Broadband capacity crunch looms as 4K adoption accelerates

2 March 2017 by Steve Blum
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Broadband hits the video wall.

On current trends, at least 25 million U.S. consumers will be watching ultra high definition video programming via 4K television sets within two years. That’s a very rough estimate, but if it’s off, it’s probably low. But let’s run with it for the moment.

It means that at least 20% of U.S. homes will be looking for 4K-quality video programming. Satellite is a natural source for it and cable companies will try to push some through as well. But much of the new, original programming that’ll be available will be produced by over-the-top video platforms like Netflix or Amazon, and consumers will want to watch that too.

Right now, it takes a steady, 15 Mbps streaming connection to watch 4K video via the Internet, and there’s no immediate prospect of minimum speeds dropping significantly.

That has big implications for the broadband business. Watching 4K via DSL will be impossible for most subscribers and very difficult for the rest, and you can forget about trying to do it via any kind of affordable wireless connection. Cable modem service can deliver enough speed to a home, but there’s a backhaul bottleneck that will limit the bandwidth that’s available on an aggregate, neighborhood basis. If a fifth of the subscribers on a 500-home node are watching one 4K stream each, you’ll need a gigabit and a half of steady backhaul, and that’s out of the reach of many, if not most, cable systems. Depending on design and provisioning, fiber networks can have similar capacity constraints.

The fall back excuse that Internet service providers – cable, telco and all flavors of wireless – trot out when defending poorly performing systems or pressed about upgrade plans and the need for competition is no one actually needs that much bandwidth. Even if it was a valid argument in the past, the adoption rate of 4K televisions sets and service is quickly rendering it completely false.