Every story about 4K TV has a cookie-cutter plot: The new 4K TVs look great. They’re affordable now, and a 4K future is inevitable. Great story! Except you won’t find 4K content on the broadcast dial any time soon. You have to stream it, which requires gobs of bandwidth. And there really isn’t much to watch in 4K yet anyway.
By the end of 2015, that last part shouldn’t be a problem. Netflix and Amazon are busy bulking up their content coffers. Streaming won’t be the only option for long, because 4K Blu-ray is due by the holidays. But while we’ll have more tack-sharp content to watch, it’ll only be the canned variety: streamed video, video on demand, video on discs. Movies and series, not live 4K TV.
The basic scenario that used to be synonymous with “watching TV”—you turn on your 4K TV, surf the channel guide, and choose between live 4K ESPN and live 4K NBC and live 4K Food Network using a 4K remote that you 4King hate—is at least a year away. Probably closer to seven years away. It may never even happen.
Does it matter? Since season one of House of Cards landed on Netflix in one glorious chunk, our viewing habits have shifted from “appointment TV” to “binge-watch on the weekend.” Old-school TV is an anachronism now that media services have adapted to our schedules, not the other way around.
That’s not to say live TV isn’t still important for a limited pool of content: live sports, political events, and the really big shows like the Super Bowl, the Oscars, the World Cup, the Olympics, and so on. This is a level of programming that needs live video to be relevant. Which is why these events will dictate how live 4K is delivered.
The 4K Front Lines: Live NBA Tests
On January 15, the Milwaukee Bucks took on the New York Knicks in London. True to form, the Knicks trailed 14-0 at the outset and lost their 16th straight game. But this was much more than another depressing showing by Knicks—it was the first trans-Atlantic Ultra HD streaming test for a live NBA game.
It was an in-house test for the NBA in a partnership with BT Sport, which has a broadcast deal with the NBA in the UK and Ireland. BT Sport is a major player in these early stages of live 4K testing, having conducted similar tests for rugby games and golf’s Ryder Cup.
At London’s O2 Arena, BT Sport arranged the crew and hardware, including eight 4K cameras and a dedicated 4K broadcast truck. In the truck, the feed was encoded, compressed and streamed out at 15Mbps. That stream sailed the Atlantic with help from an Akamai content delivery network. Nearly 3,500 miles away, at NBA headquarters in Manhattan, employees gathered in a lunchroom to watch the game on a 4K TV. To inject a bit of real-world uncertainty into the test, the footage was streamed over the office’s public Internet.
When the feed worked, it looked great. Employees could see a real difference between the 4K feed and the same game in HD on other TVs in the lunchroom. The extra resolution was especially noticeable when scanning the crowd and the players on the bench; you could see facial features on people several rows deep.
But there were intermittent outages, as well as a noticeable delay between the 4K feed and the HD feed. This was no surprise; that’s why they do in-house tests. According to Steve Hellmuth, Executive Vice President of Operations and Technology for NBA Entertainment, feed latency was a known issue going in.
“There’s definitely a bit of a delay in the live feed due to encoding,” says Hellmuth, who notes that the same issues apply to HD video. “When I do streaming in the United States in HD, there’s at least a six-second delay.”
Hellmuth says that a 4K feed to O2 Arena’s suites went very smoothly. There was no streaming involved with that footage; it was a direct feed from the 4K switcher on site. So while the promise of live 4K streaming to the home is strong, there are still puzzles to be solved before making it a viable reality: Encoding times, general stability, and the varying residential connection speeds.
Live 4K streams can be compressed down to less than 20Mbps. That’s still much fatter than a 1080p live stream, typically 6Mbps, and too burdensome for most home broadband connections.
There was another NBA test, too. Time Warner SportsNet, Time Warner Cable, and Cisco collaborated on their own Ultra HD testing for a December 23 game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors. This one involved piping a massive 12Gbps feed from the Staples Center in western Los Angeles about a dozen miles south to the city of El Segundo, where it was encoded to HEVC at a SportsNet facility, then fed back as a 19Mbps stream to monitors at the Staples Center. The feat was pulled off using a dedicated high-bandwidth Time Warner network.
Ken Dumont, manager of business development at Cisco Service Provider Video Software & Solutions, says it went well.
“It was fabulous video, the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen video-wise,” he says.
Considering Time Warner and Cisco used a dedicated network for that delivery, this Lakers game test was more of an internal “let’s see what we can do” rather than a real-world demonstration. 19Mbps is a pretty fat stream. Netflix’s “Super HD” 1080p streams, currently used for HD shows or movies, have a 6Mbps bitrate, so we’re talking about a stream with a bitrate more than three times that of 1080p HD.
If it were available to the public, watching December’s Lakers game on your own couch would have required a very fast household download speed. And even if you can get 20 or 25Mbps to your home, there are other factors—network bottlenecks, old hardware along the data pipe, multiple devices connected to your home network—that could keep the stream from coming in cleanly.
That high-bitrate live video may be problematic for U.S. homes now, but Dumont sees potential for live 4K video to gain traction sooner in countries with excellent Internet speeds.
“South Korea is once again leading the world with this,” Dumont says. “They have the bandwidth in their individual homes and they are moving that way. We have sold 4K (encoders) to a broadcaster within Korea, and they’re about to place more orders. So they’re moving.”
