Images emblazoned on blades of grass and much more – a revolution in television is coming, writes Haydn Green
When ultra-high definition football (UHD) broadcasts were launched in the UK, Sony took out advertising printed on blades of grass and the studs of players’ boots. It was a stunt, but the point was made: the images are so clear you can see even the smallest details.
UHD (also known as 4K) TVs are the biggest growth market for manufacturers like Samsung and LG. UHD content is becoming much easier to get, and devices from game consoles to media boxes are 4K-compatible. This is definitely not a fad.
There is an issue with the format, however. High definition means large files. The more detail you pack in the more information needs to be stored in the files. This increases again if the content includes high dynamic range (HDR) – and high-quality audio, such as Dolby Atmos.
In the UK, those UHD football matches were broadcast by BT (formerly British Telecom) over VDSL broadband. But here in New Zealand we have the chance to go one better, we can use UFB fibre.
Chorus has begun trials to see if New Zealand’s fibre network can be used as a
“Images emblazoned on blades of grass and much more - a revolution in television is coming”
broadcast medium direct to people’s homes. No more rain fade, no more aerials. Right now, it’s a proof of concept, but the potential is massive.
Kurt Rodgers, Chorus’ network strategy manager, says “the end-to-end 4K television ecosystem has been developing fast and is now ready to go mainstream. A surprisingly large number of New Zealand households already have 4K-capable television sets and most televisions sold these days are 4K. In fact, we already have 4K streaming over the
internet. Netflix does it, so does YouTube. What Chorus is proposing is slightly different.
“Fibre broadband will be available to 87 percent of the New Zealand population by 2022, and we’re connecting homes at a rate of one every minute of the working day,” says Rodgers. “This means that New Zealand will have the infrastructure in place to take 4K to the mass market.”
The service would run in parallel to any other broadband service also provided over the fibre network. It would use a second port on the optical network terminal (ONT), which would be installed in homes, to connect to consumers’ televisions. What this means in practical terms is still up in the air, but the development of the technology is exciting. Because fibre has a much higher capacity level, this separate broadcast service wouldn’t be connected to – or have an impact on – your regular broadband (although it may require a physical connection from the ONT to your television). It also means that if everyone in your neighbourhood is watching the rugby, you can still happily stream Netflix.
“A surprisingly large number of New Zealand households already have 4K-capable television sets and most televisions sold these days are 4K”
“4K isn’t worth paying for if the performance is bad,” says Hema Patel, general manager of Spark’s Lightbox, so she’s looking forward to the results of the Chorus test. So is Mediaworks. "We're always open to any new technology that makes our product more accessible and the viewer experience better," says a spokesperson.
The current 4K streaming experience is mixed. Netflix offers a UHD “premium” service for an extra $3.50 per month. Apple’s iTunes store sells UHD movies, but you can only view them on your television with the 4K Apple TV device.
Even having a 4K television is a barrier. While most homes have high-definition television, 4K UHD televisions are still rare. However this television category is the fastest growing one. Companies like LG and Samsung are in a race to get as many people converted to high dynamic range UHD televisions as possible.
And sport could be the driver that pushes this technology through to consumers the fastest.
“If there is ever going to be demand for 4K content, it will be for sports,” says Patel. She’s right. Just before the last Rugby World Cup there was a spike in sales of televisions as everyone rushed to upgrade. Manufacturers are bracing for the same again next year.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup is going to be broadcast by TVNZ and Spark, not Sky. And, while no decision has made concerning exactly how the games will be broadcast, they will be streamed over broadband. This means that if the Chorus trial works we could see the All Blacks broadcast over the fibre network next year.
Rodgers says New Zealanders are even keener watchers of sport than the British and deserve to get the same high-quality images on their screens. Rugby has yet to be broadcast in UHD in New Zealand.
“4K video-on-demand services are already available via the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime, but it’s going to be live streaming of major events like sport that really make 4K compelling to viewers.
Our nation’s favourite sports – rugby, cricket and netball – will all look fabulous in 4K quality. Bring it on.”
But sport is fleeting, what’s beyond that?
“There’s not a lot of 4K television content but there are a lot of 4K movies,” notes Patel. Lightbox is currently moving to a new platform and will be offering pay-per-view movies, so 4K delivery is at the forefront of their thinking.
Chorus has said it will offer all broadcasters the same opportunities. So, we could see a brand-new version of Freeview, but delivered in a different way and with a lot more functionality.
Beyond simple 4K television there is a whole other world. Broadcasting over a UFB fibre network means you can add different layers to programmes. This could include different language tracks or interactivity, or the ability to change camera angles in real time. It also means we could potentially see television become more accessible with the use of closed captions and descriptive audio tracks. There is even the chance that captioning could be delivered by a third party, rather than relying on the broadcaster to do it.
Things that you could previously only do with pre-recorded shows will be possible with live television. And all simply because the UFB fibre network can carry more information than a regular broadcast ever could.
The fibre network is increasingly covering the country, and a significant number of homes are now connected. The race is on for 2019. The chance is there. Hopefully, someone will grab it.