Our Troubled NBN May Give Ultra HD Blu-Ray Players A Foothold

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Digital hipsters will tell you that optical discs are already dead, but Ultra HD streaming on a Friday night is still a pipe dream for many Australians.

As prices drop on Ultra HD televisions they're finding their way into more Australian lounge rooms, although to be honest most of what we'd watch is still upscaled standard-def or high-def content. Finding true Ultra HD video to do that new screen justice presents a few challenges.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Australia to follow South Korea's lead and upgrade to free-to-air Ultra HD broadcasting. Our commercial networks have made it painfully clear that they'd rather dedicate their spectrum towards extra SD channels churning out infomercials and reruns of I Dream of Jeannie.

What's odd is that the South Korean broadcasters are actually jealous of Australia. They're certainly not jealous of our second-rate broadband, or our shabby SD broadcasts and overabundance of reruns – they think you're joking when you tell them we still waste spectrum broadcasting I Dream of Jeannie. Instead they're jealous of the number of Australians still watching terrestrial broadcasts.

South Koreans love their free-to-air television, but these days most of them watch it streamed online rather than via the terrestrial broadcasts – which is understandable when you're blessed with the world's best home broadband speeds. With Seoul's online simulcasts also upgrading to Ultra HD, there'll be even less reason for the locals to watch television over the airwaves.

With Australia's broadcasters putting quantity before quality, that leaves us looking to streaming services and optical discs for our Ultra HD fix.

These days you'll find a handful of Ultra HD content on the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Stan (co-owned by Fairfax Media) – but only if your home broadband connection can do it justice.

In theory you need at least 15 Mbps download speeds, which will remain out of reach for many Australians for a few years yet, but even if you are one of the lucky ones you might find that Ultra HD streaming leaves you staring at the spinning wheel of death.

Video streaming doesn't just require fast broadband, it also relies on reliable broadband – and that's where Australia's broadband infrastructure is found wanting.

I'm fortunate enough to be on 100 Mbps Telstra HFC cable, which is great most of the time, but it can still choke on a Friday night with Netflix freezing every few minutes as all the cable broadband users in my area hit the couch and look for something to stream. This didn't happen on my old 4 Mbps DSL service.

HFC cable doesn't cope well when everyone in your street is using it at the same time, it's like punching holes in a garden hose and watching the water pressure drop. Things might get worse when that Telstra cable becomes NBN cable, tripling the number of homes relying on it for broadband.

NBN has vowed to upgrade the Telstra HFC network to handle the load, while scrapping the Optus cable network because it wasn't worth saving. Early indications show that NBN is slow to deliver on those HFC upgrade promises, which isn't surprising considering that the government has forced it to take a budget "near enough is good enough" approach to the national rollout.

To make matters worse, some internet retailers are not buying enough capacity to satisfy all their customers during peak times, with NBN head honcho Bill Morrow starting NBN's war of words with the retailers this week.

That means some NBN users face the double whammy of retailers skimping on bandwidth and the infrastructure struggling to cope with the load.

So that leaves us with Ultra HD Blu-ray discs as the most reliable way to get Ultra HD video into your lounge room. The players have been slow to take off and the Ultra HD Blu-ray disc section at my local JB HiFi is still minuscule, but it was the same with the rise of DVD and Blu-ray.

Video streaming was supposedly going to kill all these shiny optical video discs, but they've thrived in Australia because our super-fast broadband is stuck in the slow lane. The cumbersome NBN rollout might buy Ultra HD Blu-ray the time it needs to get a decent foothold in Australian lounge rooms.

Where do you source your Friday night entertainment and how will Ultra HD content find its way to your lounge room?

Adam Turner visited South Korea as a guest of LG.

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