Even Offers Bandwidth-Sipping IPTV Codec

Even Technologies is hitting the IPTV market with a new video-compression technology that it said is even better at delivering video -- and that can cut the bandwidth load for a standard-definition stream to less than one-quarter of the rate seen in traditional cable-TV systems.

Vancouver, British Columbia-based Even and its Duluth, Ga.-based hardware subsidiary, Infinite Video Corp. -- which developed the encoders, digital set-top boxes and video-delivery systems -- landed their first customer in Freedom, Wyo.-based telco Silver Star Communications. Starting this summer, Silver Star plans to launch a 125-channel TV service based on the technology.

Using a custom version of the familiar JPEG standard for still pictures, Even’s “PSI” video format whittles the bandwidth load for a standard digital-video stream to a slim 750 kilobits per second, and it can deliver an HD stream for a little less than 3 megabits per second with comparable picture quality, according to CEO Rick Ringma. That compares to MPEG-2’s 4 mbps-5 mbps for standard-video streams and 19 mbps for HD streams.

The PSI “codec” (shorthand for coder-decoder) does so by shaving off visual information related to secondary elements in a given video scene, such as background objects. Instead, it focuses on what are called regions of interest -- the parts of an image on which the human eye instinctively focuses, Ringma said.

Using the PSI codec, Infinite developed the IPTV-delivery system including encoders and digital set-top boxes. To power them, the company struck a deal with chipmaker Equator Technologies Inc. -- which was recently acquired by Pixelworks Inc. -- to supply a digital signal-processor chip carrying the PSI codec.

Placed at a telco operator’s digital headend, the encoders translate the network MPEG-2 video feeds into the PSI video format and add an “AAC Plus” audio codec from partner Coding Technologies. The system uses SecureMedia Inc.’s encryption scheme to protect the streams and software from ETI Software Solutions to connect into the service provider’s billing systems, Infinite cofounder Robert Saunders said.

In the subscriber’s home, an Infinite set-top box processes and displays the video signal. Box middleware from Kasenna Inc. powers the interactive programming guide and content-search functions.

The big selling point for Infinite’s IPTV system is that it can supply one HDTV stream and two standard-definition streams for a total of 4.5 mbps bandwidth, so it can be delivered using standard copper phone lines, according to Saunders.

“Now, all of a sudden, that can be done on a telephone company’s existing outside plant, with no need to rebuild,” he said. “It completely changes the economic model.”

In addition to Silver Star, Even and Infinite are now in technical trials with three or four unnamed telco TV players, and Ringma said he expects commercial rollouts in the next six months. If those systems prove successful, it could draw in bigger telco players.

“In the next three or four months, when we get two or three of these systems installed, we can then go to any of the majors and say, 'Look, it’s working,’” Ringma said. “There have been so many 'what if’ attempts in this space, and the engineering ego that is tied up in the major operators is going to make this difficult.”

It isn’t easy to introduce a new codec in a market dominated by MPEG-2 video -- and with next-generation codecs such as Microsoft Corp.’s “Windows Media 9” and MPEG-4/H.264 already vying for IPTV customers.

To start with, operators are reluctant to tear out existing video equipment in the home or the video headend, so new codec technology may also be limited to hunting for service-provider customers that haven’t rolled out IPTV yet, said Ian McKerlich, RealNetworks Inc.’s general manager of broadband solutions. A major streaming-media-technology provider, RNI is active in the TV-video space.

“Part of it is that you don’t want to go change the equipment in the consumer’s home, because that is expensive,” he said, adding that this also holds true at the network headend, where the operator must either create parallel video-delivery systems to support a new codec service and its existing video service, or completely replace the existing system.

Telco and cable operators also like to see more than one equipment supplier supporting a video-delivery system. On that score, Saunders said, Infinite is open to licensing its designs to other manufacturers. If an operator preferred to see multiple box and encoder providers to establish a wider supply chain, “we would work in an intellectual-licensing program to do that,” he added.

Meanwhile, Even and Infinite have designs beyond telco TV. The pair also intends to market the codec and the encoder systems to Internet and mobile-video providers. The two companies are now working on a project with U.K.-based BestFrontSeat Ltd. to create an online-video-distribution service for live concerts, and they have developed plug-ins that allow the PSI codec to play on such players as Windows Media, Apple Computer Inc.’s “QuickTime” or RNI’s “RealPlayer.”

The challenge in the Internet-content realm is to get scale quickly to show content providers that it is worth using.

“Since there are already some established player codecs out there, the quality difference -- or other advanced features of the codec beyond quality, if there were some -- would have to be significant to have a content provider want to push a new codec onto their customers,” RNI vice president of technology for business products and services Jeff Ayers said.

Still, Ringma said, the timing is right for the PSI codec and Infinite products to hit the IPTV game.

“For us, we had to be far enough along, because our great fear was to get too much interest too soon, and without any technological deployment, and then not be able to get value back for the investors,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve spent $25 million-$30 million on this, and it’s sort of like, OK, everybody is going to want their money back at some point.”