It looks like 4K video is making it into the mainstream and is going to put a big strain on broadband networks serving residential customers. 4K video resolution is 3840 x 2160 pixels, or about 8 million pixels on a screen, which is about four times more resolution than an HD display. It takes a lot of bandwidth to stream that many pixels and with current compression technologies 4K video requires 15 – 20 Mbps download speeds. Google and others are working on better compression techniques that might cut that in half, but even so that would mean videos streams at 7 – 10 Mbps. That’s a whole new level of broadband demand that will increase the household need for faster data speeds.
Just a year ago it wasn’t easy to find 4K video on the web, but this year there is a lot of content being shot in the format. This includes:
- Netflix is currently shooting most of its original content like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, Jessica Jones, Daredevil in 4K. It also has a big array of documentaries in the format as well as a number of classic movies being reformatted to 4K.
- Amazon Prime is also filming new content like Alpha House, Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle and Man in the High Castle in 4K. They have a small library of movies in the format.
- Sony probably has more mainstream movies in the 4K format than anybody. Rather than streaming you download Sony movies and a typical movie can take 40 GB of storage space. It doesn’t take too many movie downloads to blow the data caps of AT&T or Comcast.
- M-Go has developed a small but growing 4K library in conjunction with Samsung. They also will be adding title from Fox.
- Comcast offers a few movies in 4K online for customers in partnership with NBC Universal.
- YouTube has a huge amount of user-generated 4K video of all different types. YouTube is also now producing original content sold under YouTube Red and which contains 4K content.
- Ultraflix has a big library of 4K nature documentaries including some originally produced for IMAX. They are also carrying lot of Hollywood movies.
- Vudu, which is owned by Walmart has a small, but high quality 4K set of content. They are the first to marry 4K video to Dolby surround sound.
If 4K follows the same migration path of standard definition video to HD video, then within a few years 4K content is going to be everywhere. Where just a few years ago there was little video on the web, video now seems to be everywhere. There are video ads on all sorts of websites and social media services like Facebook and Twitter spit out piles of video at a user these days.
One of the biggest problems with broadband regulation in this country is that it fails to recognize the ever-growing nature of broadband demand. Once households start using 4K video then the FCC’s newly minted definition of broadband at 25 Mbps download will already be getting stressed. The fact is that the household needs for broadband are just going to keep growing year after year and any regulatory definition of demand will be obsolete almost as soon as it is established.
Broadband demand has been growing steadily and doubling about every three years and there is no reason to think that we are anywhere close to the time when that growth curve is going to slow. 4K video is not the last new technology that will stretch our needs for broadband. When I read about where virtual and augmented reality are headed over the next five years it’s not to hard to see where the next big push for more broadband will come from.