BT Announces First 4K Live Channel

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BT is taking a leaf out of Sky's book and betting that billions paid in sports rights will drive customers to its services. It has won the race to 4K ultra high-definition (UHD) in the UK, although don't expect Sky to lag behind for long.

The telco giant has announced that it will begin live 4K UHD broadcasts in August over a new BT Sport Ultra HD channel available to homes which have upgraded to Infinity, its fastest fibre connection.

It will be the first UHD channel in Europe. The operator has been conducting trials of 4K streaming (3840 x 2160 pixels) since last year, and will debut a new set-top box (STB) in concert with YouView capable of handling the additional data.

The YouView+ box will have 1TB of storage and will presumably incorporate the new HDMI 2.0 standard to support the high refresh rates that 4K sports demand. BT is a founding member of the YouView consortium, which also includes the BBC and ITV.

BT Infinity, BT's current superfast broadband offer, is capable of delivering download speeds of up to 300Mbps and upload speeds of up to 20Mbps. It is being used by 3 million UK households.

BT Sport has more than 5.2 million subscribers variously direct from BT and through Virgin Media and Sky.

BT has an extensive fibre network at UK sports and cultural locations including all Premiership football and rugby grounds, as well as major cricket grounds. Arenas like O2 and Excel are also connected.

Last year, BT Media and Broadcast—the specialist digital media and broadcast solutions arm of BT—introduced its first 4K links outside broadcast (OB) vehicle, which Sky Sports used to test 4K at the Ryder Cup.

Further news on additional 4K OB trucks for the telco's new live commitment is imminent.

In a direct challenge to Sky, BT is making 351 European football games from next season free to 2 million of its customers who already pay for TV from BT broadband. Those who subscribe via Sky satellite will be charged £5 ($7.70) extra.

BT’s aim in giving away BT Sport (which it has done since launch in 2013) is to drive growth of its subscriber base. Its goal is to win a larger share of new broadband business and ensure a return on the £2.5 billion ($3.8 billion) investment it made in upgrading its network with fibre that provides Infinity as well as faster internet access at wholesale for Sky and TalkTalk.

(Update: Netflix 4K content will be available via the YouView+ STB.)

A 4K TV set will also be needed, and BT's announcement could be the incentive for consumers to go back to retail this summer. Analyst FutureSource estimates that 100 million sets a year will be shipping globally by 2018, when ownership will exceed 20 percent in leading markets like the UK. As of today you can buy a 4K 40-inch unit from Philips (via Argos) for £399 ($612). Point Trials Planned

Planning further ahead, BT will launch services delivering download speeds of up to 500Mbps over existing copper lines in the next two years. Beginning this summer it will trial 500Mbps or Fibre-To-The-Distribution Point (FTTdp) connections at 4,000 homes and begin rollout shortly afterwards.

Instead of laying fibre all the way to the home with fibre is instead rolled out to telephone poles or junction boxes located close to homes and businesses with the shorter copper wire used to speed the last few metres.

The technology would potentially save BT billions of pounds from not having to replace its entire copper network with fibre. Moreover, it reckons it could deliver download speeds of 800Mbps and uploads at 200Mbps, or 1Gbps downloads—which would be enough for 8K streams, let alone 4K.

“Direct through fibre, instead of traditional aerial and satellite, you can personalise the service in ways that haven’t been possible so far,” BT Group CEO Gavin Patterson told The Telegraph about the trials. “You’ll also be able to make advertising more targeted and more interactive.”

BT already connects 22 million UK homes and businesses with Fibre to the Cabinet (FTTC).

It faces competition, though, since Sky and TalkTalk are already deploying a trial fibre optic network in the city of York capable of running at 1Gbps.

BT is the most serious force Sky has had to contend with in the UK battle. Both operators are on a mission to become the quad player of choice in the heated UK market.

BT is in the process of acquiring 4G mobile network operator EE for £12.5 billion ($20 billion). To counter that, Sky has teamed with mobile operator O2 in a multi-year deal giving it wholesale access to 2G, 3G, and 4G services over O2's nationwide network from 2016.

The bidding war for premium content saw BT bid £897 million ($1.4 billion) for the exclusive rights to UEFA Champions League and Europa League from Sky and ITV in a three-year deal agreed in 2013, and which comes into effect from the 2015/16 season.

BT shares English Premier League soccer rights with Sky, in record bids totalling £5.14 billion ($8.2 billion) for three seasons from 2016/2017. Of that, BT paid £960 million ($1.5 billion) for 42 matches a year. BT will air some soccer matches, including the Champions League final, on a new Freeview channel called BT Sport Showcase.

Sky is also preparing to launch "Project Ethan," a 4K UHD STB that with cloud-based storage infrastructure and a focus on allowing viewers to multi-screen to mobiles and tablets around the home.

With a proud record in pioneering TV technology in the UK—such as being first to launch into HD—Sky has been burnt by its experiment in stereoscopic 3D. Earlier this year Sky quietly switched off the 3D TV channel it had been running since 2010 and has aired no live 3D broadcasts since the Ryder Cup last year.

EE Launches Connected Device Range

In related news, EE is developing a range of branded connected devices. The first of these on sale next week is a GoPro-style camera capable of streaming 720p footage to the web providers users subscribe to EE's 4G service.

The 4GEE Action Cam will use a new streaming service called Skeegle to stream video without the need for separate equipment like a smartphone (which GoPro units do).

The viewing monitor for EE's camera is built into a separate wrist-worn unit which also allows users to start and stop recordings with a button press.

"We understand our customers not only want superfast coverage, they want products that give them the very best experiences, coupled with the most innovative and exciting ways in which to share them," said EE CEO Olaf Swantee in a statement.

Two weeks ago EE conducted its latest high-profile trial of  LTE Broadcast in conjunction with the BBC, Qualcomm, Huawei, EVS, and Intellicore at the FA Cup Final.

Like other operators, EE has its eye on 5G mobile networks to deliver speeds of 50Gbps. Along with Samsung, the BBC, Vodafone, Telefonica, Fujitsu, and Huawei, EE is researching the technology at the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey.

“If we get 5G right there won't be a 6G,” says Matt Stagg, senior manager of network strategy at EE. “People won't talk about speed because there will be enough capacity in the network for billions of devices connected to the Internet of Things. It means you can start to look at all manner of applications such as driverless cars.”

According to UK media and telco regulator Ofcom, among 5G's applications would be the ability for families to “virtually attend family occasions” with holographic video.

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