WiGig, Netflix’s House of Cards and the need for a new way of delivering content
As we can see, June last year saw interest in 4K TVs from the general public overtake standard HDTV and with the usual November peak, the number of searches for 4K TV was more than double that of HDTV. In short, interest has never been greater. Indeed, Strategy Analytics predicts over 1.5 billion smartphones will have shipped with 4K capability by 2020 and in 2018 10% of US households will own an HDTV.
Yet at the same time, interest from adopters of the latest technology (CES followers) is waning, with 2016 searches amounting to roughly half that of 2013. This is despite significant press coverage, with 2016 having 55 more press articles produced than 2015 (4014 vs 2582 – source Meltwater), which was itself 44% up on 2014’s coverage (1791).
So why the disconnect?
The move to online content and the effect on the operators – both fixed and mobile
One of the key blocks is the ability to distribute 4K content via the web and to the multiple screens now found in the home. The fall of live TV and its replacement with On Demand via the web is well documented. Neilsen’s December 2014 Total Audience Report, for example, states that approximately 2.6 million households in the US are now watching online only. And figures from its March 2016 Video On Demand Report says that c.40% of cable TV subscribers under 35 are looking to cancel their subscription and go online only.
In short, we’re rapidly moving to an online distribution model. Netflix, for example, has been streaming content in 4K since February 2014 when it launched House of Cards season two, and now releases much of its own big-attraction content in 4K (3840 x 2160). The company says it can deliver this over a stable download speed of 15.6 Mbps; but the firm’s chief exec’s statement that those with a 50Mbps connection would be “fine” suggests this will fluctuate upwards.
Taking this 15.6 Mbps as a baseline (and ignoring the fact that this will be with a low frame rate and significant compression—which surely defeats the point of 4K), according to Akamai’s State of the Internet Report from Q3 2015, just two countries have average internet speeds above this minimum speed. South Korea (20.5 Mbps) and Hong Kong (15.8 Mbps), Japan (15), the UK (13) and the US (12.6) make up the top five—and while each of these currently offer some very high band-width offerings, eg Virgin’s 200 Mbps offering in the UK, they are the exception. They’re also expensive and are yet to experience the mass usage that is set to happen.
Impressively, mobile 4G connection speeds fare well in comparison, with a December 2014 analysis by the UK’s regulator OfCom putting the UK average 4G speeds at 15Mbps. But this is still not fast enough, and mobile data still comes with significant usage caps. The networks are not designed to handle the levels of volume that would allow significant numbers to binge-watch 4K (or even HD) Netflix.
Next, add in the fact that a significant proportion of people connecting their smart TV to the web will use the in-built Wi-Fi connection (and they are unlikely to want to put wires back in) and you have an even bigger challenge in delivering 4K content, as Wi-Fi causes a 30% drop off in throughput (I’ll ignore for now the fact that streaming 4K video over standard 802.11n or even ac Wi-Fi to the multiple devices in the home simply won’t cope without unreasonable levels of buffering).
So, we know that file size is too large for the current networks. We know that more material is being made available. The final piece of the puzzle is how much demand there is. In addition to the TV shipments data from analysts (IHS states 2015 4K TV shipments were up 173% with 226M units sold), House of Cards once again acts as a good bellwether.
On Valentine’s Day 2014, the same day that Netflix made House of Cards series two available, the internet traffic management company Procera, monitored the proportion of Netflix users watching any given episode on one of its operators’ networks. By 5:30pm, 16% of users had watched at least one episode, with binge watching patterns clearly visible in their data. And as for the analyst’s HD connection, this burned through 27GB of data in that single day—just for HD. While it’s unlikely that people will have viewed in 4K due to bandwidth issues, I do think this will happen in due course as speeds improve, causing a huge headache for operators.
The next question is: can networks cope?
