Cable's slow migration to MPEG-4 digital video has begun — but at first, the technology is largely just nibbling at the edges.
Compared with the ubiquitous, older MPEG-2 format, MPEG-4 is far more efficient. The new compression standard delivers the same picture quality in half the bandwidth, or even less. That's especially key for high-definition, since HD video takes up around four times the space of standard-definition digital.
The problem? Virtually all cable video-delivery systems, from headends to set-top boxes, use MPEG-2 today.
And it may take some cable systems many years to completely swap that out. “I'm going to have to provide MPEG-2, unfortunately, probably indefinitely,” said Weather Channel vice president of broadcast engineering and information-technology operations Ross Kalber.
The move to MPEG-4 is happening, though, as Motorola, Cisco Systems and Pace Micro Technology start ramping up their shipments of dual-codec set-tops this year. John Burke, Motorola senior vice president and general manager of digital video solutions, expects the majority of boxes the company sells in 2009 will be MPEG-4-enabled.
With those set-tops, operators may decide to offer new MPEG-4 services, such as additional HD video-on-demand content or even a separate tier of HD linear channels.
And, even before that happens, programmers are finding ways to take advantage of the efficiencies afforded by MPEG-4.
Starz Entertainment launched three new HD services in September in MPEG-2 — Starz Edge HD, Starz Comedy HD and Starz Kids & Family HD.
Now, to free up capacity on its satellite links, the premium channel is moving those over to MPEG-4, and will distribute Starz East HD in the format as well. The additional space will allow it to also launch Starz Encore HD and to pitch around three times as much HD on-demand content to affiliates, including Comcast.
MPEG-4 “is all about how much can we squeeze out of the satellite,” said Starz senior vice president of programming operations Ray Milius.
Cable systems will be able to use Motorola's DSR-6050 integrated receiver and transcoder, which converts the signal to MPEG-2.
Starz launched its initial HD services in MPEG-2 because none of the vendors had the integrated transcoding capabilities. “Our goal at the time was distribution,” Milius said. Moving to MPEG-4 “is good timing for us because we were running out of capacity on our [VOD] pitching distribution.”
HBO was the first programmer to announce plans to adopt MPEG-4 for most of its planned HD feeds. The programmer will offer all 26 channels in MPEG-4 as of June 30, although it will retain the primary HBO and Cinemax feeds in MPEG-2.
Hallmark Channel, meanwhile, launched its high-definition movie channel on April 2 in MPEG-4 over SES Americom's AMC-11 transponder 5. The programmer's affiliates use an MPEG-4-to-MPEG-2 transcoder and receiver from Cisco Systems' Service Provider Video Technology Group.
Jim Bennett, Hallmark Channel vice president of technical operations, said his team made the decision to use the new format in the fourth quarter after realizing it would need to acquire additional satellite transponder space if it launched in MPEG-2.
“From a pure transport perspective, MPEG-4 is obviously the preference for programmers,” he said.
And the availability of integrated receiver/transcoders was key: “That was attractive to us, because we can hand off a box that's familiar to what cable operators already have in their headends.”
With Hallmark Movie Channel HD, MPEG-4 provides actually a little bit more than 2:1 savings on bandwidth, according Bennett. The channel's signal is delivered at 8.5 Megabits per second, including audio, compared with 19 Mbps for MPEG-2.
How did he arrive at 8.5 Mbps? “We just kept squishing it,” Bennett said with a laugh.
Of course, programmers with widely distributed high-definition services face different considerations, because moving to MPEG-4 compression would require a wholesale swap-out of installed gear.
“We have a large base of subscribers that have already invested significant money in the [MPEG-2] receivers,” said Phil Garvin, general manager and cofounder of HDNet.
Discovery Communications is launching its eco-oriented Planet Green channel on June 4, and will offer an HD simulcast to distributors. That's in MPEG-2, because Discovery built infrastructure and acquired transponder space last year to launch a total of six HD networks, said executive vice president and chief media technology officer John Honeycutt.
Planet Green HD will go into the same transponder that carries Discovery HD, Science HD, TLC HD and Animal Planet HD.
QUESTION OF TIME
To be sure, Discovery is kicking the tires on several MPEG-4 encoders to evaluate how much they can cut bit rate while preserving quality.
“We see it, we're excited and we think it's going to help us,” Honeycutt said. “The question is, at what point and for what project will we use MPEG-4?”
It would make economic sense to invest in new MPEG-4-to-MPEG-2 receiver/transcoders only in some situations, for example, if Discovery were launching a new HD network.
“The industry standard is that if we make a change in our distribution methodology, that's on us,” Honeycutt said. “If there's a new launch, there's negotiation there.”
Honeycutt added, though, that MPEG-4 could assist on the production end. For example, Discovery would be able to backhaul a live HD feed from the field to its playout facility in MPEG-4.
That's how Weather Channel will first employ MPEG-4 video.
The network has one of its three video-production trucks outfitted with Tandberg Television's EN8090 MPEG-4 encoder. When Weather Channel launches its new HD studio June 2, it will send the truck to south Florida to do live shots.
“On the contribution side, it's important for us to stay within our satellite bandwidth real estate,” Kalber said.
Weather Channel has some final configurations and testing left to do, to make the MPEG-4 feed “rock-solid in terms of providing the quality we want,” Kalber said. He also wants to get the signal's latency down to under 300 milliseconds, so there's less delay when the anchors in the studio are talking to field reporters.
After it HD-enables its trucks, the Weather Channel has another challenge: figuring out how to get HD from the leased trucks it relies on for field coverage.
For now, Kalber is hoping to capture some raging storms or other climatological drama in stunning, high-definition detail: “We're anxious to go out and hunt some hurricanes with that HD truck.”