Welcome back to our series exploring the nuts and bolts of resolution and how it affects network speed and bandwidth.
In Part 1, we covered the road to high definition, and explained why the rise of 8K is putting new emphasis on the need for structured wiring installations to futureproof homes against an inevitable bandwidth crunch.
In Part 2, we explored the relationship between network speed, throughput, and compression.
In this third installment, we’ll dive into “lossy” compression codecs and how media streaming sites like Netflix are handling bandwidth demands.
4K and 8K streaming problems
As we mentioned in the last installment, streaming video requires lots and lots of bandwidth. Compression helps reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted, but this can lead to a loss in original video and audio quality.
That wasn’t a problem 10 or 15 years ago, when lower resolutions were the norm. But now, in the high-definition (720p and 1080p) and ultra high-definition (4K and 8K) era, “lossy” compression is the only way to squeeze all that data into the pipe for real-time video streaming.
What does that mean for the end user? It’s simple: There’s actually a very distinct difference between watching a movie on 4K Blu-ray and streaming that same movie in 4K through a service like Netflix or Amazon Prime. While the picture may be sharp and crisp on a 4K streaming service, it won’t have the same level of richness and depth in color and contrast as a 4K Blu-ray.
The streamed content also won’t sound as cinematic. Audio on a service like Netflix is usually compressed Dolby Digital Plus in 5.1, whereas 4K Blu-rays pack uncompressed Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD Master Audio in 7.1, delivering powerful cinema-quality audio unmatched by anything on a streaming service.
The same goes for streaming music through some services, such as Spotify. On Spotify, all audio is compressed, and depending on your level of subscription you have the option of streaming at 96kbps, 160kbps, or 320kbps.
This is why most audiophiles subscribe to TIDAL instead, and opt for the service’s HiFi package. Unlike Spotify, TIDAL HiFi streams completely uncompressed CD-quality audio.
Current limitations: Adaptive bitrates and lossy video compression
One of the ways streaming services like Netflix manage the demands of delivering high volumes of data to end users is something called adaptive bitrate streaming technology.
In a nutshell, this approach to streaming involves compressing and encoding content at multiple bitrates and allowing the player client to switch between the different bitrates depending on the end user’s bandwidth. The advantage here is less buffering and faster start times, two things that are critical to maintain the single biggest advantage of video streaming: Convenience.
The downside, of course, is a loss in quality from the original source. Up until now, “lossy” video compression has served us all well, but it’s on the verge of becoming unacceptable for video streaming. As 4K streaming becomes the new norm, and 8K streaming emerges for early adopters, customers will be unwilling to accept a loss in quality.
The evolution of compression codecs
Today, there’s a competition underway to crown the next industry standard compression codec. This will mostly impact device manufacturers, but telecom technicians and installers should take note as well.
The battle is between Google’s VP9 and the Alliance for Open Media’s AV1. Both codecs aim to solve the same problem: Compressing and encoding ever-larger media files (4K and 8K video) into smaller bitrates.
For end users, however, this is only one half of the resolution equation. Because both codecs still leverage adaptive bitrate streaming technology, video quality will ultimately hinge on the end user’s available bandwidth. That’s no different than the limitations of today, but imagine the videophiles of tomorrow who want to be early adopters of 8K video streaming. Do you think they’ll accept having their 8K stream being downgraded to 4K video quality—or worse—just because their internet network can’t support 8K streaming?
Preparing for the streaming demands of tomorrow
No matter what compression technology is available, and regardless of Wi-Fi quality or even the emergence of 5G, the demands of ultra-high definition streaming will require a robust internet network in the home.
Fiber to the premises delivers the highest bandwidth possible, but to truly futureproof homes for the streaming demands of tomorrow you need to go a step further. Structured wiring solutions in the home will remove the bitrate bottleneck of Wi-Fi and ensure the highest bandwidth possible is available for media streaming devices.