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Pay TV operators in all categories have welcomed HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding) as a game changer following its recent ratification by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union), although for varying reasons. There is broad agreement that HEVC will be the codec to usher in Ultra HDTV (UHDTV) services, but also that adoption will proceed gradually over some years as the whole broadcast ecosystem will have to be upgraded.
HEVC is the successor to H.264, cutting in half again the bit rate required to deliver video at a given quality, with expectations of even greater efficiency gains at the high 2160x 3840 resolution of UHDTV. For satellite and cable operators with legacy set-top box populations, UHDTV will be the driver for HEVC deployment, starting with a few early adopters during 2014.
However, operators will be in no great hurry to ditch their legacy set-tops and will perhaps start with trials of HEVC for one or two UHDTV channels, according to Thomas Helbo, CTO at Stofa, Denmark’s second largest cable TV provider. “All our boxes support H.264, so they would become obsolete if we started transmitting HEVC video,” said Helbo. “So it would be a premium product for us to start with, for some UHDTV channels.”
France Telecom’s Orange, which has the world’s largest IPTV service with over 5 million subscribers, is also waiting for HEVC to open the door for UHDTV. “The same way MPEG-4 AVC/H.264 was the natural video codec for the HDTV introduction, we believe that HEVC will be the video codec for UltraHD,” said Gilles Teniou, Head of Video Standardization at Orange Labs.
Teniou added that Orange was involved in the French collaborative project called 4Ever, researching the best way to deploy UHDTV across the whole broadcast chain. “The idea here is to evaluate the added value in terms of perceived quality of such a format when considering not only the spatial resolution increase but also the frame rate, the bit depth, the whole gamut,” said Teniou.
But, like some other IPTV operators, Orange expects to deploy HEVC first of all to extend the reach of its existing HD channels. ”By dividing the bit rate by a factor of two while maintaining the same level of video quality, Orange will be able to extend the footprint of our services, specifically to people who could not access them before,” said Teniou.
IPTV operators such as Orange will not initially replace existing set-tops but deploy new HEVC compatible ones for customers previously too far from the nearest DSLAM to receive HD content. Generally it will not be possible to upgrade existing set-top boxes to HEVC because new chip sets will be required. New set-top boxes incorporating HEVC chip sets from Broadcom and one or two other semiconductor companies will not be available until sometime in 2014, and the new codec is likely to arrive first for OTT and mobile video.
“It will be a lot easier to deploy HEVC for OTT, because most of the equipment used for that is customer owned and most of the decoding is done using software,” said Helbo.
Furthermore the key CE makers, such as Apple and Samsung, are both introducing HEVC into their next generation tablets and smartphones and do not have to wait for the chip makers. In fact Orange’s first HEVC deployment will be on a new Samsung Smart TV. “Our first HEVC deployment is expected on the 2013 models of Samsung Smart TV. As the partnership progresses we expect to launch VOD services over that by the end of the spring,” said Teniou.
Look out for a new Videonet report on the likely impact of HEVC across the OTT, multi-screen, IPTV and broadcast markets, which will be published in the next few days. Meanwhile you can hear more on this subject from our webcast in January, which is available on-demand here (free).