Cover Story: The Great Debate: Encoding Rivals Battle It Out

By | April 1, 2004 | Broadcasting, Cover Story

A migration to advanced encoding solutions looms. To what solution and exactly when this might happen are the questions of the moment. Stunning results at lower bit rates have started everyone buzzing, but are things really moving quicker than expected? Are the satellite, cable and TV broadcast sectors aggressively going to embrace these advanced encoding solutions soon? The answers to these debated questions await resolution.

Microsoft with its Windows Media 9 Series (WM9), and the latest evolution of MPEG, a joint standard a.k.a. MPEG-4/part 10 or Advanced Video Coding (AVC) are dominating the debate over next-generation encoding. AVC often is referred to as H.264, a natural progression to video broadcasting based on prior work done on video over phone (H.261) and video over Local Area Network (LAN ) solutions (H.263). Both WM9 and AVC are shaping up to perhaps triple the existing compression efficiency of MPEG-2. Rob Koenen in the Netherlands, president of the MPEG Industry Forum, reports that AVC is now undergoing interoperability testing and that products are under development at several companies.

According to Microsoft, WM9 Series is the overall technology platform that encompasses a number of pieces including the player, server and codec technologies. Windows Media Video 9 is the term used to define the video codec and the compression technology behind it, which was submitted to the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) last fall for standard approval. Peter Symes, SMPTE engineering vice president, expects completion of the review process by 2005.

Demonstrations of WM9 throughout the past year in particular at a number of major shows give the impression that Microsoft has a clear lead in this race over its rival, AVC. At IBC2003 last fall, for example, Luxembourg-based SES Astra showed off a high definition 720p–progressive scan–via DVB-S (Digital Video Broadcasting-Satellite) feed. This uses WM9 at bit rates as low as 6 to 8 Mbs. Set Top Boxes (STBs) with Windows CE and WM9 support were also on display at this show.

"You cannot rule out Microsoft. After all, everything is IP in VOD [Video On Demand] land and on the other side of the switch, Microsoft may have its best shot," says Terry Glatt, vice president of technology at Florida-based Pace Micro Technologies Americas.

Microsoft invested an estimated $500 million to develop the WM9 Series, which launched in early 2003, according to Erin Cullen, who serves as lead product manager in the Windows Digital Media Division at Microsoft. "Content encoded in WM9 can be delivered through the current MPEG-2 broadcast transport stream and there is no need for costly new content delivery infrastructure," says Cullen.

There is a desire with many operators and service providers to launch advanced services quickly with a growing emphasis on getting High Definition (HD) content in motion across multiple platforms. Microsoft can also play a strategic role on the Digital Rights Management (DRM) front, where it has also invested considerable energy.

"In submitting the compression technology used in the WM9 codec for consideration as a SMPTE standard, we believe this will enable more companies to independently develop their own interoperable applications and solutions for the broadcast industry," says Cullen. "We have been proving that WM9 works quite well in the broadcast environment, and this technology can be licensed directly from Microsoft today."

Among the IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) service providers that have openly announced their future intentions is U.K.-based Video Networks Ltd., which selected Harmonic Inc.’s Divicom MV 100 encoding platform for its video-over-DSL service. One of the primary reasons for this selection is the AVC-enabled architecture of the MV 100. As these IPTV providers expand in number and scale, there is little doubt that satellite will remain the preferred content delivery mode involving an increasing number of IPTV headends.

"We are emphasizing flexibility. Our strategy is to give operators what they want," says David Price, vice president for business development at Harmonic Inc., which signed a WM9 technology licensing agreement with Microsoft last year. "The jury is still out as to which advanced encoding format is best. AVC has more tools, and this greater toolset might give AVC an advantage, but we remain uncomfortable with the licensing terms surrounding AVC."

Tandberg Television is also on the growing list of companies that have already set the wheels in motion in terms of bringing advanced encoding hardware to market. According to Carl Furgusson, director of business development for the Americas at Tandberg Television, some very healthy competition is taking shape. "Neither format is for everybody. Performance is comparable with different types of content. There is a segment of the broadcast market that is much more inclined to go with AVC than WM9 because it is an MPEG standardized technology," says Furgusson. "To date, we have been asked to do lots of lab trials and demonstrations, primarily by telcos, which constitute the portion of the market that is most likely to adopt an advanced coding technology, which it needs for its so-called triple play."

But Furgusson is not choosing sides, seeing the value both platforms bring to his business initiatives. "While our WM9-capable encoder is already in production, we are equally supportive of AVC. Both are here to stay," he adds.

With lots of legacy MPEG-2 hardware in place along with millions of MPEG-2 STBs, things will proceed slowly, says Furgusson. "Keep in mind, however, that the WM9 presentation to SMPTE is for consideration as a standard–SMPTE designates this as VC9–involving the use of the native MPEG transport stream enabling WM9 video to be used with any audio compression, such as Dolby Digital 5.1."

At the video products team at Radyne Comstream, there is a sense that in the more cost-sensitive STB market, a hardware or perhaps even a hardware/software hybrid may emerge, according to Bryan Willson, engineering manager, and Yunke Pan, senior engineer, advanced video coding. A key consideration in the pricing equation is the requirement for lots of processing horsepower at the desktop when a streaming platform like Windows XP is deployed there, although WM9 will no doubt see its cost drop dramatically as chip volumes skyrocket, according to Pan. Another plus in the WM9 column is the rapid pace of implementation.

