4K is just around the bend, waiting to ambush service providers

It's probably too early to start sounding Paul Revere alarms that 4K is coming, UltraHD is coming, batten down your networks, the big change is on the horizon.

On the other hand, it's never too early to point to what could be the next disruptive technology that will send the service provider community into at least a modicum of, if not full-fledged, turmoil.

Word this week from international news sources is that 4K--or UltraHD, depending on who's doing the naming--could pounce onto the scene as early as 2014. That's about two years ahead of when most people thought it was coming, and two less years that service providers have to get prepared. It was already part of demonstrations and displays at CES, where TV makers showed off what they hope will be the next big sales item.

4K, for the uninitiated--and there are many of us--is simply the next generation of HDTV. It doubles the number of pixels on a TV screen, essentially improving the viewing experience to the point where consumers can sit closer to bigger screen TVs without seeing picture degradation. In short, it's a way for consumer electronics giants in Japan to sell more big screen TVs in the United States.

4K is not necessarily a new technology--thousands of theaters are already equipped to show it; movies have been shot in it; and Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX), for one, has announced plans to deliver it with partners like Cablevision (NYSE: CVC) and Suddenlink.

Even with all that going for it, though, 4K is still a peripheral technology, so the news that the Japanese government is pushing incentives to help its vendors move forward into the space is something of a disruption to the normal product development process.

It's even more disruptive for service providers who were hoping to sit back for a moment and enjoy the results of all the hard work they did to make HDTV the accepted way to watch television. According to the latest research from Leichtman Research Group (LRG), about 75 percent of U.S. homes are equipped with at least one HDTV thanks to service providers who took steps ranging from tweaks to full-scale tear-down-and-start-over efforts to be able to deliver about 77 HD channels to every residence.

And now along comes 4K, which obviates all that work and sends service providers back to the drawing table to figure out how to handle it. It's easier if you're all-IP, of course, but it's no slam dunk even there. It's even more difficult if you're still delivering traditional MPEG-based content.

4K, among other things, consumes more bandwidth, so networks will have to be tweaked. It doesn't work on the current generation of set-top boxes, so they'll have to be replaced, unless a clever software fix can be found. And, even with all the theatrical content, it isn't nearly as ubiquitous as HD. Still, it's there… and if the Japanese have their way, it will be here sooner than anyone anticipated.

Perhaps the most important thing about 4K is that it is a migration, an evolutionary technology, not a revolutionary technology. That means, unlike 3D, which continues to struggle for acceptance, it can and will be included relatively quickly and easily into consumer electronics. And that's why, although alarm bells are still muffled, service providers are no doubt gearing up for a frenzy of activity to meet a demand that consumers right now don't even know they have. -Jim