You can buy an ultra-high definition TV, but there's not much to watch in NZ

by Peter Griffin / 12 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Ultra-high definition NZ

Hollywood movies and Netflix TV shows are now all shot in 4K.

The shops are full of TVs capable of ultra-high definition, but New Zealand is lagging behind other countries in mainstream delivery.

A technology bottleneck means most Kiwis are yet to experience the much-touted ultra-high definition of the latest “4K” televisions. You may have already splashed out $1000-plus for one, but 95% of what you’ll be watching doesn’t make full use of its capabilities.

That’s because cameras, satellites, TV towers and internet connections need to be upgraded to deliver 4K content, and that’s a mammoth task.

Each frame of ultra-high-definition (UHD) video has four times the information of the high definition (HD) we are used to. That means a smoother, more life-like picture. Just type “nature 4K” into YouTube for samples of the best picture-quality 4K smart TVs can display.

Hollywood movies and Netflix TV shows are now all shot in 4K and can be seen in that format on streaming services. But the bulk of watching won’t budge from HD to UHD until the free-to-air broadcasters and Sky TV upgrade their networks and on-demand internet services to support 4K broadcasts and streams.

We are lagging behind the US, Europe and Australia in UHD viewing. But a few baby steps are being made towards its mainstream delivery.

Freeview, which broadcasts free-to-air channels around the country, has started testing 4K broadcast TV on channel 201. The signal can be picked up on a Freeview-compatible TV or late-model Freeview set-top box.

Channel 201 is beamed from the Waiatarua broadcast tower atop the Waitākere Ranges, so is available only in the Auckland region. Freeview will need to upgrade its entire terrestrial broadcast network to support national 4K transmission of TVNZ, MediaWorks and Prime content.

Sky doesn’t support 4K but has a plan to switch its subscribers from their present set-top boxes next year when it introduces a new video standard that will free up satellite bandwidth for UHD channels. That puts it well behind Australian pay-TV operator Foxtel, which from October will start delivering channel 444 via satellite in 4K.

Tokyo Skytree broadcasting tower. 4K came to Japan in 2014. Photo/Getty Images

Tokyo Skytree broadcasting tower. 4K came to Japan in 2014. Photo/Getty Images

The main drawcard will be cricket. Foxtel plans to shoot Australian tests, one-day internationals and some Big Bash matches in 4K for satellite broadcast. Subscribers will need not only a compatible 4K TV, but also Foxtel’s new iQ4 set-top box and the latest HDMI cable to link the box and TV.

The internet may provide the most straightforward means of delivering 4K, even for Sky. Chorus, which built the ultra-fast broadband network, has been testing 4K video delivery in conjunction with Freeview in anticipation of an explosion in data use as more people watch 4K.

Vodafone already delivers Sky’s channels over the internet for subscribers to its Vodafone TV service, using a fibre connection or high-speed VDSL copper link. So 4K video streaming is the next logical step, provided there’s enough bandwidth.

To watch a 4K video stream in your home, you need a connection of at least 25Mbps (megabits per second). That puts it out of reach of most broadband users not connected to the ultra-fast broadband network.

Next year’s Rugby World Cup in Japan is a logical test bed for delivery of live 4K broadcasts over the internet, via broadcast TV, or both. But Spark and TVNZ outbid Sky for the tournament’s broadcast rights.

Spark, in providing its first pay-per-view online coverage of a big event,  won’t want to risk a disaster such as befell Australia’s Optus in attempting to stream the Fifa World Cup.

That failure had nothing to do with 4K, but even the BBC limited access to 4K streams of the football on its iPlayer service, knowing the bandwidth requirements involved.

The dearth of 4K content can be expected to continue for another year or so, bar limited trials, unless you have the patience to search out UHD video on the web.

This article was first published in the September 8, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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