Where is the high bandwidth internet for the masses?

Sunday, May 3, 2020 · 6 min read

Being cooped up at home got me looking into the new Xbox and PlayStation 5. I was curious about the innovations in the consoles since their successors. Both claim to have ray tracing and support for 8K graphics. This then got me thinking about how prevalent 8K televisions are today. 8K televisions seem to be in the same state as 4K televisions a few years ago. One thing I know through my life is that pixel density will continue to get bigger and bigger. I almost wonder if there is a Moore’s Law equivalent for pixel density… let’s take a look at televisions through the years.

Pixel density through the years

Standard definition television

The first electronic television was invented in 19271. Cable television systems originated in the United States in the late 1940s and were designed to improve reception of commercial network broadcasts in remote and hilly areas2. We can consider the televisions of this time to be what we know of as “standard definition.” Standard definition television (SDTV) is designed on the assumption that viewers in the typical home setting are located at a distance equal to six or seven times the height of the picture screen — on average some 10 feet away.

High definition television

High definition television (HDTV) has its roots in research that was started by Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, in 19703. For comparison, a 1080i HDTV signal offers about six times the resolution of a conventional 480i SDTV signal. HDTV also features a wider 16:9 aspect ratio format that more closely resembles human peripheral vision than the 4:3 aspect ratio used by conventional TVs in the past. Furthermore, HDTV is based on a system of 3 primary image signal components rather than a single composite signal, thus eliminating the need for signal encoding and decoding processes that can degrade image quality. Perhaps the biggest advantage over the old analog SDTV system is that HDTV is an inherently digital system.

4K resolution

In 1984, Hitachi released the CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) graphics processor ARTC HD63484, which was capable of displaying up to 4K resolution when in monochrome mode. The first displays capable of displaying 4K content appeared in 2001, as the IBM T220/T221 LCD monitors4.

8K resolution

Just like with HDTV, Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, was the first to start research and development of 8K resolution in 1995. The format was standardized in October 2007 and the interface was standardized in August 2010 and recommended as the international standard for television in 2012. The world’s first 8K television was unveiled by Sharp at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 20125. Screenings of 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in June 2014 were done in 8K6.

While there was a huge gap in time between HD and 4K televisions, HDTV continued to get better and better during those years. It is not like the industry was stagnant, there were more improved and better HDTVs made. It might be fun to take a bet that pixel density will double in size every ten years, but that is just being presumptuous.

What does this mean for bandwidth?

While it is fun to stick a finger in the air and try to estimate future pixel density growth, there is another point I want to make. If the next wave of consumer televisions is 8K what does that mean for streaming? Surely, this must have an effect on bandwidth.

For streaming HD, most providers recommend about 18mbps. For streaming 4K, providers recommend 25mbps. For streaming 8K, providers recommend 100mbps. This comes from the fact that 8K televisions have a frame rate of 120fps (frames per second). This is in contrast to 4K televisions that have a frame rate of either 30fps or 60fps. It’s also important to note, this doesn’t take into account that typically multiple devices on a network share the same bandwidth, so if your TV needs 100mbps, it is going to be shared between a computer, iPad, multiple phones, IoT devices, and whatever else is on your network. Typically you would want a multiple of the recommended speed so you can have multiple devices connected at the same time.

Let’s take a look at the average network speed. According to a report7 by speedtest.net in 20188, the average network download speed in the United States was 96.259. In the United Kingdom, the average network download speed was 50.1610. In Spain, the average network download speed was 60.1211. The United States seems to be the highest overall, but is still not cutting it for 8K streaming.

If we know that the pixel density of televisions is only going to increase over time, causing streaming services to need more bandwidth, why are we not seeing a bunch of fiber being laid down or other innovations to get faster internet to the mass market?12

You might remember that Google Fiber was trying to do this exact thing. The problem with the Google Fiber project was what is known as the “last mile” problem. The “last mile” is the last bit of cable to get the connection to your home or business, these are known as drop cables. Most folks have existing cable lines running to their home, which leaves fiber providers deciding between using those existing lines causing a decrease in speed or laying new fiber lines which is very expensive. Google Fiber chose the latter and it paid for that decision.

Fiber is similar to public infrastructure like a freeway, you need to put in the investment upfront but it will pay off dividends over time. Most companies do not get that and want an economic return upfront.

The solution to the “last mile” problem might be wireless, which leads us to the current innovations with satellites.

What about satellites?

Startups like Astranis13 claim to be able to provide broadband internet to the masses through satellites. Astranis’ first satellite will offer 7.5 gigabits per second of capacity for Pacific Dataport to use14. Elon’s Starlink15 has the same ambitious mission. Starlink claims they will offer plans to consumers with speeds up to a gigabit per second16.

While most of the world is spending time at home, video chatting and streaming services have become a household essential. As the world continues to move from physical to digital at a rapid pace, we should see high bandwidth internet take a front and center role. As someone who has wanted the dream of fiber, super fast internet for everyone, I can’t wait to see what comes of this. Whether by fiber or satellite, I hope we can reach massive bandwidth speeds across the world.

  1. https://bebusinessed.com/history/history-of-the-television/ [return]
  2. https://www.britannica.com/technology/standard-definition-television [return]
  3. https://ecee.colorado.edu/~ecen4242/marko/TV_History/related%20standards/HDTV_Past.htm [return]
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4K_resolution [return]
  5. https://www.businesstoday.in/technology/launch/ces-2013-sharp-showcases-worlds-first-8k-tv/story/191438.html [return]
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/8K_resolution [return]
  7. It’s definitely worth understanding why these numbers are so low. It is hard to know from just the data. It might be overall network capacity or possibly the network backbone is at capacity while the “last mile” is not. The former could be solved by more capacity as noted throughout this article, but the latter could be solved by more and better CDNs. Thanks to Alex Rasmussen for pointing this out! [return]
  8. I tried to find more recent numbers that were not from a sketchy source and couldn’t, would love if anyone knows of any. [return]
  9. https://www.speedtest.net/reports/united-states/2018/#fixed [return]
  10. https://www.speedtest.net/reports/united-kingdom/#fixed [return]
  11. https://www.speedtest.net/reports/spain/#fixed [return]
  12. Another great question is if consumers had 100mbps, would their (typically shitty) wifi setups even let them reap the benefits? Thanks to Scott Andreas for that great question! [return]
  13. https://www.astranis.com [return]
  14. https://spacenews.com/astranis-will-share-a-falcon-9-for-2020-small-geo-launch/ [return]
  15. https://www.space.com/spacex-starlink-satellites.html [return]
  16. https://www.fastcompany.com/90458407/spacex-satellite-broadband [return]