In the US, streaming sites such as Netflix and Amazon, as well as pay-TV operators such as Comcast and DirecTV, are making headlines with their 4K initiatives.
Asia, however, is home to both the biggest market for 4K TVs – China – as well as the country with the highest proportion of 4K-capable broadband homes – South Korea.
Only a handful of homes in Asia-Pacific can enjoy 4K TV, but the marketing fanfare that announces the next wave of higher-resolution content – often long before it actually arrives – has already started, in large growth markets such as China and India as well in tech frontrunners such as Korea and Japan.
The path to market, however, may not be the same followed by its predecessor, HD. This time round, big video streaming players such as Netflix and Amazon are also joining the 4K race in the US, ratcheting up competition and potentially accelerating uptake.
A similar story is playing out in digital markets in Asia, with video sites in China and telcos in Korea adding to the marketing noise over 4K.
Disagreements over technical standards that slow the rollout of new technologies are cheaper to resolve for cloud-based services, while workflows are simpler for on-demand viewing, making it easier for OTT platforms to move ahead.
At the same time, the glitz and cachet of big-budget dramas in 4K also help broadband-based services differentiate themselves from more traditional alternatives, as the battle for subscription revenue intensifies.
speedbumps on some roads
In contrast, more established pay-TV platforms need to commit capital expenditure upfront when introducing a new technology for cable and satellite distribution.
Disagreement on technical specifics for areas such as delivery and content protection presents a major hurdle, and 4K is no exception.
Indeed, with moves already afoot to test 8K services in Japan, broadcasters could conceivably bypass 4K altogether, if disputes over technical standards aren’t resolved soon.
UHD and 4K represent different technologies for example – focused respectively on requirements for broadcast and production – even they are often used interchangeably, especially by TV set manufacturers.
While both deliver similar resolution, they are further apart on areas such as encoding, making it difficult to iron out wrinkles in the workflow, especially for multiscreen delivery.
To complicate matters further, many content-makers are more interested in improvements in color quality, looking instead to new technologies such as HDR (high-dynamic-range) imaging, rather than ever-increasing resolution.
This adds to content scarcity, as always the biggest brake on consumer adoption.
Many films continue to be made in 2K for instance, especially those incorporating a lot of consumer-generated special effects.
“Hollywood studios haven’t embraced it as fully as we would like,” notes David Habben, chief strategist for media in Asia-Pacific and Japan for Akamai Technologies, a content delivery network.
“They have a lot of costs associated with producing 4K,” Habben says. “They have to look at their economics, and the question of will consumers pay extra hasn’t really been resolved."
Habben adds: "Outside of Japan and Korea, most of the 4K models we see running are experiments in the market, albeit large-scale.”
Another major obstacle, especially for broadcasters, is the scarcity of live sport in 4K.
Sport tends to be the main driver for any new viewing experience, but despite some showcase broadcasts around the last football World Cup, take-off for regular sports broadcasts in 4K looks some way off.
Preparation for next year’s Summer Olympics in Brazil, for example, is geared more towards supplementing broadcasts with virtual reality content, rather than delivering them in 4K.
Pay-TV Operators Join In
Nonetheless, US pay-TV operators such as Comcast, DirecTV and Dish are also jumping on the bandwagon with on-demand 4K services of their own.
For Comcast and DirecTV, these started as smart TV partnerships with Samsung, but 4K capable set-tops should follow later this year.
The addressable market is still relatively small, although new technologies tend to gain traction once they are in 10-20% of TV homes.
According to Akamai, just over one in five fixed-line broadband connections in the US can stream content at an average of 15Mbps or higher – a standard seen as good enough (but not ideal) for 4K streaming.
Shipments of 4K TV sets are also building up stream, on track for 5.7 million panels in North America this year and just over 11 million in 2016, according to research firm IHS.
Globally, prices are coming down, while replacement cycles in affluent markets are contracting, speeding up household penetration.
By the end of next year, about 20% of TVs shipped worldwide will be 4K-capable, IHS says, up from less than 2% in 2013.
Notably, the world’s biggest market by far is China, accounting for just over 14 million 4K TV shipments this year, set to rise to 22 million in 2016.
The country’s biggest streaming sites are testing the waters with 4K set-tops that can connect to cloud-based movies and dramas, deploying workarounds such as content downloads and peer-to-peer streaming to navigate bandwidth limitations.
One, LeTV, which also makes its own consumer hardware including TVs and set-top boxes, has amassed a library of over 3,000 hours of 4K content.
Almost half is self-produced, especially drama, as third-party 4K production in China is focusing on movies for now.
Meanwhile, the environment for 4K streaming is especially promising in Asia’s highly connected markets.
Korea, Hong Kong and Japan all rank in the top five markets with the highest proportion of fixed line broadband connections averaging above 15Mpbs, Akamai figures show, with Korea a clear leader.
Korea also leads the world in fixed line connections averaging 25Mbps or more, at 31%. Hong Kong is ranked second with 17%, followed by Sweden at 15% and Japan at 13%.
European markets fill out the rest of the top 10.
Korean telcos such as LG U+, KT and SK Broadband unveiled ultra-high definition (UHD) video-on-demand services last year, offering upconverted HD and pure UHD content from local and Hollywood studios.
This year, KT’s hybrid DTH and IPTV operator KT SkyLife upped the ante with three UHD channels: two self-curated drama and factual offerings plus UXN, a movie and entertainment channel from CJ E&M.
In Japan meanwhile, DTH operator SkyPerfect also debuted two UHD channels earlier this year, a general entertainment offering together with a movie channel which also incorporates pay-per-view services.
Additionally, Japanese free-to-air broadcaster Fuji TV recently pulled back the wraps on 4K content for its own Fuji On Demand streaming service, including Mysterious Summer, a drama it co-produced with Chinese video site iQiyi.
Indian DTH platforms, Tata Sky and Videocon d2h, are also marketing their 4K capabilities. However, apart from a few cricket matches, both bandwidth and locally produced 4K content in India are still in short supply.