Could downloads kill 4K online?

Josh Wein

If the TV set makers get their way, we will soon own "Ultra HD" or "4K" displays. These new TV sets, which have four times the resolution of today's top-of-the-line 1080p sets, are supposedly so breathtakingly amazing, we'll all want one on our walls.

Whether that's true is an open question. But it seems certain online video distributors will provide anyone with a need for that many pixels with their 4K fix for quite some time. Traditional linear TV providers, already burned by forays into 24-hour 3D networks, will probably be reluctant to devote the bandwidth necessary to provide 4K networks before a wider audience develops.

Online distributors can more easily justify adding some 4K programming even if only a small number of viewers will watch it.

But 4K files are so big, it's doubtful viewers will be able to stream them for the foreseeable future, Kurt Michel, Akamai's director of product marketing for digital media, told me. "If 4K is going to be big, we're probably not talking about streaming as the sweet spot," he said. "We're probably talking about downloads, or maybe progressive media where you can start watching it before all the content is delivered."

Sony has seemingly acknowledged this with the new download store it introduced earlier this month, Sony Video Unlimited 4K.

That could be problematic for consumer adoption. At a time when everything is moving to the cloud--even DVR recordings--asking consumers to download huge files and store them locally seems like a risky strategy. Online video devices are getting smaller and cheaper and they increasingly have little to no storage built into the device. Sony's 4K Ultra HD Media Player (Model FMP-X1) retails for $700 and includes a 2 TB hard drive.

Using today's codecs, streaming 4K video would require anywhere from 40 to 50 Mbps, according to Michel. That's a level of bandwidth most U.S. broadband subscribers don't approach.

Of course all video, including 4K, will become easier to distribute as encoding and decoding technology improves. With next-generation codecs, 4K streaming could be achieved at 15 to 20 Mbps, a far more manageable bitrate.

But even at 20 Mbps, 4K streams would put a significant strain on network resources. If it takes off, accommodating 4K streaming might require new Internet infrastructure geared toward multicast 4K streams, Michel said. The idea is to send a single 4K file to some local point in a neighborhood where presumably more than a few viewers live, then branching it out to individual sets from there. Akamai and others are already at work building such and architecture--Qwilt is an example of a company working on it from the network-operator side--and it clearly has applications beyond 4K.

While the industry is waiting, consumers may move in another direction. Or rather, they may stay put. Sony's new 84-inch 4K set costs $25,000, which includes the cost of the 4K player, a tablet, wall mount, installation and "VIP consultation." Obviously, it's not for everybody. --Josh | +Josh Wein | @JoshWein