HEVC: Ready for Primetime?

High-E ffciency Video Coding (HEVC), an emerging video codec, is maturing as it gains momentum as a bandwidth-saving messiah for mobile video and dazzling 4K/Ultra HD services, but when it will be ready for primetime remains an open question.

The full potential of HEVC/H.265, initially thought to be exclusively for compression e ciency (it’s billed as 50% more bandwidth-e cient than MPEG- 4/H.264), is proving to have some additional upside for video-service providers, although there are some obstacles to overcome before it’s a musthave technology.

“There are still bugs to be worked out, but anyone wanting to do 4K or Ultra HD content, which eats up lots of bandwidth, must have HEVC,” SNL Kagan principal analyst Michelle Abraham said. “Economically, you don’t want to do them without HEVC.”

And the universe of video providers that are carefully tracking HEVC is expanding.

“The telcos are looking at HEVC to enable more HD streams for content in homes,” Abraham said. “HEVC allows a greater number of HD channels simultaneously, and expands their territory, which they haven’t been able to do in the past.”

In the meantime, MSOs are starting to set their HEVC migration plans into motion. Comcast, for example, will use HEVC for a 4K video-streaming app offered on new Samsung Ultra HD sets and is developing boxes with HEVC for its X1 platform that can decode native 4K signals.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much HEVC capabilities have matured,” Mark Francisco, fellow of premises technologies for Comcast, said. “Complexities have been reduced and problems with color-banding addressed. We’re launching Ultra HD with Samsung, and will look at tools like capacity management over WiFi delivery. HEVC can help with all of those. No doubt, there will be widespread adoption of HEVC.”

But timing the deployment and adoption of HEVC will remain tricky in the early days of Ultra HD.

“Cable operators and fiber-to-thehome deployments like FiOS and Google Fiber will be in the best positions to deploy HEVC,” Daniel Howard, senior vice president of engineering for the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers, said. “But cable operators will likely wait for significant consumer demand. In the meantime, there’s important engineering going on to improve the algorithm to get the full benefit of coding gain.”

Encoding vendors such as Elemental Technologies believe HEVC will play a big role in the video technology ecosystem and reduce delivery costs as more video is delivered via IP.

“We’re seeing real-time decoding of HEVC to OTT [over-the-top] for content in 4K over cable,” Elemental chief marketing o cer Keith Wymbs said, citing the work between Comcast and Samsung as a prime example. “HEVC reduces the operational costs of IPdelivered video to smart TVs and other devices by nearly halving the bit rates. But HEVC is also good for HD and SD, especially on the cost side.”

Though challenges remain, the stage is being set for HEVC deployment. “The availability of equipment that decodes is an issue,” Wymbs said. “Today’s chipsets are limited. But that will change later this year.”

In addition to allowing more pixels to be packed into the picture, HEVC should also help operators produce better pixels.

“HEVC allows a more advanced color scheme with about 22% more color,” Joe Del Rio, associate product line director for chipmaker Broadcom, said. “It just makes all video look better, so it’s great news for all in the ecosystem. We don’t want a repeat of 3D.”

And industry players expect a multitude of devices to support HEVC, not just new TVs and traditional settops. “There are lots of gaming console manufacturers watching HEVC,” Ian Trow, senior director of emerging technology and strategy for videoprocessing specialist Harmonic, said.

Although the timing of HEVC’s widespread adoption remains a key question, there’s little doubt that the spec is maturing and poised to become a vital component of the video distribution chain.

“We’ll continue working on the product, including encoding and packaging HD content to routinely make Ultra HD available on smart TVs and set-top boxes,” Francisco said. “There’s tremendous momentum for HEVC.”