mark Francisco, a fellow in the office of the CTO for Comcast, during an interview with Heavy Reading.

While cable operators could face competition similar to the satellite competition for HDTV, multiple system operators (MSOs) face a new competitive threat from over-the-top (OTT) providers, the report says. Netflix, Amazon and YouTube are among those planning to stream UHD content starting this year.

Despite the competitive threats and technical challenges, UHD will enter the market gradually enough to enable cable operators to prepare to meet the level of consumer demand, Heavy Reading says. UHD provides another motivation for cable to embrace HEVC and IP infrastructure upgrades. The report includes profiles of seven cable suppliers that have announced UHD technology products.

— Craig Leddy, Contributing Analyst, Heavy Reading Insider


4K Ultra HD: Big Opportunities, Big Challenges for Cable, a 16-page report, is available as part of an annual single-user subscription (six issues) to Heavy Reading Cable Industry Insider, priced at $1,595. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.heavyreading.com/cable.

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4k Fanatic
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4k Fanatic,
User Rank: Light Beer
1/8/2015 | 10:12:28 AM
4k will be an app on your TV
I think the intital thrust to 4K will focus on an app on your Smart TV, just like Comcast is doing now on Samsung TV's. This allows the cable providers to leverage customers existing equipement and avoiding the cost of upgrading their cable box.

Perhaps we will finally see the end of cable boxes as we know it.

 
gconnery
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gconnery,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/11/2014 | 2:51:47 AM
Let's not go crazy here
My Comcast channel lineup has 25 pages of channels (about 18 or so channels per page).  Of these, 7 pages are for HD channels.  So about 18 pages of SD channels, or about two and a half times as many channels in SD as are in HD.  Now certainly some of these we don't care about, but there are lots we do.  I only have a couple of HBO channels in HD, while in SD there are eight.  And this is on a system where Comcast has completely reclaimed the analog channels.  If Comcast does deploy 4K anytime soon, it *will* be like the initial 3D deployments, which only worked on a limited number of STBs, and only supported a few channels.  Doesn't mean its going to stay that way, but there won't be a lot of 4K on TV anytime soon.  None of the existing boxes can handle it--most of them can't even handle h.264 video let alone the h.265 video required to allow 4K in reasonable bandwidth.  Add that to the fact that encoders are in the early days of their development and Comcast would have to devote a LOT of bandwidth to a 4K channel that very few people would ever watch.  Certainly its worth doing for the experience for a limited number of channels, but we won't be seeing a lot of this for several years at least.
jasleinstein
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jasleinstein,
User Rank: Light Beer
3/9/2014 | 10:13:28 PM
Re: 4K is awesome!
Yes I think the cable companies will broadcast what they will call 4K HD, but in Comcast's case at least, I expect they will rate shape the content as they do for HD today. Rate shaping allows them to call the content HD and fill a 1080 screen but large amounts of information have been removed. If you have the ability rent a 1080, good quality movie on itunes, or get one on Blu Ray and watch the same movie via comcast. By contrast the Comcast one will be lighter, less contrast because of the massive amounts of shaping they do, to conserve bandwidth.  
rgrutza600
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rgrutza600,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/9/2014 | 3:17:55 PM
4K content
My cable bill tells me the MSOs are rolling in money.  They darn well better be able to get 4K content to me at $160 a month...
Liz Greenberg
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Liz Greenberg,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/7/2014 | 7:06:55 PM
Re: 4K is awesome!
@Moosh01, I don't think that the cable companies have a choice...it is either upgrade or go away.  Their competitors are the OTTs and to stay relevant they have to compete.  Additionally, they must meet the demands of their customers for higher bandwidth so that they can still deliver the OTTs (although the loss of net neutrality might affect this).  Either way, I know that both AT&T and Comcast are both installing a lot of new fiber where I live so they know the bit-writing on the wall.
Moosh01
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100%
Moosh01,
User Rank: Light Beer
3/7/2014 | 6:05:01 PM
Re: 4K is awesome!
I don't see this happening.  Cable Companies would have to upgrade their copper infrastructure or it won't work well.  
rgrutza600
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100%
rgrutza600,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/7/2014 | 12:44:59 PM
4K is awesome!
I use a 4K monitor for my computuer.  Awesome for programming.  There isn't much 4K content out there though...
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