Ready or not, ultra HD is here

Networking will prove vital to the success of ultra HD.

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As women's soccer teams took the field for the final match of FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 this summer, some fans enjoyed the games via 8K video - the most technologically advanced high-definition video technology on the market. Fox Sports and NHK, Japan's national public broadcasting organization, offered invitation-only 8K demos of the Japan vs. Cameroon game, and the U.S. vs. Nigeria match at the Fox Studio lot in Los Angeles. To top it off, FIFA and NHK produced the championship game in ultra-HD 8K and presented in live viewings in Japan, as well. Viewer response was positive, to say the least.

A week later, a nighttime baseball game between the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners was broadcast in 8K. Sports fanatics can't seem to get enough of the lush images, saturated colors, and level of detail that makes it feel like you're sitting in the stadium. However, network operators and video distributors have been more cautious, debating the different ways to ready the network for this latest bandwidth hog.

At 7,680 by 4,320 pixels, about the equivalent of a 33-megapixel photo, the resolution of 8K is 16 times that of standard HD and four times that of 4K broadcasts. It also has a 22.2 multichannel sound system.

But, wait...8K? It wasn't too long ago when we were talking about the potential of 4K. In fact, in a previous post on this site, I shared some of my 2015 predictions, one of those being that the 4K broadcasting standard would become the norm this year. More than halfway through 2015, we're beginning to see this take hold. For example, Amazon Video just started streaming 4K ultra HD (UHD) content to select consumers in July, and Netflix, already offering 4K, says it will have additional HDR content ready to stream in the coming months. Even over-the-air 4K TV has gone through a few successful trials. 4K is here, but as is typical in our industry, just when one technology starts to take hold, a more advanced one comes along that could usurp it in a snap. Not to mention, there are significant factors driving 8K, such as the Japanese government's plans to launch 8K in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

So what does this mean for a network guy like me? All of these advanced video capabilities put added strain on the network. The network will need to be much more powerful, delivering millions of megapixels in high clarity and with ultra-low latency. Instantly transmitting a live ultra HD signal poses significant challenges, from the need for more advanced cameras to transporting these huge video streams in real-time back to broadcast centers and around the globe. And with 4K and 8K, there will be significantly more demand for data storage and network bandwidth. The higher-performance 8K cameras can easily consume multiple 10GbE ports, with some vendors asking for 40-50 Gb transport capabilities. To further illustrate the scope of the issue, a 1-minute-long 8K video requires over 275GB of storage space. If the network can't keep up, consumers will hesitate to invest in 8K, or worse, condemn it as a niche and ‘not for me' option. So, once again, the network is table stakes.

While the adoption of 4K and 8K video broadcasting for special events is picking up, these technology implementations are far from mainstream, real-time production environments. Thankfully, broadcasters recognize that high-speed, high-performance networks are critical to delivering the best possible live, instantaneous HD and Ultra HD coverage of every pass, kick, and tackle, without the need to compress and degrade the signal due to capacity constraints. This is great news for for viewers and sports fans alike, and I look forward to watching the industry come together to deliver on its promise.

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