4K Streaming Video – The Future Bandwidth Monster?

4K Streaming Video – The Future Bandwidth Monster?

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Smart TVs are on the rise, 3DTVs are floundering and now the industry is pushing out 4K to the masses. So, what is it? Why do we need it? What does it mean for streaming video? And what does it mean for digital video advertising? All this and more are right inside my friends so come with me as we crank up the video resolution to 11, or rather 4000 (give or take).

What is 4K Resolution In A Nutshell?

4K is a variety of new resolutions coming out that pretty much center around a 4000 pixel side. There are a couple variants of the 4K resolution.

  • 4K Ultra HD – 3840 pixels × 2160 lines (8.3 megapixels, aspect ratio 16:9) – for UHDTV
  • 4K Film – 4096 × 2160 (8.8 megapixels, aspect ratio ~17:9)
  • Streaming Video – YouTube 4096 × 3072 (12.6 megapixels, aspect ratio 4:3), Vimeo 4096 × 3072 to be uploaded. Netflix will stream 4K sometime in 2014 reportedly, no specifications.

In comparison to current 1080 resolutions or roughly 2.1 megapixels, 4K will be roughly 8.3 megapixels, about four times as much.

4k comparison

If you do a small bit of looking, you will find that the human eye goes way beyond 8.3 megapixels, so asking whether or not the human eye can perceive the difference between 1080 and 4K has already been established.

Why Do We Need it?

Because the television manufacturers say so, might be the thought on the minds of many. It’s true that TV manufacturers seem to latch on to something new every year and then cram it down the throats of consumers, see 3DTV.

Do we need it? Sure, the content will look all that much better, for the consumer that has a 4K screen and a setup that will allow the 4K content to get to the screen. How many of you have a 4K screen currently? Not many I’ll wager. Television prices are ridiculously high still, most people won’t be buying them this year, maybe not even next year. But if you’ve been lucky enough to attend a CES in the past couple years, you’ve seen a 4K TV in action. It’s extremely impressive. They seem extremely bright and the images are indeed quite a deal better than 720p and 1080p for that matter.

Now, for streaming video, which is done much of the time on small screens like smartphones and tablets, are you going to be able to see a difference? Probably not, at least, not for some time.  Can you imagine 4K on a 10-inch tablet screen? Rtings suggests that if you’ve got a 20″ UDHTV you need to be about 1.75 feet away from it, at 10 inches one could extrapolate that down to perhaps a foot or so. Which is very close to your face in order to see any noticeable difference.

distance vs. resolution

There are no 4K tablets or smartphone screens. Even Apple’s Retina Display maxes out at about 2K (although a 15″ MacBook Pro is close to 3K). Those screens are about 300 pixels per inch. A 10-inch 4K screen would need about 450 pixels per inch. In fact, 458ppi is what a 9.5″ 4K screen has right now.

Before 4K Streaming Becomes Reality

There are a great many things that need to happen before 4K really becomes a reality or needs to do so. First off, market penetration of 4K-capable televisions needs to grow, which it most likely will as prices descend from the stratosphere into more reasonable ranges for the average consumer. Of course, if you just purchased a new big flat screen in the past year or two, are going to be ready to spend on another one? Probably not.

As for PCs, most displays aren’t capable of the high resolution either, and more graphics cards can’t handle that level of information or detail. Dell does make some 4K-compatible monitors, 24″ and 32″ with price tags in the thousands, $1,400 and $3,500 respectively. EIZO makes a 4K display as well, but it requires dual display port cabling to achieve the 4K resolution.

Graphics cards are a bit easier to come by as they have been available for over a year now. Examples include the AMD HD 7970 and the Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 and GTX Titan. The GTX 680 will set you back a good $400-500 alone. On top of that you are going to need to do some upgrading in other areas of your PC as well if it’s starting to show its age.

Streaming 4K is a Bandwidth Nightmare?

On top of all the consumer-side hardware issues are issues of network bandwidth and stability. For mobile video, it’s not even close to becoming a reality as the US lags behind in both peak mobile data network rates and in average speeds. So much so that, even full on HD streaming, is hit or miss presently.

