Nigel Walley, MD of DecipherEarlier in the week the House of Lords’ Communications Committee published a report that recommended that all TV should be delivered via the internet (original story here). On the Decipher ‘Off Air’ blog, Nigel Walley wrote a response to the report, arguing that the broadband infrastructure will be unable to handle Super HD, which he has kindly allowed VAN to republish here. Nigel is Managing Director of Decipher, the media strategy consultancy, and Chairman of the Decipher Group of companies, which includes iBurbia, the interactive media research lab.

In Nicholas Negroponte’s seminal 1995 book ‘Being Digital’ , he prophesied a ‘switch’ of media and communications technologies. His idea was that a major impact of the digital revolution would be that phone calls would switch from physical cables  to broadcast spectrum (ie mobile networks), and TV broadcasts would move from scarce broadcast spectrum to cables in the ground via the supposedly vast cable/internet networks.  The idea became known as the Negroponte Switch. Clearly, some of this revolutionary switch has begun to take place, but crucially broadcast TV is resisting the move.

Fast forward almost two decades to this week, when we saw a Committee of the House Lords belatedly endorse this view, recommending that the Government and industry should consider the long term possibility of switching terrestrial broadcast from spectrum to the Internet.

The problem is, having waited 20 years to read Being Digital, they haven’t spotted that the world has changed again. Cue really dull, technical announcement from the International Telecoms Union (ITU) and  a demo from the BBC:

The ITU have published technical specifications for the next two generations of super high resolution TV broadcast , heralding the inevitable arrival of Super HD and Ultra HD television.

Tonight, along with various others from the TV industry, Decipher is going to the BBC demonstration of SuperHD Olympics coverage being shown at the new Broadcasting House. People who have seen the early showings, say it is unbelievable (however, Olympics aside, I am not sure I want to see Eastenders’ Dot Cotton in SuperHD on my 55″ screen at home)? Either way, this is not vapour-ware any more.

So, just as we get our head round HD becoming mainstream, along comes Super HD. So what does this mean for Nicholas Negroponte, or the hapless House of Lords Committee? Well, the advancement between each of these step-ups is said to be equivalent to the upgrade from standard definition to HDTV. This means that, just as we want to start streaming TV to our iPads,  broadcast file sizes are about to get really big. In terms of mega-pixels, full 1080p  High Definition TV  is 2 MegaPixels (Mp); 4K quadruples that to 8Mp; and 8K increases the display resolution fourfold to 32Mp.  Can you imagine trying to stream a Champions League final to 10 million homes in the UK over the internet at 32Mp? **

There comes a point where the human eye is not able to differentiate and we may be nearing it. However, until that happens we appear to have a TV infrastructure ‘arms race’, with both the network world and the broadcast world innovating like crazy to make theirs the most TV friendly platform. Every time the average broadband speed in the UK jumps up, they invent a new broadcast file size four times bigger than the last one.

Clearly, there is an issue of cost and scale. Only a  small number of broadcasters will have the financial firepower and audience to warrant driving towards 4 and 8K. It is likely that one by one, the smaller channels will gradually make the switch, freeing up spectrum for the bigger ones to use for their SuperHD broadcasts.

Even so, 4K, 8K  (and lets not forget 3D) appear to be part of the broadcast world’s armoury in the growing fight to fend off the moment when the Negroponte Switch actually happens. Someone should tell the House of Lords.

*  Techie Note Borrowed From HDTVTest:  The new standards, developed with input from television industry experts as well as broadcasters, lays down the framework for not only 4K, but also 8K resolution.  (It’s called 8K because it uses eight thousand lines on the screen as opposed to the thousand and eighty – 1080 – used by HD). 4K’s 3840 x 2160 images will have twice the horizontal resolution of 1920 x 1080 high-def images; while 8K will double the figure to 7680 x 4320

**Consultants Weasely Caveat:  We have a rule at Decipher that as soon as you say something isn’t possible, then it is ‘pound to a penny’ that some little bastard is sitting in his garage in Seattle or somewhere, inventing something which makes it all possible.

If you’re in London or Glasgow and would like to experience Super HD for yourself, the BBC will be running free public screenings of the Olympics up until August 12, 2012. Tickets available here.

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  • Super Hi

    Some interesting arguments, but Super Hi Vision isn’t expected to launch until 2020. Google are about to bring Google Fiber to market in Kansas which will deliver speeds of 1000MB/S, so it seems reasonable to suggest that similar speeds or perhaps higher will be a lot more commonplace eight years down the road.