I ran into my friend Tom the other day. He’s worked at the intersection of media and technology pretty much from the beginning. When there’s a launch of a new media tech that promises to change the world, Tom’s always in the front row, taking notes.
At the end of last year, Tom received an invite to Netflix’s Australian launch. Tom had been hearing about the content licensing deals (protracted and expensive) for years, so the eventual announcement became an almost anticlimactic affair - except for one thing.
Netflix, eager to show off their future-proof status, demoed some streaming content shot in the Ultra High-def 4K format. UHD-capable monitors and televisions have recently dropped in price - today they’re only modestly more expensive than HD kit, but for all their popularity in the shops, there’s precious little content to drive sales. And if you can’t enjoy all those extra pixels, why pay for them?
This same chicken-and-egg dilemma hamstrung the recent and even-more-recently failed efforts to make 3DTV the Next Big Thing. No content means no audience means no sales.
Broadcast TV isn’t about to leap into the Ultra HD era. With audiences in slow decline, and revenues from advertising migrating to online and mobile channels, the economic incentive simply isn’t there. Costs to retrofit all of the broadcast infrastructure, globally, to accommodate UHD, would run into the tens of billions.
The Japanese, proud to be hosting the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, have been using that event to opportunistically drive UHD broadcasting and adoption in their home market. But that argument won’t carry the same weight anywhere else.
Moore’s Law means technology advances in video now vastly outpace changes to the broadcast distribution infrastructure. Broadcast has begun to fall behind, and it’s unlikely it will ever catch up.
Enter Netflix. Where the broadcasters have to conform to slow-to-develop and expensive-to-implement international standards for UHD, Netflix can simply treble or quadruple the number of bits they blast to customers from their banks of servers. That’s precisely what they wanted to show to the Australian media and media analysts - including my friend Tom.
Trouble is, the demo didn’t work. They hit play, then waited for the spinning animation to clear, and the content to play. They waited. And waited some more. No UHD content ever made it to the screen.
Those Netflix folks did their fastest tap dance, telling the audience Netflix could detect bandwidth insufficiency and invisibly drop to HD or even SD resolutions, on-the-fly. That’s a great example of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but not exactly the point they wanted to make.
Instead of proving Netflix could leapfrog Australia into the future of media, Netflix demonstrated Australia is not future-proofed.
That’s not surprising. An UHD stream requires anywhere from 15 to 25 Mbps. Although many ADSL2 connections throughout Australia can theoretically provide such bandwidth, in practice they nearly always deliver significantly less. Hundred year-old copper networks with decaying insulation can not be relied upon to perform at the upper ranges of their capacity.
Even the 50 Mbps promised as the cheap-and-cheerful alternative to Australia’s fibre-to-the-home National Broadband Network won’t accommodate two UHD streams into a home simultaneously - never mind the kinds of stresses they’ll put on a neighbourhood node when every home in the suburb tunes into two UHD content streams every night of the week.
That’s the immediate future for the United States, where Google Fibre’s rollout across several American cities has produced a change-of-heart in America’s not-exactly-beloved cable-and-broadband providers. Comcast - possibly the most hated company in North America - recently announced that by the end of this year, eighteen million customers would have access to 2 Gbps service.
That’s twenty times faster than the best we're advised Australians can expect. It means the Americans will be able to stream UHD content to their heart’s content, while Australians will barely be able to make a single stream work - and only if your neighbours allow you to be a bit greedy with the bandwidth.
Just as global TV broadcasting has been left behind by new technologies, Australia has already been left behind, unable to provide its consumers with the latest technologies, because we failed to invest for our future needs.
Everyone who argued in favour of a robust, fibre-based National Broadband Network predicted this day would come. That day - when our political and business failures become painfully and permanently clear - now lies in our past.
We’re growing used to the studied ignorance an obvious fact: Australia has already fallen dangerously behind. The longer Australia hesitates, in a stubborn refusal to see the plain truth, the further behind it falls. Eventually, Australia will disappear from the map of Nations That Matter, as the nation stares at a spinning animation, waiting for a future that never finishes loading. ®