AUSTIN, Texas -- Big Communications Event – At least three major challenges are still hampering the rollout and adoption of 4K/UHD TV right now, including heavy bandwidth demands, a lack of available content and the cost and complexity of 4K set-top boxes, according to a panel of experts assembled here last week.
As has been spelled out before, bandwidth continues to be a major constraint for 4K, especially as programmers start ramping up with UHD content. The three panelists participating in the 4K session in Austin agreed that each stream/channel in UHD requires at least 25 Mbit/s, although that can vary widely depending on a number of factors, including whether the content is delivered on-demand or live, and what type of content it is.
Bandwidth isn't necessarily the big concern for all service providers, though. Wesley Hicks, senior product manager at EXFO (Nasdaq: EXFO; Toronto: EXF), noted that he's seeing a number of 4K rollouts in Asia, where many deployments are greenfield and thus are more likely to be carried out on all-fiber networks (FTTH). As a result, he said, bandwidth seems to be less of a constraint for these operators.
Content remains another key challenge. While there's some UHD programming being offered today by such providers as Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), Univision , Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), the content pool is still limited for the most part.
Monica Revare, director of content partnerships at Layer3 TV , said many programmers are still wary of committing to 4K after getting their fingers burned with 3D TV, which turned into a major fiasco. She noted, though, that Layer3 TV viewers love the 4K content they can see today, stating that almost all 4K content uploaded to Layer3's VoD service ranks among the top 10 most-viewed titles within 24 to 48 hours.
For its part, BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) has invested heavily in UHD sports, originally building a specialized facility to support coverage of the London Olympics back in 2012. Neil McRae, chief network architect at BT Group, said the provider has since expanded on that initiative by buying the rights to top-flight European and English soccer and launching sports channels of its own, built from the ground up. Coverage of these games is offered in 4K, and BT subscribers in the UK can get 4K-compatible set-top boxes to view it. (Games are also available via the web and mobile devices for subscribers.)
The three panelists disagreed over the depth of the problem in deploying 4K set-tops. While such major service providers as Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) in the US have delayed their rollouts of UHD service due to unresolved issues with set-top boxes, others, such as BT in the UK, have moved forward quite briskly. (See Comcast Has a New Timeline After 4K Delay and Comcast Appears to Soft Launch First 4K DVR.)
Hicks said some of EXFO's clients in Asia are worried by the higher costs of UHD STBs. But other panelists said that there wasn't really an issue here. For example, Revare said Layer3 had just gone ahead and built its STB based on what it felt was required for a robust 4K service. And in fact, it is now delivering UHD services using that STB.
McRae agreed. Like Layer3 TV, he said BT defined the STB specification required and went on to build the box. However, he noted, the complication that is constraining several providers today revolves around High Dynamic Range (HDR). All panelists agreed that in testing, viewers see even high-definition video with HDR as superior to UHD without HDR. As such, supporting HDR is critical, because UHD itself will not have the same impact on viewers. But today there are competing approaches to HDR, and most operators want to develop a STB that addresses HDR requirements, as well as other technologies like wide color gamut (WCG) and high frame rate (HFR), to create a better experience than today's HD video. (See BT Sport's COO Discusses UHD, UHD Forum's Fautier Clarifies UHD Growth Path and Sales of 4K Sets to Rise 40% This Year, Says CTA.)
Despite these and other issues, the panelists agreed that UHD would bloom and grow, unlike 3D TV a few years ago. They also believe that the UHD transition will take place faster than the HD transition did. But they expressed more caution about the prospects for virtual and augmented reality.
BT announced during BCE that it will be covering the finals of both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League in virtual reality/360-degree video. But, while he's excited about the potential of the technology, McRae said he sees VR as primarily experimental right now. Warning that the market for VR is still "unclear," he said most industry players are not likely to make a move right away.
Revare said she doesn't see much of an opportunity for augmented reality, but was generally positive about VR in the long term. Even beyond sports, she believes there are VR opportunities for fashion and travel programming. But she also said that for now the potential is more in-store for demo purposes and that she doesn't see a clear consumer market opportunity yet for VR.
Although Japan and South Korea are working toward broadcasting the two upcoming Olympics in 8K video, the panelists pooh-poohed the idea of actually delivering anything in 8K to TV viewers any time soon. As McRae pointed out, the challenges posed by 4K would simply multiply with 8K, while the revenue potential and consumer benefits are even murkier.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading