The advent of 4K UHD content brings new opportunities for operators along with a number of challenges in terms of costs, compatibility and compliance. Before discussing these, however, it’s important to note that the terms Ultra HD (UHD) and 4K have been used interchangeably by TV makers, broadcasters, the media and, as a result, consumers. While they are not the same, 4K appears to have caught on as the de facto term for both.
What’s often lost in the discussion is that the UHD specification allows for image enhancements beyond resolution that can greatly improve the consumer viewing experience. The UHD standard also allows for 8K resolution, which is mostly applicable for large commercial displays. The distinction between 4K and UHD content is critical for understanding how these new standards will impact an operator’s business model and security infrastructure.
The bottom line for operators currently is that continuing to meet the needs of existing customers and maintaining flexible service delivery are key to implementing a successful 4K UHD strategy. Operators who hope to take advantage of the opportunities will have to account for impacts to existing business models in terms of device resolution, encryption levels, bandwidth and scaling.
Ultra HD – Ready for Prime Time?
A number of factors influence the proliferation of 4K and UHD content, including bandwidth, technology infrastructure, security, device capabilities and of course, availability of the content itself. Satellite and Cable TV providers may currently be best positioned to roll out UHD content distribution in terms of bandwidth and sustained image quality, and services are slowly starting to become available.
However, over-the-top (OTT) is widely perceived to be the route to rolling out UHD VOD services. OTT providers such as Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Instant and Ultraflix have taken an early lead in terms of actual delivery of UHD content via video-on-demand (VOD) services. They are also furthering their commitment to producing UHD content, with Netflix and Amazon pledging to film every new original series or movie in native Ultra HD.
Movie studios on the other hand, face a serious dilemma when it comes to 4K content. While they are keen to deliver the stunning experience made possible by its near cinematic quality, the potential revenue loss from piracy is much greater due to the value of the content.
Studios are seeking a secure way to distribute 4K cinematic releases to the public at large as quickly as possible and the result is MovieLabs – a joint venture by the six major Hollywood studios to catalyze consumer media distribution and use. They have developed two different specifications for producing and distributing 4K content – one describing the standards used by the studios to produce 4K content and the other designed as security best practices for operators to secure 4K UHD content. Whether studio, operator or OTT, the move to provide UHD content should only be considered as a way to enhance, not replace, existing business models and infrastructure investments.
Pitfalls for Operators
Furthermore, a number of potential pitfalls must be factored into any UHD strategy. These include:
- Bandwidth – The bandwidth required for delivering UHD is one of the inhibiting factors to widespread rollout
- Licensing fees – While a new standard (HEVC/H.265) has been developed that provides better video compression, the licensing fees could be an issue for device manufacturers, content developers and operators
- Existing infrastructure – Those who hope to comply with the MovieLabs standards will also have to make much more significant enhancements to their existing infrastructures and expenditure is no guarantee of success
- Existing customers – Exported 4K content must be protected using the HDCP 2.2 standard. But many TVs and devices billed as 4K, are running HDCP 1.X. As a result, operators will have to choose between continuing to provide existing customers with their regular content, or delivering 4K content, which can only be viewed on devices that adhere to the new standard
- 4K Piracy – Operators must take a page from the pirate’s playbook when migrating to 4K UHD – offering the content isn’t enough. Providing maximum flexibility and ease of access for customers will become even more critical to success as the quality stakes are raise.
Growth and Monetization
While OTT providers have grabbed the initial 10-15% of the UHD market the content delivery is currently limited to VOD and “Catch-up TV” because the live content is difficult to stream. Offering a competitive live 4K UHD or UHD Premium experience means streaming content at 15 to 40 Mbps, depending on the level of frame rate and HDR support. As a result, broadcast operators currently have a significant network advantage over OTT vendors in the delivery of live events.
Alongside the challenge of growing a UHD offering, operators must also continue to monetize HD, SD and even analog content via the format and medium of their choice, or risk losing their core business. A conservative strategy for initiating UHD service offerings would be to first adopt 4K content that is not restricted by the MovieLabs specifications. This way, operators can extend their content offerings without cannibalizing existing business.
Operators may also want to consider negotiating with content owners such as studios for the rights to distribute 4K content at lower resolutions and quality using less stringent security. The forensic watermarking and anti-piracy response capabilities required by MovieLabs can be safely implemented at any time without interfering with an operator’s existing content or distribution models.
An effective 4K strategy could maximize electronic sell-through and download-and-go options for an operator’s existing content as well. By implementing strategies and platform upgrades incrementally, operators can take an evolutionary approach to integrating 4K into their business model. This will allow them to grow their 4K UHD offering in-line with consumer demand, while also carefully managing the required investment, impact on business models and the greater security and technical requirements.
Bruce Curtin is a technical solutions manager at Irdeto, focusing recently on next generation media protection solutions, including 4K UHD and related MovieLabs security.