NEW YORK — Even though the price of UHD/4K TV sets continue to fall, the fact remains that there’s still a dearth of available ultra-high resolution content and what content is — even in 2018 — is reserved for high-profile events such as the FIFA World Cup.
Except when it comes to over-the-top streaming services.
“4K streaming is leading the way right now,” said Will Law, chief architect of media cloud engineering at Akamai. “Satellite is bandwidth constrained at the present, and while cable is less constrained, these are still fixed infrastructure.”
Streaming services don’t have the same fixed infrastructure, even if the content is delivered via cable broadband, and as such it can reach a wider audience.
“OTT makes it easier to get the 4K content,” added Law. “Netflix has hundreds of titles already, and we’re seeing the other providers steadily adding content.”
Streaming services may be ensuring that content is future-proofed, so that resolution and overall picture quality don’t appear dated to future viewers.
“Netflix is already one of the biggest distributors of 4K content and treats higher-resolution content as premium,” said Richard Brandon, CMO of Edgeware, a Swedish provider of content delivery networks. “The OTT giant’s guidelines for ‘Netflix Originals’ state that programming has to be shot in native 4K so it’s been continually investing in UHD content to add to its library. At the same time the BBC is leading the charge in the U.K., streaming all its World Cup matches in 4K and will do the same with its Wimbledon coverage.”
To TV manufacturers — and even the media that covers the market — 4K and UHD are being used interchangeably, but in essence 4K is just part of the bigger UHD picture.
“4K is the resolution, and this is one of many parts of UHD,” explained Law. “4K really is just focusing on the number of pixels. With UHD it is important to also discuss what this means for framerate — 30fps or 60fps — as well as High Dynamic Range, which is far more perceivable to viewers across devices than just the number of pixels.”
However, HDR isn't completely tied to UHD.
“HDR is not part of the current UHD specs, but the two come hand in hand,” said Colin Dixon, founder and chief analyst of U.K.-based research firm nScreenMedia. “Everything that is UHD on Netflix is HDR as well, and we’re seeing that becoming true for Amazon and the other services as well. HDR is something you can see on all screen sizes, which isn’t really the case for just the resolution.”
The biggest issue with UHD/4K delivery is not enough bandwidth.
“The ability to deliver 4K is part of the attraction of internet-delivered services — it’s one of the ways operators can deliver an OTT service that goes beyond broadcast,” said Brandon. “The extra stress it brings to the availability of network bandwidth is an issue however, especially when streams are being delivered to several kinds of end-user devices.”
The issue will become more serious as more viewers access higher-resolution content, according to Jim Defilippis, CEO of TMS Consulting in Los Angeles.
“UHD content doesn’t represent a big cost increase to OTT services,” he said. “The costs are related to the number of customers, so when you have only a few customers it really doesn’t cost much. The bad news is that the costs will go up as you gain customers.”
In addition to availability of UHD content, another limiting factor is data limits.
“You are good to go if you are streaming a movie or two a week, and in that case you won’t reach your ISP’s bandwidth limit,” said Dixon. “If all of the content you are watching is in UHD you’d have a problem.”
Dixon estimates that no more than 20 percent of the current U.S. market that regularly watches streaming services is consuming UHD content. “That market is growing, and if 100 percent of the audience suddenly embraced UHD, the broadband providers would have to build up the pipes,” he said.
Some vendors, including Harmonic, provide solutions that handle the growth in adoption of UHD, and reduce latency. This has included its EyeQ system that is designed to reduced bandwidth consumption by up to 30 percent without requiring any additional changes in the existing H.264 delivery infrastructure or the vast array of decoders on the market.
“We are working to improve UHD streaming, especially for sporting events,” said Eric Gallier, vice president of marketing at Harmonic. “Our solution provides latency that is comparable to what you’d see in traditional broadcasts. This is not only about the encoding but also about the playout.”
At the 2018 NAB Show, Harmonic unveiled its new end-to-end UHD HDR solution for live sports streaming. The solution features Harmonic’s ViBE CP9000 contribution encoder for VOS 360 media processing SaaS for encoding, packaging, origin server capabilities and OTT distribution.
HURDLES LEFT TO OVERCOME
Bandwidth aside there are still other issues to resolve, especially as there are a lot of technologies at play.
“Streaming isn’t all unicorns and ice cream cake right now,” said Akamai’s Law. “We need to resolve the standardization of the various HDR protocols as there are currently too many. This creates fragmentation in the market and that could drive up production costs.”
Copyright protection and DRM could also remain an issue, but so too could piracy of UHD content.
“Pirated content is usually degraded in quality from redistribution and added compression, but when a stream starts in 4K, it can be degraded but still remain high enough quality to watch,” said Edgeware’s Brandon. “Content providers can overcome this by deploying solutions that allow them to add a digital watermark to each stream. This can then be used to identify where a stream was stolen from, letting users better protect their investments into 4K content.”
THE NET NEUTRALITY FACTOR
Since FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced last November that net neutrality would be repealed, many industry observers have warned that streaming media could suffer but others are now saying the issue is being unnecessarily politicized.
"Many are concerned about distribution equality," said Law. "Net neutrality can impact the economics of how content is delivered from source to the last mile."
High-bandwidth content, however, could end up costing more just to get to that last mile.
“When there is an outlay from a service such as Netflix that is delivering a lot of content to other providers, this is when it becomes an issue,” said Dixon at nScreenMedia. “If a lot of 4K content crosses the wires from any internet company there will be an outcry from the ISPs for the transit cost. That is where some companies have had to buy ‘preferential pipes’ — that is in essence what Netflix is already doing.”
Part of this ongoing issue reaches back decades to how the internet was developed as an interconnected “network of networks,” where content passes through from one provider to another.
“Net neutrality is the key to the operation of gateways between internet providers and the peering agreements that insure equal treatment for traffic as long as the traffic is balanced between the providers,” said Defilippis. “In a non-net neutrality situation, an internet provider is free to charge for improved gateway performance (bandwidth and latency). 4K content is sensitive to these increases due to the size of the files and the bandwidth required.
“UHD will amplify the throttling issues which are bound to happen with the change to net neutrality,” Defilippis concluded.