Will broadband make or break 4K?

ByDuncan Heaney

If anything dominated this year’s CES – and BBC technology correspondent Mark Ward has postulated that the international technology trade show has lost its focus – it was 4K ultra high-definition (UHD) television.

Technology titans LG, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp and Sony all unveiled new ranges of TVs in Las Vegas that utilise the resolution - which is four times clearer than the HD you'll be familiar with - with each claiming, unsurprisingly, its take on 4K is the best.

Sony reckons its X900C Series is "the world's thinnest 4K TV"

David Katzmaier, US technology review website CNET's TV expert, believes these TVs show 2015 will be year that 4K replaces HD. Not in terms of us all going out and dropping upwards of £800 on a new TV, but in terms of 4K television sets overtaking HD television sets when it comes to enhancements and features.

But James McQuinvey, disruption analyst at technology advisory firm Forrester Research, argues that, while 4K televisions sets might be awesome, it doesn't mean many people will be buying one any time soon: "In a world where people are content to watch movies on mobile phones, trying to push TVs into higher and higher levels of quality is solving a problem viewers don't have."


While the same could have been said of HD, mobile movie-watching aside, its arrival coincided with people replacing their ginormous cathode ray tube TVs with flat screen LCD and plasma TVs.

However, what could determine whether 4K succeeds HD or flops like 3D TV is what you can watch in 4K. Not just in terms of quality and quantity, but how you get it.

As Katzmaier says, we won't see any dedicated 4K UHD channels in the near future - broadcasters will wait until enough people have compatible TVs to justify the cost, although they're likely to continue to trial the technology around big live events. This is obviously a problem, because people aren't going to buy 4K TVs in their droves unless there's stuff to watch in 4K.

This isn't the 4K Blu-ray player Panasonic showed off - this one 'upscales' Blu-rays if you have a 4K TV.

Panasonic showed off a 4K Blu-ray player at CES, which has been mooted as a way of 4K films and TV to people until broadcasters are convinced by it. However, before you even consider that Panasonic's player was a prototype and the extra cost of buying a 4K Blu-ray player on top of a 4K TV, there's the fact we're buying fewer DVDs and Blu-rays, and downloading and streaming more.

Is the prospect of 4K UHD exciting enough to reverse that trend and get people lining their living rooms with plastic cases again? It seems unlikely, which leads us to online. With Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix already making films and TV available in 4K, and both being relatively affordable, the best way to get the most people into 4K UHD would appear to via the internet.

TV and remote

Awesome… until you consider that most people don't have an internet connection capable of streaming in 4K. Netflix recommends a broadband download speed of at least 20Mb to stream in 4K, while Amazon recommends 25Mb or faster. The average actual broadband download speed in the UK according to communications regulator Ofcom is 18.7Mb.

This isn't way off Netflix's minimum, indicating there's a fair few homes with internet that could handle 4K, but Ofcom says there's "an increasingly compelling argument" that you need a download speed of at least 10Mb for everyone you live with to be able to do what they want online.

So, that means you're looking at a minimum download speed of 30-35Mb to be able to stream in 4K and still be able to do all your regular gubbins. And when you take into account that around half of all broadband in the country offers speeds of less than 10Mb, the pool of people able to stream in 4K suddenly begins to look relatively shallow.

With superfast broadband now available to over three-quarters of the country, and the government encouraging you to sign up for it, that should eventually change, but for the time being, ahead of price, whether you actually need it and even what there actually is to watch, it seems it could be broadband that makes or breaks 4K.


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