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Comcast Has a New Timeline After 4K Delay

Mari Silbey

DENVER -- Cable Next-Gen Technologies & Strategies -- It's been almost two years since Comcast promised to launch its 4K UHD and HDR set-tops, yet as the first quarter of 2017 rolls to an end, those boxes are still missing in action. The question is why, and specifically, why Comcast would have marketed 4K so early without being able to deliver the set-tops necessary to make it work in most homes.

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s Joshua Seiden, executive director at Comcast Innovation Labs, offers some answers in his recounting of the company's requirements for Ultra-HD video delivery. And those requirements are significant. Comcast doesn't just want to offer a 4K UHD service, it wants that service to include high dynamic range (HDR) technology and 10 bit HEVC encoding for greater color precision. (See TV's Paradox: No HDR Without 4K.)

Comcast's Joshua Seiden spoke at a breakfast session during Light Reading Cable Next-Gen Technologies event. Moderator Alan Breznick is on the left above, followed by Seiden, Layer3 TV's David Rapson, Verimatrix CEO Tom Munro and SCTE/ISBE's Niem Dang.
Comcast's Joshua Seiden spoke at a breakfast session during Light Reading Cable Next-Gen Technologies event. Moderator Alan Breznick is on the left above, followed by Seiden, Layer3 TV's David Rapson, Verimatrix CEO Tom Munro and SCTE/ISBE's Niem Dang.

"4K for us will always go with HDR," says Seiden, contradicting earlier Comcast plans that called for launching a 4K-only set-top followed by an HDR box. Seiden adds that Comcast also made the decision to implement 10 bit HEVC in order to deliver a premium experience with the highest possible quality of color rendering. (See Comcast to Launch 4K Set-Top Later This Year.)

The problem is that serious HDR development didn’t get underway until a few years ago, and 10-bit HEVC is new enough that Comcast is having trouble getting the decoders it needs for its set-top boxes. Seiden notes that the workflow requirements for processing UHD content are also complex because Comcast is taking the highest-quality source material from its programmers and doing the transcoding and other preparation itself before making that content available.

In short, UHD TV has evolved quickly, and as a cable operator on the bleeding edge of development, Comcast has found itself adjusting its expectations for service quality as the technology has improved.

Want to know more about video and TV market trends? Check out our dedicated video services content channel here on Light Reading.

Comcast's plans appear to have changed in other ways as well. Although Comcast has shown demos of 4K UHD video over both QAM and IP networks, Seiden says that he sees the company moving forward solely with 4K over IP. (See Comcast Shows Off Rio in HDR... in Philly.)

"4K HEVC almost has to be done over IP," declares Seiden, pointing out that a single 4K stream takes up almost an entire 6MHz channel in a cable network, and with QAM resources as tight as they are, that's too much bandwidth for an operator to siphon away from other operations.

Of course, over-the-top companies like Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN) and Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) long ago committed to IP for 4K, and every other kind of video delivery. But cable operators haven't been as clear on their strategy because of their existing QAM-based systems. If Comcast truly is planning to launch 4K to the masses solely over IP, that decision also speaks to the company's commitment to transitioning many more of its customers to IP video delivery.

As for timing, the wait for Comcast's 4K UHD services may finally be coming closer to an end. According to Seiden, the company has multiple 4K set-tops in the works, but the first ones should arrive in 2017. Comcast will likely target serious 4K TV promotions nearer to the start of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
4/3/2017 | 4:53:05 PM
Re: Good Business Decision
The failure to provide announced service may be a result too of how difficult it is to realistically predict the future as technology demands change dramatically. And then there too is the tendency of company PR departments to over promote what they'll be offering and not come up to the mark on time.
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/24/2017 | 3:35:00 PM
Re: Good Business Decision
I see the benefit of pausing, doing it right, and ensuring HDR works. Still feels like a risk giving Amazon and Netflix the marketing advantage of providing a more cutting edge signal than cable sector professionals that have been doing this for more than a generation. 
User Rank: Light Beer
3/23/2017 | 10:25:04 AM
Good Business Decision
I think Comcast is making the right business decision here. Those of us working in the industry have said since the beginning of UHD that while higher resolution is great, its impact to the audience is only effective within the narrow confines of the proper viewing distance. Very few homes viewers have their current sets at the proper viewing distance for HD and the same size of slightly larger set displaying 4K is going to be underwhelming at best. But the advantages of HFR, HDR and WCG will be noticeable at most viewing distances and will therefore provide much more impact and perceivable benefit to the home viewer. 
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