The simple answer is no, or at least not without significant investment to create networks (both mobile and fixed) with greater capacity. On mobile, data bandwidth caps will also become a significant issue in enabling their customers to access both HD and 4K video – yet if they want to access revenue streams by offering video on demand (and Apple, Amazon, and Google have all proved this to be profitable), they will need to manage this data better.
Thankfully, bandwidth caps, which both limit the ability for an ISP or MNO to offer paid-for content and also destroy brand loyalty, are unlikely to be implemented. Similarly likely to cause an exodus of customers is the downgrading of content. However, the move towards quad play services, where a package for TV, phone, internet and mobile is given, opens up an alternative approach.
To deliver TV, the traditional model has been to have a PVR / receiver per TV, with recorded content only available to the PVR it was recorded on. The desire to watch this content on any TV, and on any device, has meant that there is a shift happening to implement a headed gateway with a fibre connection that broadcasts out to connected devices either over a USB 3.0 interface or (preferably, since a significant proportion of people hate wires cluttering up their house) via the 60 GHz 802.11ad unlicensed transmission standard, which has 7 GHz of bandwidth (US / Japan, 9 GHz EU).
TV companies want such a system because the hardware to support it (CPU, GPU, security IP) is already available on high end TVs, tablets and smartphones. The cost to deploy multiple clients is therefore close to zero and margins are increased. But the key benefit will be to the network operators, as this approach not only gives the above benefit of being able to access content from multiple screens in the house, but also the ability to download predictable traffic during quiet times, and balance the load.
Since these companies already carry out substantial profiling in order to understand us better and serve us with the content we will want, the selection of films and TV programmes we’d be likely to watch can easily be identified. While this may not work for sporting events – such as the Superbowl or the Champions’ League Final, which need to be watched live – it does takes the pressure off the network to enable them to cope when these events are transmitted.
As for events like the release of House of Cards, where an entire series will be binge-watched with huge demands placed on the network, even this can be managed by streaming exceptionally locked down episodes slightly ahead of the go-live date.
Getting it to the screen—what’s possible over 802.11ad WiGig
Once this 4K content is on the home gateway, streaming to TVs is relatively simple. They’re in a static location, near the home gateway. However, shifting this content to mobile phones to view when on the move needs to be convenient and quick. It’s likely a person will choose the content as they head out, so it needs to be done wirelessly without burning through the battery.
Here we can see Strategy Analytics’ independent analysis:
The effect on the battery to perform such a transfer would consume approximately 3-4% based on a typical 600mAh battery. Compare this with a standard 802.11n Wi-Fi transfer and transfer times of nearly 4 hours wouldn’t be unusual for a single 60 GB movie, using 60% of the battery.
Alternative approaches to delivering content
High-speed transfer to a mobile device is likely to play a part in the distribution channel of 4K content – both rented or sold films. As Strategy Analytics’ Christopher Taylor put it earlier this year, “Today one can purchase downloadable films at the airport, but transfers can take so long that you are likely to miss your flight or have to leave the content behind. Kiosks equipped with 802.11ad can solve this problem by providing the content in as little as a few seconds.” The first 802.11ad kiosks were demonstrated last year and the analyst predicts the first commercial ones will “probably ship in 2016.”
4K TVs are still receiving significant interest, but there needs to be more easily accessible content. Current trends show that this needs to be distributed digitally, not via traditional broadcasters and using disks. Left as is, the networks will not cope with binge-watching shows like House of Cards and new approaches to content distribution are needed if they are to both manage and divert the revenue streams from Netflix and Amazon back to their own distribution channels.
Balancing the spikes better to deliver content to a home hub overnight and managing the in-house distribution to both the TV and to mobile devices via the 4Gbps 802.11ad 60 GHz Wi-Fi will play a key role in achieving this. But the move to ever higher definition is happening and the third season of House of Cards was reportedly shot and finished up using 6K (6144 x 3160).
About the author:
Mark Barrett is CMO at Blu Wireless Technology – www.bluwirelesstechnology.com