ATEME Outlines HEVC Plans
French encoding company predicts quick uptake in multi-screen scenarios due to shorter equipment renewal cycles for viewing devices
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The encoding business is all about squeezing more bits per buck, and the industry is about to advance another level, where HEVC compression plays a huge role in delivering HD quality with optimised throughput and bandwidth.

French telco Orange may be the first to launch a service based on the High Efficiency Video Codec (HEVC, also known as H.265), ratified by the ITU in January. According to an announcement at CES 2013, the telco is on the verge of debuting a VoD movies service using HEVC to deliver 1080p HD content in France.

The service is offered in partnership with Samsung and will permit any anyone in the country with a new Samsung smart TV to receive HD streamed video (at half the bitrate of H.264, estimated by Orange at 3Mbps).

Orange currently offers full HD movies over its managed IPTV service using a set-top box. HEVC means the telco can now make this content available over-the-top.

It will likely be the first of many implementations of the new compression scheme which has gained copious press attention because it can lift 4K/Ultra HD satellite broadcasting into the realms of commercial practicality, but its implications are perhaps even more profound to the immediate future of IP streaming and mobile video delivery.

Doubling the efficiency of H.264 will enable more content to be streamed more efficiently, and in particular boost the volumes of streamed broadcast quality content. One benefit for mobile is that it will allow users to download files for offline viewing in half the time.

ATEME's HEVC Plans

Encoder vendors are rushing to adapt to the new technology. French specialist ATEME has demonstrated HEVC with constant bitrate (CBR) video encoded offline with software, and the company has begun work on real-time encoding. At IBC last year it showed 4K resolution content at 60fps running at 11-15Mbps.

“The primary reason HEVC will be used early in multi-screen is not the fact that you have software decoding but the fact that renewal cycles for those devices are much shorter,” argues chief strategy officer Benoit Fouchard. “Lower resolutions will be delivered in MPEG-4 AVC, and as more HEVC capable devices become available, the lower resolution services can start migrating to save bandwidth.”

ATEME's MPEG-4 EAVC4 encoder, for example, is even claimed to be capable of delivering 4K video over IP. “EAVC4 provides a major leap forward in performance for users to either encode faster at current video quality levels or to significantly increase quality while maintaining current encoding speeds,” says ATEME CTO Pierre Larbier. “The software unlocks the future of multi-screen delivery and supports MPEG growth demands while HEVC matures.”

Meanwhile the French government-backed research and development project 4EVER, of which ATEME is a partner, is continuing its experiment into HEVC with trials at the French Tennis Open at Roland Garros beginning 17 May.

ATEME Not Alone in HEVC Rollout

4EVER, whose collaborators include a number of other French companies: Orange Labs, France Televisions, Technicolor, TeamCast, Doremi, GlobeCast, and Institut Telecom ParisTech, are investigating the distribution of HD (to remote populations and mobiles) and Ultra HD (to the home and cinemas) using HEVC.

In 2012 the project shot 4K footage (compressed in MPEG-4) of Paris streets and of Brest sea events (Les Tonnerres de Brest) which is included in the loop of programming beamed from Europe's inaugural Ultra HD satellite channel operated by Eutelsat.

This year's Roland Garros tournament will be used by 4EVER as a platform to test HEVC codecs for delivery of HD content over OTT networks, according to ATEME.

ATEME is far from the only vendor researching and developing the technology. Motorola Mobility has demoed HEVC running HD video at 8.8Mbps using MPEG-4 AVC and at 4.4Mbps with HEVC. Ericsson has an HEVC encoder on trial with several telcos for delivery of linear TV over mobile networks and Rovi is to enable third parties to provide HEVC support on their own devices. Meanwhile, Swiss telco Swisscom plans to use HEVC to boost bitrates of HD content for delivery of multi-screen video services by mid-2014.

Ultra-HD (4K) satellite broadcasts may be 18-36 months away before they are technically and commercially ready, suggests analysts Deloitte, but there are already several significant landmarks in progress. Among these are the Eutelsat's satellite which transmits using the Quad-HD format in MPEG-4. Satellite operator SES Astra is likely to follow suit with a test channel of its own and Japanese government-backed project has announced launch in summer 2014 (timed for the FIFA World Cup) using communications satellites.

A number of trials at broadcasters are also ongoing including by BSkyB, Fox Sports and Sky Deutschland. Sport is likely to be one of the genres most likely to be captured in 4K given its strong commercial appeal, but it may require a higher bit rate driven by a need to ramp up frame rate (the number of still images shown per second). For sports, the frame rate may need to be 120Hz to provide a fluid picture with no blurring: with higher resolutions image blurring is more visible, making 60Hz transmission less viable.

According to Deloitte, the cost for broadcasters of creating a 4K channel, factoring in upgrades to existing equipment and infrastructure, could be $10 million to $15 million. Currently an HD channel costs about $2 million; a decade ago it would have cost about $10 million.

One of the main impediments to rollout is bandwidth, says the analyst. In 2013 4K could require up to 40Mbps by end 2014 it should require as little as 20Mbps, equivalent to the bandwidth requirements for the first standard HD transmissions in 2005, and the first 3D TV transmissions in 2010.

To receive Eutelsat’s QuadHD 4K broadcasts over existing Ultra-HD displays is only possible by routing the signal through four receivers in the home, and even then the picture may not be properly synchronised. To receive 4K broadcasts compressed in HEVC requires new set top decoders - currently there are none available – although Broadcom announced a 4K HEVC decoding chip at CES, which supports up to 24 Hz, and could be available in prototype STBs from mid 2013.

“Moving away from the tile (QuadHD) approach to a single 4K picture, still using a best in class implementation of MPEG-4, would deliver almost as big a bandwidth efficiency gain as keeping the tiles and swapping the MPEG-4 compression for an ‘early’ implementation of HEVC encoding in real-time,” says Fouchard.

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