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MPEG-4 Rules HD World

MPEG-4 advanced compression was a hot topic at the HD World show in New York last week, as an increasing number of broadcasters, cable programmers and satellite operators are taking advantage of MPEG-4's bandwidth efficiencies over legacy MPEG-2 systems.

Some are using MPEG-4 to fit HD feeds in old standard-definition slots or launch new HD services. “It's always the same story—we're trying to put 10 pounds of bits in a five-pound bag,” says Ray Milius, senior VP of programming operations for Starz.

Pay-TV networks like Starz and HBO have adopted MPEG-4 to expand their high-definition programming, using Motorola transcoders at the cable headends to convert the signals to MPEG-2 for distribution on cable systems.

Now ABC says it will use Tandberg MPEG-4 encoders to convert its network program distribution from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 as part of its Accelerated HD Delivery system.

The new MPEG-4 encoders and receivers, combined with DVB-S2 advanced modulation, will allow ABC to transmit three HD feeds in the same slice of satellite capacity that it currently uses to broadcast one HD feed.

MPEG-4 receivers will begin shipping to ABC stations this week, says ABC senior VP Rich Wolf, and the conversion should be completed by mid-January. Stations will decode the feeds and recompress them in MPEG-2 for local broadcast delivery.

ABC is the first of the Big Four networks to announce it will distribute program feeds in MPEG-4, though industry insiders expect NBC, which used Tandberg MPEG-4 encoders to backhaul Olympic coverage from China, will make the same move. CBS and Fox say they'll stick with MPEG-2 gear for the foreseeable future.

MPEG-4 makes sense for hi-def newsgathering, too. Executives from CBS and Fox News Channel spoke at HD World about how they used MPEG-4 encoders to backhaul HD feeds over fiber from the political conventions in Denver and St. Paul, and via satellite from the presidential debate at the University of Mississippi.

CBS is using Fujitsu low-latency MPEG-4 encoders that deliver the same HD quality in 9 megabits per second as the network gets at 19 megabits per second in MPEG-2, says Mel Olinsky, director of bureau operations for CBS News. That lets CBS fit an HD MPEG-4 signal in the same satellite slot it previously used for SD MPEG-2 signals.

Fox News purchased 22 MPEG-4 encoders from Tandberg for its coverage of the convention and debate, says Robert Galker, senior director of satellite operations for Fox News Channel/Fox Business Network. It is now redeploying them to Fox bureaus and affiliates across the country, where they will be used to backhaul HD field coverage over fiber.