4K Ultra-HD TV Faces Bandwidth Challenge to Get Into Homes

4K TV Bandwidth Challenge

New Video Format could be in trouble without the compression technology it needs

Now that consumers have proven uninterested in today’s 3D TV, the consumer electronics companies have turned to 4K Ultra-HD TV as the Next Big Thing that will trigger the new upgrade cycle.

But 4K won’t get anyone excited if there’s no way to get the format into homes, or worse, if it looks no better than today’s HDTV.

4K has four times the pixels of today’s 1080p HD. The information for all those pixels can eat a lot of bandwidth. Yet the delivery infrastructure for video — satellite links, over-the-air and cable channels and Blu-ray discs — isn’t getting more bandwidth any time soon, and most consumer Internet connections can barely handle simple HD streaming.

So dreams of next-generation broadcasting and consumer electronics firms’ hopes for billions of dollars in new TV sales rest upon an arcane combination of high tech and black art: video compression.

In a nutshell, compression turns the beautiful but huge digital images coming out of video cameras into smaller, but hopefully still beautiful, digital files. Or, more precisely, it reduces the bitrate of the video stream to something the TV and Internet infrastructure can handle.

When video engineers worry over whether 4K will ever live up to its promise, it’s the bitrate they’re concerned about. The pixels will be there, but will there be enough data to make them worthwhile?

The bitrate for video can be squeezed in many ways. Color can be sampled less frequently than the rest of the picture. Pixels that don’t change, or barely change, from one frame to the next can be transmitted less frequently. Subtle information that average viewers probably won’t be able to see in a frame can be trimmed away. Or some resolution can simply be tossed out.

Peter Putnam, president of Roam Consulting and an expert on video compression, explains that the signal coming out of an HD camera has a bitrate of 1.5 gigabits per second. But the broadcast TV channels they feed are limited by law to just 19 megabits per second. Neverthess, he adds, “You’ve watched CBS, NBC, PBS high definition, and it looks pretty good.”

Peter Symes, director of standards and engineering for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers says CBS pushes hard for its affiliates to use their full 19Mbps to deliver the best HD picture their bandwidth will allow. “Most broadcasters don’t do that,” he says. “They allow maybe 12 megabits for HD, and the quality is less. Maybe it’s got a resolution corresponding to about 1200 pixels instead of 1920 or whatever, but it certainly isn’t the full 1920 x 1080.”

So even today, the HD picture on some channels isn’t delivering the full potential of the format. Squeezing 4K into the same infrastructure is likely exacerbate that problem.

Today’s TVs and other devices have decompression software on a chip inside the device. But chips with 4K decompression haven’t hit the market, so the 4K TVs arriving in the marketplace are improvising their decompression solutions. Sony’s new 4K TVs and accompanying 4K media player use compression from tech company eyeIO, but the media player sidesteps the problem by downloading content instead of streaming it.

Eventually, the software and hardware for encoding and decoding commercial 4K will make it to market. The new High Efficiency Video Codec is up for official approval, and should squeeze 4K video down enough to fit into today’s infrastructure. The encoders and decoders will also improve, so 4K broadcasting and streaming should improve over time, as HD has.

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  1. how would the present day blue ray dvd player show on the 4K TV …….would there be
    any improvement or will there be no change in the picture. What are the expectations
    of 4K movies and the play back DVDs expected to come on the market

  2. ASHWIN says:

    How a 4K TV works ? will you please give a block diagram discription about internal working of a UHD Television .

  3. JK says:

    A practical challenge not addressed in the article or reader comments is the transition plan. For how long will broadcasters and cable/satellite/telco distributors carry both the HD version of a channel as well as its UHD counterpart? These distributors have been simulcasting channels’ SD and HD feeds for years now. Pig in the python.

  4. josh says:

    Nuvola np-1 look it up!

  5. Bob says:

    Many comments focus on over the air BW limitations. As TW-CBS spat shows, most people now watch via cable HFC or IP streaming. Those infrastructures can be scaled-up as required (eg Google Fiber, FiOS).
    More compression only benefits incumbents who are too cheap to upgrade their infrastructure, .
    There is no free lunch on image fidelity, Quality means BW. Limited as Bluray fidelity is, it clearly kicks over the air in the ass, Reasonable fidelity on 4K will require two to four times as much BW as Bluray, depending on compression scheme used (40 to 80mbps average rate; 80 to 200 mbps peak) Those are achievable data rates. Indeed, 500 channels at 200mbps each would fit on a SINGLE wavelength on a 100G WDM system. And room for 63 other sets of 500 channels each on that same single strand of fiber.
    Long haul transmission is not going to be a problem. FTTH or head-end switching removes last-mile bottlenecks, Getting rid of over the air mentality is the hard problem.

  6. Tom McMahon says:

    I think that people should set aside discussions of transmission BW (Mbits/sec) for a sec and focus on the memory BW (GBytes/sec) requirements for the 4K decoder chips. That’s where you really get hit by going from 2K to 4K and going to higher frame rates and greater bit depth.

    Sec over. Decoder memory BW problem noted. Going back to bitrates for another sec, I would like to make the following assertion: Going from Two K to Four K requires 4.0 times the compressed bitrate in the delivery channel. I look forward to being shot down in flames.

  7. drkn says:

    Nanotec. Nuvola np1 IPTV is the solution

  8. dave says:

    Check out an emerging company called Nanotech entertainment! They solved the problem and it streams 4K unlike Sony. Coming out this month and preorders for it’s nuvola player has begun in July.