Beyond the NBA: Smaller Bitrates for the Masses
Comcast performed its own informal tests during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but the company says that test was an early pass at the possibilities rather than a real-world case study. They used cinema 4K cameras, which didn’t have autofocus systems—not ideal cameras for sports.
While Olympic Broadcast Services plans to launch its own live video channels in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, according to the Hollywood Reporter, 4K video will not be part of those offerings. That leaves the 2018 World Cup and the 2018 Winter Olympics as the first time we may see live 4K broadcasts on a global scale.
The NFL uses 4K cameras to capture goal-line and sideline plays for sharper replays, but has no definitive plans to broadcast live games in 4K just yet.
A couple of U.S. events may get there first. Both the Oscars and the Super Bowl seem like excellent matches for live 4K, but any plans to stream them in Ultra HD are hush-hush. Disney/ABC Television says it doesn’t have anything to announce regarding plans for 4K Oscars. The NFL Network does a combined production with CBS for Thursday Night Football games, and they already use 4K cameras to capture goal-line and sideline plays for sharper enlarged replays. Still, the NFL says there are no definitive plans to shoot and broadcast live games in 4K yet.
Live-streaming the Oscars will likely be easier than live-streaming a sporting event. One of the hurdles with the NBA tests were the high frame rates (50fps for the London test and 60fps for the Lakers game), which translate to higher bitrates for the video stream. This higher frame-rate stuff also might not work with some early 4K sets: 4K video at 24fps is compatible with the HDMI 1.4 spec, but 50fps and 60fps 4K feeds require an HDMI 2.0-capable set.
Comcast says it is concentrating on streaming 24p video first. The company may have a first-generation box for episodic content and movies (4K at 24fps), and a second one for sports (4K at 60fps). The faster frame rate for sports means the video bitrate is around 18 or 19 Mbps, while for 24fps movies and episodic content, it’s around 12Mbps—much more manageable given the current network infrastructure, and much easier to deliver to a wider audience. By using new types of compression and a new workflow, the company thinks it can shrink those bitrates even more without compromising picture quality.
Infrastructure: The Big Picture
Even after the 4K streams have been optimized at the source, they’ll still require at least two to three times the bandwidth you’d need today to watch a 1080p HD feed. This is a problem that the industry can only solve by reorganizing its infrastructure, something that requires not only a significant capital investment, but also a lot of time. It will likely take years for cable providers to provision enough bandwidth on existing systems to deliver 4K video from the networks.
The analog reclamation process of just a few years ago, when cable companies repurposed parts of the analog broadcast spectrum for the digital-TV switchover, took years. There are also costly 4K upgrades for broadcasters to consider in order to handle live broadcasts in 4K—encoding, switching, and other hardware. Many of them may be waiting for 8K (the next big leap in picture resolution, which quadruples the pixel count) to make those kinds of expensive upgrades. They don’t want to have to do it twice, back-to-back.
Paul O’Donovan, principal research analyst at Gartner, says the costs will be less for the players in the delivery ecosystem who don’t have to deal with as many cables and routers. Like satellite, for instance.
“I think satellite will explode with a wealth of 4K content very soon, around the globe,” says O’Donovan. “It’s not an issue of bandwidth or capacity, it’s more to do with adding or replacing equipment along the distribution channel. This is more expensive for cable operators and for network TV companies than it is for satellite pay-TV operators or Internet-delivery systems.”
It will likely take years for cable providers to provision enough bandwidth on existing systems to deliver 4K video from the networks.
But until satellite services and 4K set-top boxes are actually available, we’ll be stuck with the growing “app-ification” of television. With no 4K equivalent to devices like Roku boxes and sticks, the Amazon Fire TV box and stick, and Apple TV, the primary delivery mechanism for UHD video on a 4K TV right now is through TV-installed apps. There’s quite a bit of fragmentation on that front at the moment, making the brand of set you buy a gateway to the content you’ll get.
Gartner’s O’Donovan thinks app exclusivity is merely a temporary issue.
“This is initial product differentiation by manufacturers and service providers to gain early market share,” says O’Donovan. “These product ties will dilute quickly as more 4K content comes… But the old pay-TV model via (set-top box) will still continue because there will always be deals to limit access to certain content through a single provider.”
Pulling in a 4K signal over the air should also be possible, but it will take years if it happens at all. First, major networks will need to decide to broadcast content in 4K and upgrade their equipment. Then they’ll need to get on the same page regarding next-generation broadcasting technologies.
The most promising of those is ATSC 3.0, a proposed standard for television tuners that would not only allow over-the-air 4K broadcasts, but could also broadcast directly to mobile devices and add interactive elements to broadcast TV. That’s at least a few years out, and not all major networks are fully behind ATSC 3.0. Also, because ATSC 3.0 isn’t backwards-compatible with the ATSC tuners in today’s TVs, you’ll need new hardware.
But new hardware is the easy part. Shiny new 4K sets are nudging the old stuff off the shelves. In fact, if you want to buy a new 60-inch TV now, good luck finding a new model will all the latest features that isn’t a 4K TV. And when you take it home and turn it on, be prepared to get your 4K goodness through a built-in app. Because you certainly won’t be watching anything live in 4K. Not for years.