Spotting Trends In HD’s Future


Following the launch of a new version of Fujitsu Computer Products of America’s latest version of the IP-9500e MPEG-4 AVC encoder, the company’s director of new products development, Dan Dalton sat down for an extended conversation on the transition to HD production, advances in compression and some of the market trends that are boosting interest in the IP-9500e. An edited transcript follows:
Q: How quickly do you see broadcasters moving to HD newscasts and what are some of the factors that have been holding this up?

Everyone wants to move to HD. Most major markets have stations with HD coming from their studios, typically with MPEG-2 compression. One of the main problems or limitations is that MPEG-2 takes quite a large amount of bandwidth. So, especially in newsgathering, we are seeing quite a high demand to reduce the bandwidth requirement so you can get more HD into smaller pipes.

The studio feeds running through the studio router can handle large MPEG-2 bandwidth needs but when you start going out to remote places that are either connected through satellite or microwave the pipe gets narrower and MPEG-2 is less effective.
Q: How quickly do you see the transition from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 occurring?

There are two major hurdles. One is being able to encode and decode MPEG-4.

The other is more significant. What do you do with all the infrastructure you have? You have capital investment in hardware and don’t want to have to scrap all that just to move to HD.

The advantage of moving to MPEG-4 is the ability to cut bandwidth requirements in half and the ability to deliver a very good broadcast quality picture in a pipe that has bandwidth limitation. It means that with a pipe that you would normally use for standard definition can now be used for HD.

That is one of the areas where our product [the IP-9500e MPEG-4 AVC encoder] has been really effective. We are one of the few companies that can put out an H.264 encoded signal into a very narrow pipe in 8 megabits range.

Typically, MPEG-2 takes anywhere from 12 megabytes to 40 or even 50 megabytes at the high end. Our product allows you to use that smaller pipe, the DVB-S or DVB-S2 link up to the satellite and get a very good quality signal off our encoder.

So you don’t have to get ride of your current equipment -- your current modulators and satellite. You can basically use the same pipe to handle HD that you’re now using for SD.

I see that evolution happening in two phases. Stations will need to bring in HD feeds from the field. Right now the majority of field transmissions are still SD because the microwave and satellites don’t have the bandwidth for an MPEG-2 HD signal. But I think over the next year or year and a half, you will see a fairly quick transition to MPEG-4 to handle that.

The problem up to now has been to get a good MPEG-4 quality signals at the lower data rates. But our product can handle content with the 4, 6 and 8 megabyte bandwidth. It has some pretty revolutionary encoding control to give you HD broadcast quality replication at lower bandwidths.
Q: What about the telcos who want to add HD services but have some real bandwidth limitations with their infrastructure?

When you look at the telcos, the four to eight megabytes range is key for a lot of the IPTV solutions. That’s the range where we excel and where we’ve focused our products. We are the only manufacturer that has a four megabyte mode that goes all the way up to a nine megabytes mode. That way we are optimizing encoding not only for satellite newsgathering but also for IPTV solutions.
Q: What advances in compression do you see coming up?

MPEG-2 has been around for many years. I think we are just scratching the surface of the MPEG-4 opportunity and you see more evolution in the code. You will see services added to the MPEG-4 stream that are already very well defined in MPEG-2. I honestly see MPEG-4 being around and having a very rich and long life, a 10 to 14 year evolutionary cycle.

The other thing you see changing is the infrastructure. Right now a lot of data editing is done in baseband. But as satellite newsgathering and distribution move to MPEG-4, you will see more of the chain being managed in MPEG-4. Today, from the original capture of the content to the delivery to the customer, you might have four or five encoding and decoding cycles. You’ll see less of that in the future. Content will be encoded in MPEG-4 and stay in that state longer through the chain.

So I really don’t see another standard coming along. What I do see is an evolution of MPEG-4 to provide more services, better pictures and lower rates.

We are focused on that. We are the only manufacturer to have a 300 millisecond low latency mode. That is especially attractive for a news reporter sending content back from the field to the affiliate so they can talk back and forth without an annoying delay.

The other thing is that we can provide a better picture at the current rates.
Q: Any other developments that will make it easier to transport HD signals?

Right DVB-S is pretty prevalent on satellite and I think we will see a migration to DVB-S2. which give you have more efficient packing of data and thereby freeing up a little more bandwidth. For example, if you have a 4 megabyte stream on a DVB-S link, you could get a much higher quality signal for the same bandwidth with DVB-S2. That’s what CBS did.

In terms of electronic news gathering, it will make it possible to fit multiple streams in a single QAM or domestic microwave link and will maximize the number of channels that can be put on limited satellite bandwidth.

The other important thing will be delivery by IP. Our IP-9500e is very much an IP-centric box and I think you will see a huge move in the next two years to IP distribution of content and IP backhauling. We see the IP segment is becoming a much more important factor in the U.S. As you know, today in Japan the majority of content is moved around by IP; but in the U.S., the majority is moved around by satellite or microwave. It is a lot cheaper to move things through terrestrial IP than it is through satellite and you will more and more people move into IP distribution as well as IP content capture.