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IBC 2011 – Harmonic: first HEVC commercial deployments in 2014?

Encoding specialist Harmonic is expecting the new video compression standard High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) to have become an international standard by mid-2012, with commercial implementations beginning to use it in 2014.

Thierry Fautier, senior director of convergence solutions at Harmonic, said the target was for HEVC to be 50% more efficient than its predecessor, H.264/AVC. “Today, it’s running at around 30-35%,” he suggested. “I think a 50% gain will be achievable by mid-2012.”

As with its predecessors, the new compression system will on its introduction produce the most significant bit-rate savings with high-resolution video formats. “With SD, you won’t be able to squeeze it that much,” said Fautier. “But on HD [or Super HD] there will be a significant improvement. The more bits you throw at the new algorithm, the better it works.”

However, HEVC requires a five-fold increase in processing power over H.264/AVC, and Fautier stressed that the new technology was “not for tomorrow – it’s a long shot.”

Fautier also revealed that there was an ongoing debate within Harmonic about the use of software- rather than hardware-based encoding. While it was clear that for very specific types of scene, hardware encoding performed better, “for 80% of cases, we are finding that software is doing a good job.”

Fautier listed the advantages of a software-based approach as including the fact that it handled high processing requirements more cheaply, was more flexible (encoders could be upgraded more easily and cheaply), and had a reduced time to market.

TBone rebrands as ‘Zeebox’, targeting social TV

PaidContent is running an exclusive on TBone, brain-child of Anthony Rose, the man credited with turning the BBC iPlayer into a runaway success.
TBone is to be launched as ‘Zeebox’, in the form of an application initially for iPads, which will allow users of companion devices to control TV sets in line with what their ‘friends’ are watching on Facebook and Twitter.
An intriguing aspect of the technology, according to PaidContent, is the use of an ‘automated content recognition’ system, which will automatically display ‘infotags’ in real time related to the semantic content of the TV programme being viewed, potentially allowing contextual linking to relevant sites.
Zeebox is due to go live in October.

Ultraviolet – who is responsible?

A year after launch the Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem (DECE) has unveiled initial technical specifications – now branded ‘Ultraviolet’.

Ultraviolet’s major backers are the Hollywood studios, who hope to fight piracy by enabling users to legitimately access content on multiple devices. Ultraviolet’s membership list now encompasses 62 companies including high-profile UK players such as BSkyB, BT, Filmflex, Lovefilm, NDS, and Red Bee Media.

The Ultraviolet technology is based on the use of a common file format for digital content distribution controlled by a cloud-based authentication and account management hub using multiple content protection technologies. It will become available in the UK and Canada later this year (2011).

However, the creation of interoperable systems such as these is challenging from a security stand-point. In a traditional, vertically-integrated pay-TV set-up, the players in the chain each assume well-defined responsibilities and liabilities: in general, the operator is held responsible by the rights-holder for end-to-end security, the security vendor held responsible by the operator for any security breaches, and the CPE vendor held responsible by the security vendor for the robustness of its hardware.

This system works because of the tight control exercised by the operator over the platform and the fact that there exist only a limited number of implementations to test and maintain. But in a horizontal retail market with multiple devices and DRMs the model is more complicated: the chain of responsibility actually becomes a set of discrete responsibilities, with no clear stakeholder for the end-to-end platform security.

Being able to buy a movie once and watch it on any Ultraviolet device anytime, anywhere, will certainly be an attractive value proposition to consumers – but Ultraviolet implementation faces significant technical hurdles, including the content security risk, which should not be underestimated.

To find out more about Farncombe’s content security expertise, please contact Lara Lerville at Farncombe’s Paris office.

Microsoft working on over-the-top virtual platform: another “topware”?

Reuters has reported that Microsoft is in talks with pay-TV networks to roll out its own subscription service based on a “virtual cable operator” model. According to Reuters’ confidential sources, the service would not roll out for at least another year.

There is increasing availability of over-the-top content (catch-up and premium) on the Internet – but lack of standards for non-PC connected devices has made it hard for content providers to reach multiple distribution channels, as virtually every device requires adjustments to their service.

Initiatives such as YouView in the UK and Google TV in the USA are examples of ‘topware’ – specialised over-the-top middleware specifications that can be used across devices – and could represent a step forward in the standardisation of OTT services for connected devices (see image below – click to enlarge).


However, as demonstrated by the ‘Internet TV Principles’ charter published last week by French broadcasters, content providers are inherently uncomfortable with players such as Google TV, who they fear will sell advertising over their content. Walled-garden connected platforms such as Youview* and country-specific HbbTV initiatives (such as TNT 2.0 in France) are more likely to succeed in developing a secure environment where content providers feel under control.

As more premium content becomes available online and more devices implement topware specifications, the major challenge for these platforms will be to ensure that content is secure and specifications are correctly implemented by manufacturers.

With its dominance in the DRM space as well as the TV middleware experience acquired through its Mediaroom product, Microsoft will be the platform best-positioned to address connected devices and become the de facto standard for over-the-top services – provided it can make content providers comfortable with its approach.

*As of November 2010, Youview (former Canvas) shareholders include the BBC, Channel 4, Arqiva, ITV, BT, TalkTalk and Five

Sky makes VOD subscribers pay for bandwidth

BSkyB has announced that any extra bandwidth incurred by usage of its new Anytime+ VOD offer will count towards subscribers’ monthly download allowance.

Anytime+ is currently being rolled out as an optional upgrade to owners of Sky HD boxes who also take Sky’s broadband service (Sky has 3.2m HD customers, and a total of 2.8m broadband subscriptions). The VOD service allows subscribers free access in on-demand mode to some of the content they are entitled to under their current subscription package.

However, for users on Sky Broadband’s cheaper package, the download of around three 30-minute standard definition programmes a month would already reach the maximum 2GB usage allowance, creating the incentive for users to upgrade to Sky’s uncapped package.

This approach differs from that of rivals BT Vision and Virgin Media, neither of which counts VOD usage towards their broadband usage caps.

As ISPs increasingly add free VOD and catch-up TV to their own subscription services, the presence or absence of bandwidth caps and guarantees on quality of video streaming will become increasingly important as tools to differentiate their offers from those provided through over-the-top devices and services.

BSkyB is an early example of this trend, and is gambling that its customers will accept paying extra for broadband as a fair exchange for access to a free VOD offer.