Sports Will Drive 3-D Adoption and Broadband Upgrades

Hollywood is awash in 3-D these days, as witnessed by films from “Avatar” to a “Alice in Wonderland,” but the real driver of 3-D demand was on display last week in the form of the Master’s golf tournament, which Comcast (s cmcsa) and Verizon (s vz) both showed in 3-D. Indeed, sports, not Hollywood movies, will drive 3-D adoption, and in doing so will likely lead to a wave of upgrades in our last-mile broadband infrastructure.

Hollywood is betting on 3-D movies partially because it finally has the processing power and infrastructure available to film and edit movies in 3-D, which can produce a petabyte of digital information, but mostly because it’s hoping that 3-D movies will sell people on the cinema experience and later compel them to buy Blu-ray DVDs. “Avatar” director James Cameron earlier this year quipped that the movie industry would have gone the way of the music industry if it weren’t for bandwidth constraints. Beefing up the required bandwidth to watch a movie is one way to stall piracy and make streaming or downloads more difficult.

I’m sure the cinema experience will be hot, but I think hoping that people will buy DVDs runs counter to the burgeoning trend of streaming (GigaOM Pro subscription req’d) or getting most of our content via services like iTunes, Unbox or Netflix. So when it comes to widespread 3-D content look to last week’s Masters broadcast and ESPN’s upcoming broadcast of 25 World Cup games.

Certain sports providers like Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League are already pushing the envelope by streaming games live, and the logical bet is they will turn to 3-D as the technology becomes more advanced and is increasingly used in consumers’ homes. Which is why either delivered as an over-the-top video service or as a pay-TV channel, 3-D may be the next killer app driving last-mile infrastructure upgrades.

But for the network provider, that love of streaming or even watching 3-D sports via a pay-TV channel on Comcast or Verizon comes at a price. Comcast delivered its 3-D Masters stream using the equivalent of one HD channel, which requires about 18.75 Mbps. Most cable providers can fit two HD channels, each into a limited number of slots — a constraint dictated by the spectrum each cable plant has (see here for a video on how a cable plant works).

Verizon, which is thinking even farther ahead, has told me that true holographic 3-D might require 100Mbps to deliver and estimates that delivering 3-D video over broadband pipes takes 1.8 times more bandwidth than delivering an HD stream. Of course, with a fiber network like FiOS, Verizon is happy to push the envelop on services.

The cable and pay-TV industry will likely focus on delivering a compression technology to deliver both 3-D and 2-D channels in high definition in the space used for 1.5 HD channels, says Jim Strothmann of Cisco’s (s csco) Service Provider Video Technology Group, which provides both set-top boxes for pay-TV companies and the back-end equipment on the networks. However, the transition to 3-D television is coming, and Strothmann says it will put cable providers into a bind as they try to figure how to allocate their limited spectrum for delivering television channels to allow for both HD and 3-D.

Much like the current constraints on delivering channels in both HD and standard definition are forcing cable companies to use compression, switch certain channels to digital over analog signals and other measures designed to free up capacity on their networks, the switch to 3-D could have those same effects. “People may not remember but HD launched in 1998…and we’re kind of the 1998 of 3-D TV,” Strothmann told me. “And when people start making that new TV purchase, today the new TV will be 3D-capable and we’ll see a  similar adoption curve as it starts to penetrate.” Sports, he added, will be the driving factor.

Perhaps greater demand for 3-D (GigaOM Pro sub req’d) will be enough to force cable companies to move to true IPTV, where channels are delivered on demand rather than being accessible at any one time, and force them and any other ISP attempting to compete to extend fiber further out toward the edge of their networks. I may not care about 3-D sports, but I wouldn’t mind it leading to faster broadband.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Jimf0390