For Broadcasters, Operators HEVC Is New Main Squeeze

Compression standard offers huge bandwidth savings but adoption may take years

By George Winslow – Broadcasting & Cable, 4/29/2013 12:01:00 AM

With all the talk about limited bandwidth and spectrum for delivering video to a multitude of devices, it’s easy to understand the buzz surrounding the new compression standard, High-Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) or HEVC/H.265. 

HEVC was designed as the successor to H.264/MPEG- 4 AVC (Advanced Video Compression). Video encoded using HEVC will require only a quarter of the bandwidth needed by MPEG-2—still the most widely used compression system in broadcast and cable infrastructures— and only half of what is needed for the H.264 standard. 

That will be important both for expanding content delivery to Internet-connected devices and over the longer haul for Ultra HD or 4K. 

“It is a quantum leap in compression,” explains Eric Grab, VP of technology at Rovi. “With the explosion of mobile devices, the competition from over-the-top video and the expectation that video will be available everywhere, we think it will be adopted faster than previous generations.” 

Just how fast remains an open question, however. HEVC was first approved as a standard earlier this year, and many vendors were demonstrating the technology at the 2013 National Association of Broadcasters Show. Some deployments could happen in the coming months. Orange, for example, has said it will use HEVC for a 1080p VOD service the telco plans to launch this year. 

“HEVC will enable services that were simply not possible before to be used early on in a few applications,” says Benoît Fouchard, chief strategy officer at ATEME, which will be working with Orange on an HEVC trial come May or June. “The question is, when will there be a tipping point when it is really worth the investment for widespread use?” 

That will depend both on the business models that will justify the cost of moving to a new compression system and on some of the technologies that allow HEVC to achieve bandwidth savings. 

John Pallett, director of product marketing for enterprise products at Telestream, explains that HEVC offers a number of advances in the approach toward compression. These include larger encoding blocks with more partition options, expanded motion vectors and more directions for intra-encoding. 

“The result is that it produces better quality at a lower bit rate,” he says, adding that this makes it possible to send HD video at speeds under 1 Megabit per second. 

This, however, requires “10 to 12 times the processing power to handle the additional complexity,” adds Ian Trow, senior director of emerging technology and strategy at Harmonic, which recently worked on a trial transmitting a 4K feed using HEVC to an SES satellite. 

Price of Progress 

That, at least initially, will increase the cost of encoding equipment and require more powerful devices to decode the feeds. HEVC-compressed video can currently be decoded using software on computers and some newer tablets and smartphones, with HEVC chips for mobile devices expected to hit the market later this year. Samsung and other manufacturers have announced some TVs capable of handling HEVC, but most current televisions can’t. 

Business models that would justify replacing existing compression equipment pose another problem. It has been more than 10 years since the introduction of the H.264/AVC standard, yet more than 100 million set-top boxes use the previous MPEG-2 standard still in multichannel homes in the U.S. 

“There needs to be a strong business case for them to replace that infrastructure,” says Fabio Murra, head of portfolio marketing for compression at Ericsson. He adds that ongoing improvements in the performance of MPEG-2 and AVC solutions might reduce the appeal of HEVC in the short- and near-term. 

“Ten years after AVC was introduced, the industry is still improving it,” notes Claude Perron, the CTO of Thomson Video Networks. 

Broadcast will also take time. The current broadcast ATSC standard uses MPEG-2, and the upcoming ATSC 2.0 broadcast standard will mark the first move to AVC. HEVC is not expected to be incorporated into the standard until the release of the ATSC 3.0 standard in late 2015. 

“There is an amazing amount of buzz about HEVC but I think it’s a pretty long road to getting there,” says Peter Maag, chief marketing officer at Haivision. 

Given the cost of upgrading equipment, Maag and others note that early adopters of HEVC are likely to be in newer media. 

“We think the first deployments will be the delivery of HD video over wireless networks,” says Sean McCarthy, fellow of the technical staff at ARRIS Group, formerly of Motorola Home. . 

Here, wireless providers are struggling to handle the growing use of video on their networks, and consumers buy new tablets and smartphones relatively often, which would allow new HEVC-capable devices to come into the market, adds Murra at Ericsson, which has a customer experimenting with HEVC compression for services slated to launch in 2014. 

It is a perfect storm for HEVC,” Murra says. 

TV Everywhere and over-the-top delivery of content could be another promising arena for HEVC deployments. “We expect to see HEVC used by operators and programmers for their multiscreen/multiplatform initiatives more quickly than for their core television operations,” says Mike Nann, director of marketing and communications at Digital Rapids. 

Although programmers and operators are rapidly ramping up their multiplatform delivery, they aren’t typically making much money from these services, which are racking up hefty costs from content delivery networks (CDN). 

“CDNs are typically charging by the bit, so something that reduces 50% of the bits from H.264 is a big factor when you consider whether or not to upgrade your infrastructure,” says Keith Wymbs, VP of marketing, Elemental Technologies, which demoed a complete HEVC system at NAB. 

With Verizon planning to broadcast the Super Bowl in 2014 over its LTE network, telcos that offer IPTV service or are expanding their video offerings over mobile are also interested, Murra says, adding, “HEVC is very appealing for LTE broadcasts.”

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