Home-based broadband is far better equipped for 4K streaming. According to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, it won’t require more than a stable 15 Mbps to stream 4K. For many that means a max speed of around 50Mpbs roughly. A quick check of my broadband speed today showed a steady 22 Mbps downstream from Milwaukee to Chicago, to St. Cloud, Minnesota and to NYC, meaning I could probably manage a 4K stream today as Netflix should have a server within reach. Amazon Studios also just recently announced that it will shoot all of its 2014 shows in that format as well. 4K and 4K streaming are definitely coming in 2014 regardless of how many people can actually view it.

But can the networks handle peak usage 4K streaming? Over the past couple years the ISPs have been trying to get bills passed through Congress that would allow them to treat streaming video differently from other forms of Internet traffic, most likely because they’ve oversold their networks and want to start charging more for higher profit margins and network upgrades. However, if they sold X number of connections with maximum speeds at Y Mbps, then the onus to deliver is basically on them and shouldn’t be determined by what kind of data is being pushed through the pipe. After all, it all boils down to zeros and ones in the end, so it’s all the same type of data.

Google is showing the traditional ISPs and MSOs that it is easy to supply massive bandwidth to households at a reasonable price thanks to their 1 Gbps Fiber projects in Kansas City, Austin and Provo. Those pilot programs are also offering 8-tuner DVR and terabytes of online DVR storage. Pricing is set at $120 a month for 1 Gbps Internet connectivity and 200+ channels with one terabyte of storage, a Nexus 7 tablet and 2-year contract. That’s less than I currently pay Time Warner Cable for my Internet and cable TV right now.

According to the FCC’s 2013 Measuring Broadband America Report (Feb, 2013)

…the average speed tier subscribed to by consumers increased from 14.3 Megabits per second (Mbps) to 15.6 Mbps. Nearly half of consumers who subscribed to speeds of less than 1 Mbps six months ago have adopted higher speeds, and nearly a quarter of the users who subscribed to speeds between 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps have upgraded to faster speed  tiers.

In terms of satellite,

…during peak periods, 90 percent of satellite consumers received 140 percent or better of the advertised speed of 12 Mbps.

Now, at the end of 2013, with just a year to go in the FCC National Broadband Plan goal of 100 million homes with affordable access to download speeds of at least 50 Mbps (goal is “by 2015”) seems to be an attainable goal and that means streaming 4K video could also reach that many households by the end of next year, provided the pricing on consumer electronics with 4K capabilities drops to a rate where most can afford it.


Looking at the April 2012 subscription tier numbers from the FCC we see that many US households may have a fast enough Internet subscription tier for streaming of 4K video (20+ Mbps), if they are, as the FCC found, maintaining 90%+ of advertised speeds at peak periods.

In this report, we find the average subscribed speed is now 15.6 Mbps, representing an average annualized speed increase of about 20 percent.

With 20% growth year-to-year, it would be around 18.76 Mbps at the end of 2014. Extrapolating further, 90% stable speed at that average would be 16.848 Mbps – enough to stream 4K, probably with some minimal buffering.

But just because households have the connection to manage 4K streaming doesn’t necessarily mean we will all be able to achieve a perfect viewing experience. Network congestion could still, at those estimated speeds, cause some buffering and degrade the viewing experience, unless the video front loads faster, which makes people less happy with the experience as well.

4K Video Advertising?

I haven’t even touched on what it could mean for advertising. We all know how bad standard definition advertising looks on high definition television. There are still some local stations that are showing SD ads on HD channels and it’s terrible. With the shift from HD to UHD and 4K that is going to happen yet again unless the video advertisers are ready to quickly adopt higher resolution rigs. How much is a 4K camera you ask? The RED ONE, which can do 4K, will cost you more than your average new car. Sure, you could go with a Sony FDR-AX1 Digital 4K Video Camera Recorder for just $5,000 or their pro PXW-Z100 for $6,500, just make sure you have an new enough video editing software suite to subsequently edit that content, and a strong enough computer to do it on. But that shouldn’t be a problem if you’ve got the $6K for the camera, right?

4K Future

Perhaps once the prices of 4K cameras drop below $4K we might all start thinking about it more regularly. Meanwhile, some of you might already be shooting in 4K which means your work is somewhat future proof already. As 4K video starts working its way into the streaming video industry mainstream there are going to be a whole new set of things to think about like bandwidth for sending the ads and content, storage space for it all and market penetration of 4K-capable televisions and computer displays. It will all need to be taken into account in terms of how much it costs to place those ads as well which could mean higher prices for those ad placements for the foreseeable future.



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