Almost all TV programmes today are shot in high definition and movies in higher quality still. Even old ones are often being remastered in 4K, to get the best from the current generation of screens.
At the same time, fewer than ever are being viewed by the traditional methods of an aerial or satellite dish on the roof. Instead, they’re being streamed over the internet – on Netflix, the iPlayer and a dozen other services.
It’s a trend that is not increasing so much as exploding – which is something to bear in mind the next time you wonder whether your internet connection is fast enough.
High-definition and ultra high-def video takes an enormous amount of bandwidth if it’s to be streamed without stuttering or buffering, and devours conventional data allowances faster than kids around a birthday cake. And that’s just for a single movie. But in many households, different users have three or four streams on the go at once, which makes a superfast connection look suddenly like a bottleneck on the M62.
It’s less than five years since fibre broadband connections, typically delivering up to 72 megabits of data per second, overtook “fast” ADSL as the broadband of choice – but such is the proliferation of video on demand that it is now showing its age.
Fibre is delivered either by optical cables from the telephone exchange to the roadside cabinets dotted around towns and suburbs and then by copper wire to your house; or by the national cable network run by Virgin. In the first case, the distance between the roadside cabinet and your house determines the extent to which the data slows down on the last leg of its journey.
It is this anomaly that the next generation of “ultrafast” broadband attempts to remove. The regulator, Ofcom, defines ultrafast as 300 or more megabits of data per second, and it is already available in several pockets of the country. By the end of the decade, it will be commonplace.
Superfast addresses the weaknesses in the present system either by extending the high-speed fibre cables from the roadside cabinets to your front door, or by a hybrid method that has the effect of bringing the cabinets closer. This is known as G.Fast, and it will be the next buzzword on broadband connectivity.
The attraction of G.Fast to internet companies is that it is cheaper and easier to deliver than digging up roads to replace the thousands of miles of old copper telephone cabling that are still the backbone of our telecommunications infrastructure.
The internet company TalkTalk – yes, the one whose network was hacked by youths and the personal details of 157,000 customers compromised – is one of the first mainstream suppliers to embrace G.Fast, offering 300Mbps connections in trial areas for around £42 a month, and an “in between” 150Mbps service for £36. This doesn’t qualify as ultrafast, but it’s still at least twice as fast as anything you’re getting now.
Freeola and, of course, BT itself are also in the G.Fast market, with similar prices and guarantees of unlimited usage. As always, prices will fall as competition increases.
Ultrafast broadband won’t be necessary in every home but will neither will it be an eccentric choice. Families with teenagers, to whom an evening’s viewing is watching Star Trek on YouTube instead of BBC One, will be squarely in its target market. It’s TV but not as we knew it.