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The sustainability of delivering high resolution’s wow factor

Chris Wood, CTO at Spicy Mango, explains that sacrificing stream speeds to preserve quality of experience isn't exclusive to Netflix... it's a continuation of an age old problem

There has been a seismic change in the way businesses are operating in 2020 as a result of the Coronavirus, and now there is much talk of what the future business infrastructure will look like for the next decade. But, with more households requiring the internet for both work and pleasure, the demand on bandwidth has increased, and in turn streaming platforms like Netflix have been experimenting with restricted streaming speeds – with the aim of reducing load and improving the quality of experience to more of its users.

The current climate once again highlights the argument over the long-term sustainability of being able to successfully deliver ultra high-resolution content on an ongoing basis. Perhaps more critically; the ability to sustain the initial wow factor that we’re presented with when these technologies are initially demonstrated to the world.

Despite customers and the media criticising the likes of Netflix for reducing streaming speeds in order to cope with the extra demand that Coronavirus has presented, it’s the only way for Netflix to ensure that the quality of experience (QoE) isn’t compromised. But Netflix didn’t start this trend – and this is merely just a continuation of an age old problem.

Quality versus experience

It’s a known formula that an increase in resolution requires an increase in data rate. Why? More pixels need more bits, and without those bits there is a huge visual quality problem. In short, resolution means nothing alone. With HD assets typically encoded and served between 5 and 7mbps, higher resolution 4K equivalents almost double this – typically reaching highs of between 8 and 16mbps – with 8K magnifying this even more again. These increases in data rate certainly bring fantastic picture quality, but to what cost – both financially to the provider, and to the quality of experience.

With all this said, the resolution game continues beyond streaming services and network providers and into consumer electronics manufacturers. Year on year, the biggest brands work hard to market their latest and greatest products, with current offerings including UHD TVs with up to 8K resolution. These UHD canned demos within electrical and department stores present an incredible user experience, with content often displayed next to ‘standard’ HD, conditioned and downscaled – of course creating the ‘wow’ factor.

As we know from history, these early high resolution experiences rarely last a few months. When the BBC HD service launched in June 2006, it was sporting a not-to-be-frowned-at bit rate of 19mbps. But over time (and not really that long a time), there was no denying that the crispness and depth of image started to dwindle a little. But were viewers across the country just ‘seeing things’? Especially for those with experience in the video arena, this was unlikely.

Soon enough, with many consumers noticing something was ‘different’, the BBC was forced to admit that “the BBC has an absolute responsibility to use bandwidth efficiently”. This is code for: “sorry, but this is really quite expensive and we need to scale this back a little.” Today, the same HD service operates at an average of 4.1mbps – a 78 per cent reduction in bitrate. Sure, encoding efficiencies will give a little back, but not to this order of magnitude.

As the initial wow factor plateaued, it can only be assumed that supporting these high bitrates on an ongoing basis really wasn’t viable. The financial impact of delivery just wasn’t netting out against any potential increase in new subscribers or revenue. The bean counters won out. Somewhere, some cost had to be reduced, and the delivery bill seemed like a pretty easy target. Is the channel still HD? Sure, tick the resolution marketing box. Is the level of depth and quality akin to how we first saw it in the World Cup trial of 2006? Not exactly.

You don’t need to be a video aficionado to see this. Many will notice that quality of HD channels just isn’t what it used to be, and SD is now scarcely watchable on the portfolio found in the lower depths of the EPG.  

A resolution race

This returns the argument back to the original case in point: sustainability. It could be argued that the satellite industry caught onto this challenge much earlier that the OTT industry; perhaps because the costs of delivery over satellite are significantly higher. That said, it’s hard to know whether efforts to introduce throttling of video will be limited to the short term.

What is known is that whilst the current situation has been more difficult and frustrating than many of us perhaps expected, it’s certainly highlighted that remote working will become a more permanent fixture in our lives. With this change will come a more sustained increase in the data volumes that everyone consumes. Video calls, Voice over IP, webinars and media streaming – all will serve to add to the existing bits being pushed and pulled from consumers’ homes.

In the resolution race to tick the marketing box and drive sales, the reality could be that the data rates needed to sustainably deliver high quality content at these resolutions may be hard to find.