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Sony’s Over-the-Top 4K Service Could Crush Bandwidth Caps

Looking to spur sales of its new, pricey Ultra HD sets in a way that will also push the limits of consumer broadband connections, Sony last week opened Video Unlimited 4K, a download store that will offer an initial slate of about 70 movies and TV shows, with plans to expand that total to 100 later this year.

The store feeds 4K fare, which packs in about four times the resolution of 1080p HD video, to the $699 Sony 4K media player, a proprietary device that is compatible only with Sony- made 4K TVs and comes preloaded with 10 movies, including The Amazing Spider-Man. Video Unlimited 4K rents movies for $7.99 and sells them at a starting price of $29.99. Individual episodes of 4K-formatted TV shows, including AMC’s Breaking Bad, will fetch $3.99. Sony estimates that the media player’s on-board 2-Terabyte hard drive can fit about 45 4K movies.

The store gives Sony first-mover advantage as cable operators formulate their own 4K content strategies, but the new, bandwidth-hungry offering could wreak havoc on emerging Internet-service providers’ consumption caps and usage-based pricing policies.

The size of Sony’s 4K files vary by the length of each movie and TV show, but the range is about 40 gigabytes to 70 GB per title. Based on some current Internet-usage policies, just watching four to five 4K titles could get some cable customers close to cap-breaching territory.

Usage-based broadband pricing isn’t the norm yet, but it’s a growing trend. Mediacom Communications, for example, puts a 350-GB monthly cap on its 20-Megabit-per-second “Prime” tier, and a heftier 999-GB ceiling on its 50-Mbps and 105-Mbps service. Once the cap is exceeded, customers can purchase additional blocks of 50 GB for $10. Comcast is testing similar policies in a handful of markets that set a 300-GB monthly threshold before overage fees apply.

Based on the current, small size of the 4K TV marketplace (NPD Group Display- Search predicts about 500,000 4K sets will ship worldwide this year), Sony’s 4K store won’t have a huge impact right away, but it provides an early glimpse at the kind of bandwidth OTT 4K content will require as other providers, including Netflix, prepare their Ultra HD offerings.

To lure in early adopters, Sony is promoting several 4K TV/media player bundles, including a 65-inch set that comes with one year of Netflix and Hulu Plus for a cool manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $5,999.98. A 55-inch Sony 4K TV with a similar bundle runs $4,599.

Although Sony is early to the 4K content game, it’s not the first. A smaller firm called ODEMAX launched a private beta of its 4K download service on July 11, ahead of an anticipated commercial launch later this year. ODEMAX, which is concentrating on independent films to start, delivers titles over-the-top to high-capacity Redray Players, made by Red Digital Cinema, that currently sell for about $1,750 a pop. ODEMAX delivers films in the proprietary .RED format, estimating that the average size of a feature-length film is a more broadband cap-friendly 9 GB to 10 GB.

Sony is making an early bid to offer 4K content to consumers, and its over-the-top service could wreak havoc with providers’ bandwidth consumption policies.