"There are a lot of advantages to keeping our options open. AVC makes a lot of sense in the DSNG [Digital Satellite Newsgathering] and contribution/distribution markets," says Willson. "Broadcasters are conservative by nature, and there tends to be a resistance both to software-based encoding and too much convergence across the board, while the converse is true in the PC world."

Israel-based Scopus Network Technologies Inc. arrives at NAB 2004 with its new Codico E-9000 Universal Encoder that can support AVC, WM9, Standard Definition, and HD encoding formats while providing backward-compatible and redundant MPEG-2 support as well. The new Codico IRD-2900 supports high bit rates of more than 155 Mbs. It also includes a 10/100 Base-T Ethernet port for IP data streaming along with SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) support.

"Encoding is not the problem. It is the lack of AVC receivers, and we are not likely to see chips sets for true production before 2005," says Ovadia Cohen, Scopus co-founder and vice president of marketing. "It is a question of timing, and the resulting confusion surrounding where exactly the market is heading. This is why we are reluctant to commit to one side or the other. I see AVC ultimately prevailing in the broadcast space, while WM9 will emerge as the dominant streaming platform," Cohen adds.

As for public sector customers like the U.S. military, which have substantial hybrid network deployments to upgrade in the near future, they gravitate to multi-vendor, open solutions such as MPEG rather than single-vendor proprietary technology such as Windows Media, according to Rich Mavrogeanes, founder and chief technology officer of CT-based VBrick Systems Inc., a video solutions vendor.

"For many, it is not a question of which is better, but which is the most safe and most competitive choice," says Mavrogeanes. "Currently, VBrick delivers MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and MPEG-4 products, and AVC is in our future. Today, there is not wide support nor interoperability with AVC, but it is clearly the future, and the landscape is changing rapidly due to tremendous increases in the power of available silicon."

Among other things, VBrick VBXcast enabled thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq to watch the Super Bowl, and the U.S. Air Force Electronic Systems Center (ESC) will deploy VBrick 6200 MPEG-2 appliances as part of the United States Air Force’s Theater Deployable Communications Program six-channel desktop delivery solution, which is equipped to handle multiple video tasks ranging from pure entertainment to remote surveillance feeds for intelligence and force protection purposes.

For STB vendors, the door appears to be wide open to both AVC and WM9. "We have no real preference here. The big issue here is the presence of so many legacy MPEG-2 boxes, which could stall advanced codec deployments," says Glatt. "Still, I am seeing rapid improvements in silicon decoders as a result, toward multiple HD decodes. You cannot rule out video on demand or locally sourced content via a WM9 codec, while the studios may embrace AVC, which has its roots in the broadcast industry."

Concerns About AVC Licensing Terms

As a joint International Telecommunication Union and MPEG standard, AVC is benefiting from the fact that two licensing authorities are hard at work trying to craft a comprehensive licensing scheme. "Both MPEG LA and Via Licensing are trying to create a license, but the situation is not stable. Competition has emerged, which is a good thing," says Koenen.

"We are currently in the process of drafting the actual license and related agreements, which we hope to [soon] complete in order to issue a license to the market by May following formal agreement by all the patent holders," says Larry Horn, spokesman for MPEG LA.

"We are watching the license issues closely. The big question surrounding AVC is the possibility that fees will be structured on a time usage basis, which will not appeal to the broadcast sector in particular," adds Furgusson.

"There needs to be a groundswell. That would force both the licensing authorities to harmonize, and the licensing terms to be acceptable," says Willson. "With MPEG-2, we did not encounter any similar sense of urgency."

"At the end of the day, an AVC licensing breakthough is expected, although much needs to be resolved at this time in terms of royalties," says Cohen.

Not To Be Overlooked

While much has been said here about what might replace MPEG-2, this standard is neither doomed nor defective, although the clock is ticking. "Each new technique we apply to MPEG-2 gives us less performance increase than it used to in return, while increasing product cost. There are many broadcast applications, however, that will still use MPEG-2 for the foreseeable future. They need better and better low-bit rate performance so the market demand is still there," says Furgusson.

"The research and investment in developing advanced video codecs has actually fueled ideas that can be used to further refine MPEG-2 performance. I would expect we can squeeze another 10 to 15 percent improvement in low-bit rate MPEG-2 performance," he adds.

"The large increase in power of an encoder capable of full implementation of AVC (emphasize on "full") can further tweak the tool set available in MPEG-2," says Price.

Meanwhile in Asia, a huge consortium known as the Audio Video Coding Standard (AVS) Workgroup of China is preparing a compression standard as a direct result of what the group contends are the overly burdensome royalties and licensing terms attached to MPEG. AVS is specifically aimed at the enormous Chinese CE sector at least for now, which by its very scale is no niche market.

So, as the next generation of advanced encoding solutions makes its presence known in the market, the broadcast sector in particular has much to ponder. Wait too long and opportunities might evaporate. Jump too soon, and there is the risk that a major misstep might occur. Either way, the content has to keep moving.

Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia & Homeland Security Editor. He also volunteers as a satellite technology and communications advisor to the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

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