AUSTIN, Texas -- Big Communications Event -- The rollout and adoption of UHD TV is being constrained by three main challenges today, according to a panel at Light Reading's Big Communications Event (BCE) held yesterday.
These are the substantial amount of bandwidth required to deliver a 4K video channel, issues with getting content owners to embrace 4K content distribution and the cost and complexity of UHD set-top boxes.
However, there was some disagreement among the panelists, particularly when it came down to the set-top boxes. Light Reading's own Alan Breznick, who was moderating the discussion, mentioned that some providers had delayed rollouts of their UHD service due to unresolved issues with set-top boxes (STB). And Wesley Hicks, senior product manager at EXFO Inc. (Nasdaq: EXFO; Toronto: EXF), said that some of his clients in Asia were also worried by the higher costs of UHD STBs.
But other panelists felt that there wasn't really an issue here. Monica Revare, director of Content Partnerships at Layer3 TV , said that 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 offering subscribers UHD services today using that STB.
Neil McRae, chief network architect at BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), agreed. BT has invested heavily in sports, originally building a specialized facility to support coverage of the London Olympics. It 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 subscribing customers.)
McRae reiterated what Revare had said: BT also went ahead and defined the specification required, and went on to build the box. However, the complication that is constraining several providers today is around High Dynamic Range (HDR) approaches. All panelists agreed that in testing, even high-definition video with HDR was seen as superior by viewers compared 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 an STB that addresses HDR requirements, as well as other technologies such as wide color gamut (WCG) and high frame rate (HFR) to create a truly differentiated and superior experience to 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.)
Content is another challenge. Alan listed some of the 4K content being offered today by providers such as Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), Univision , Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) and Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), but for the most it is still limited. Revare felt programmers were wary of committing to 4K after getting their fingers burned with 3D TV, which just didn't work out. However, she felt that viewers loved the 4K content that Layer3 TV offered today, stating that almost any 4K content that was uploaded to Layer3's VoD service ranked among the top ten most-viewed titles within 24 to 48 hours.
Bandwidth continues to be a major issue, especially as programming ramps up. The panelists agreed that each stream/channel in UHD required approximately 25 Mbps, though it was dependent on a variety of factors including whether it was delivered on-demand or live, and what genre of content it was, etc.
Interestingly, EXFO's Hicks said that he was seeing many 4K deployments in Asia, where deployments were more greenfield, and so more likely to be on fiber networks (FTTH). As such, bandwidth was less of a constraint for these operators. But there, the cost of STBs could be a challenge.
Overall though, panelists seem to agree that UHD was something that would grow, in terms of deployment and adoption, and that it was not another 3D TV. However, they were more cautious about virtual and augmented reality.
BT announced it would be covering the finals of both the UEFA Champion's League and Europe League in virtual reality/360-degree video, and McRae was excited about the potential of the technology. But he was clear that he saw VR as primarily experimental at this point, warning that the market was still "unclear" and most industry players were not likely to make a move right away.
Revare didn't see much of opportunity for augmented reality, but was generally positive about VR in the long term. Even beyond sports, she felt there were opportunities for fashion and travel programming. But she also said that for now the potential was more in-store for demo purposes and that she didn't as yet see a clear consumer market opportunity for VR.
The panel also discussed 8K, but it was clear that no one was looking at it for distribution today, or in the near future. As McRae pointed out, the challenges operators face with 4K would just multiply with 8K, and the revenue potential and consumer benefit was even less clear.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation