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Fuzzy Outlook for Ultra HD

Despite growing sales and shipments of 4K TV sets, experts say the future of Ultra HD is unclear because of content, bandwidth, encoding, security and other challenges.

Alan Breznick

June 12, 2015

4 Min Read
Fuzzy Outlook for Ultra HD

CHICAG0 -- Big Telecom Event -- Despite some rosy researcher forecasts for 4K TV set shipments, the future of Ultra HD still looks pretty cloudy right now.

That was the consensus view of video industry experts at the BTE Video Summit earlier this week. Speaking on a 4K panel here, the three wise cable men agreed that despite its ultimate promise, Ultra HD's prospects are still unclear because of a lack of content, limited bandwidth capacity video processing challenges, greater caution by content and service providers, content security issues and other major challenges.

In a sign that 4K may well take longer to roll out than some industry analysts have predicted, the 2016 Summer Olympics will not be broadcast in 4K as originally expected. Olympic Broadcast Services executives announced in February that 4K coverage will not be offered because of a lack of demand from TV rights holders throughout the world, including NBC in the US and the BBC in the UK.

Joseph Hopkins, VP of Global Media & Entertainment Sales for Verizon Digital media Services, said his Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) unit has not really focused on 4K at all. Instead, he said, his division is much more concerned with "getting 1080p (which is considered the highest version of standard HD) to work at scale" than prepping for Ultra HD.

Ultra HD is "not coming up in our customer discussions," said Hopkins, noting that 4K content is "largely unavailable" anyway. "It's certainly incredible to look at, it's beautiful. But there are higher priorities now."

Bart Spriester, SVP of Video Products for Harmonic Inc. (Nasdaq: HLIT), said getting enough bandwidth to deliver 4K signals to viewers is "tricky" as well. He said most providers believe that it will take 12 Mbit/s to 20 Mbit/s of capacity to deliver 4K signals with 60 frames/second rates to viewers, even with the help of the next-gen video encoding format, High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC).

"I don't think there are going to be massive gains with compression to deliver much more," Spriester said. "It's a big challenge."

Check out all the news and views from the 2015 Big Telecom Event at Light Reading's dedicated BTE show news channel.

Glenn Hower, a research analyst at Parks Associates, was more bullish about Ultra HD's short-term prospects than his two counterparts on the panel. But even Hower, whose firm projects that more than 46 million households worldwide will subscribe to an UHD pay-TV service by 2018, conceded that 4K has not yet taken off as anticipated among TV programmers and other content providers.

Case in point: Both Home Box Office Inc. (HBO) and ESPN, which usually pioneer new video formats, have been "missing in action" on 4K so far, as Light Reading Senior Editor and panel moderator Mari Silbey put it. As a result, much of the 4K content produced so far has been nature shows. (See BTE 2015: 4K All the Way.)

"The content isn't quite there yet," Hower acknowledged. He mused that the "level of risk aversion" among programmers may be higher after their failed forays into 3D TV content a couple of years ago. "Nobody wants to be the first to get burned," he said. "So nobody wants to be the first to jump in."

In another sign of caution about Ultra HD's prospects, none of the three panelists -- all usually early adopters of new technology -- has purchased a 4K TV set yet. Nor, for that matter, had almost any member of the audience when they were polled.

But that doesn't mean that the speakers were down on the technology's longer-term prospects. They all expressed confidence that 4K can succeed where 3D notoriously failed, especially once Ultra HD sets start incorporating High Dynamic Range (HDR) technology to brighten the picture and bring out more of the benefits of 4K. They just don't think it will happen all that quickly.

"Our estimation is that you'll see 4K deployed," said Spriester, whose company is now teaming with other leading video industry players to promote the development and deployment of Ultra HD content through common workflows. He cautioned, though, that Ultra HD may take even longer than standard HD to become a mainstream product in consumers' homes -- and standard HD took well over a decade. (See Harmonic Drives New Ultra HD Group,)

"It's a lot of bandwidth to the home," he noted. But, he added, "I think we'll work it out."

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

About the Author(s)

Alan Breznick

Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

Alan Breznick is a business editor and research analyst who has tracked the cable, broadband and video markets like an over-bred bloodhound for more than 20 years.

As a senior analyst at Light Reading's research arm, Heavy Reading, for six years, Alan authored numerous reports, columns, white papers and case studies, moderated dozens of webinars, and organized and hosted more than 15 -- count 'em --regional conferences on cable, broadband and IPTV technology topics. And all this while maintaining a summer job as an ostrich wrangler.

Before that, he was the founding editor of Light Reading Cable, transforming a monthly newsletter into a daily website. Prior to joining Light Reading, Alan was a broadband analyst for Kinetic Strategies and a contributing analyst for One Touch Intelligence.

He is based in the Toronto area, though is New York born and bred. Just ask, and he will take you on a power-walking tour of Manhattan, pointing out the tourist hotspots and the places that make up his personal timeline: The bench where he smoked his first pipe; the alley where he won his first fist fight. That kind of thing.

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