  9. Richard says:

    Need to check out Nanotech’s Nuvola IPTV device. It streams 4K sub 10Mbps! Problem Solved!

  10. Robert Zohn says:

    Very sorry to disagree with this article. The biggest issue is that the article only references the High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC aka h 2.65) at the very end, but this is the solution to UHD streaming over the Internet, Satellite, terrestrial cable and Blu-ray all with excellent 4k image quality and effortlessly within the existing bandwidth.

    The solution, h 2.65 will be here long before the content arrives so this is truly a non issue as it will deliver UHD at up to 60fps well within the existing bandwidth. And the compression is so efficient that it will preserve the ultra high resolution and image quality that is encoded in the UHD content.

    Also in our showroom we demonstrate six models of UHD TVs from three manufacturers with native UHD demo content and the UHDTVs do an excellent job of up-converting normal 1080p HD content to 4k with stunning picture quality.

    Find a retailer in your community that has UHDTVs on display to witness the future of UHD that’s actually available today.


  11. ChewbyJ says:

    The RedRay player from the dudes who created the 4k market (Red Digital Cinema) plays back 4k movies at a 20Mbps bitrate. Shaving things down to 18Mbps to fit in an ATSC transport stream shouldn’t be that difficult in the next 1-2 years.


    The problem will really be do people really want to buy 4k displays and then have a limited amount of content or poorly compressed super stepped on 1080i content scaled onto their 4k displays.

    As an AV nerd, I DO want, and will buy, a 4k display this year but realize that most folks won’t even begin to be interested until 2020 or later. I imagine Japan will lead the way with the 2016 Olympics broadcast on NHK in 4k, then the rest of world will slowly follow suit.

    I actually think that 4k should be left a luxury item that consumer purchase/rent/stream rather than a standard that is broadcast across the country. There is really no need for news/Desperate Housewives/The Daily Show to be broadcast in 4k.

  12. Wow, this is a seriously uninformative article. Yes, baseband HD is 1.5 Gbps. Yes, over-the-air transmission is compressed to 19 Mbps using MPEG2 compression as defined by the ATSC standards from the late 1990s.

    Cable, satellite and streaming providers use H.264, aka MPEG-4, which around halves the bandwidth required for each stream. H.265 (HEVC) will improve upon that.

    Compression systems get better as CPU power increases, allowing for every more sophisticated approaches.

    4K will happen. It’s just a question of when. 4K displays will happen even if 4K content delivery takes some time.

  13. Fred says:

    Its not just a bandwidth issue. Yes, the new HEVC will help, but its the whole end to end process that needs to be done, before you can cat the data into the home. There are 4k source, but then the source needs to be encoded so that it fits in the available bandwidth, or on available media. This means that companies like Comcast need to have the encoders, the infrastructure to support the bandwidth, say 40 channels at 4k each, the HEVC decoder at the destination (home) in the set top box, HDMI 2.0 to get the data to a consumers device, but HDMI 2.0 doesn’t exist yet. So neither Cisco, nor Motorola can create the hardware that Comcast needs to deliver to their customers. So I guess we are talking at least 2016? 2018 before I see it in our area?

    Sony has their 4k media player and TV are only half baked. Yes, its a 4k TV, but does it have inputs that would support reasonable 4k display, no. 4k at 24p, why? because that is what HDMI 1.4 supports. They could fix it using two cables, but… the 4k media player only has one HDMI output. Then you get to the download service that doesn’t exist yet. What does that cost you? The 65″ TV and media player will cost you $7.7k. So am I going to pay $7.7k for something that is half baked?

    Sony and Panasonic are now working on the next-gen blu-ray media and player that they say will support 300GB of data, but… not until sometime in 2015. Sony’s “Mastered in 4k” is all hype. Its still a 2k movie on a blu-ray disk.

    There are companies like AMD that have been too far ahead of the curve, and have been supporting 4k for a while, but have there haven’t been devices to display it to. intel just upgraded thunderbolt to be compatible with displayport 1.2, and actually support 20Gb/sec to a thunderbolt display. The compatible displays are supposed to start appearing this fall. So maybe this fall, I could have a 4k compatible display at home on my PC. But companies like Cyberlink seem to still be waiting to produce a HEVC decoder, no 4k movie service that will work with my PC, and no 4k blu-rays, or next gen devices. Basically no 4k sources other than video games.

    Then you get into visibility of those 4kx2k pixels. Yes a 32″ display on my desk that is about 18″ away will look good. But when you get to consumer entertainment, the distance from the display kills the advantage of the 4k display. You need a 65″ 4k TV to have it look better at 5-6′ viewing distance, 81″ 4k TV, for about 8′ away. So how many consumers are going to pay $10k for their TV, or even $4k? How many consumers will have the space to install a 65″ or 81″ TV?

    Why did 3d fail? One was the limited audience that would pay more for it. Second was the huge licenses fees that Nvidia was charging for the active 3d glasses. $150 per of set of glasses killed 3d tv. Yes, you could get the passive glasses later, but by then the damage was done.

    I am hoping 4k tv won’t suffer the same fate, but dragging out a “real” deployment after all the hype to get it moving may have the same effect. Lying to the consumers isn’t going to help. A big help would be to have some sort of 4k end-to-end by Christmas, so retailers could at least show consumers that 4k TV really worked and how much it costs. I am guessing that would be Christmas 2014 or even 2015 at the current pace.

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