×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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

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.

More TV

  • WGA Awards 2019 Winners

    WGA Awards 2019: Bo Burnham Wins Original Screenplay Award for 'Eighth Grade'

    In a stunning upset, Bo Burnham has won the original screenplay award for “Eighth Grade” from the Writers Guild of America. He credited star Elsie Fisher for his winning the award. Burnham won over Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”; Adam McKay’s “Vice”; Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, and John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place”; and Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga, [...]

  • 50 Cent Power

    NYPD Officer Under Investigation for Allegedly Telling Police to Shoot 50 Cent 'on Sight'

    A New York City precinct commander is under investigation for allegedly telling officers to shoot rapper 50 Cent on sight, a police rep confirmed to Variety on Sunday. “The matter is under internal review,” an NYPD rep said, declining to answer further questions. Deputy Inspector Emanuel Gonzalez is accused of telling officers during a June 7 roll [...]

  • Bohemian Rhapsody

    'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Among Cinema Audio Society Winners

    Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the Cinema Audio Society’s top prize for sound mixing at Saturday night’s 55th annual CAS Awards. The film is Oscar-nominated for sound mixing this year along with “Black Panther,” “First Man,” “Roma” and “A Star Is Born.” In a surprise over heavy-hitters “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Wes [...]

  • Marvelous Mrs Maisel Vice

    'Vice,' 'The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Lead Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Winners

    Adam McKay’s Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” starring Oscar nominees Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell, won two awards at the sixth annual Make-Up and Hair Stylists Guild Awards Saturday night. The film won for best period and/or character makeup as well as special makeup effects. “Mary Queen of Scots” received the prize for period [...]

  • Jussie Smollett Good Morning America

    Jussie Smollett Angrily Denies Complicity in Attack

    Attorneys for “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett issued a statement Saturday denying that he orchestrated his Jan. 29 assault, and saying he is “angered” and “devastated” by recent developments in the case. Chicago police want to interview Smollett, after learning new evidence from two Nigerian brothers who were released on Friday night. Local media outlets have [...]

  • Jussie Smollett Empire

    Chicago Police Want to Talk to Jussie Smollett as New Evidence Emerges

    Chicago police are seeking to re-interview “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett, after new evidence emerged in his alleged assault. Smollett has claimed that two men attacked him at 2 a.m. on Jan. 29, yelled racial and homophobic slurs, poured bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck. The Chicago Police Department has consistently said [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content