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Q&A: Tandberg Television’s Matthew Goldman

Recently, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences announced that Tandberg Television will be awarded a Technology & Engineering Emmy Award for its pioneering development and deployment of MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding (AVC) systems for high-definition television (HDTV). Tandberg vice president of technology and compression systems Matthew Goldman talked to HD Update about the company’s work that led to the first live end to end HD MPEG-4 AVC solution and the factors that are pushing wider deployments of MPEG-4 systems. An edited transcript follows:

Q: Can you describe the work Tandberg did to get a technology and engineering Emmy?

A: We were the first company to put together a complete end to end solution to handle MPEG-4 AVC for high-definition -- encoders, multiplexers, control systems, etc. -- everything you need for a completely operational system. And then we were the first to deploy it [with DirecTV, which also is receiving a technical Emmy this year].

Q: Why did you make such an early investment in MPEG-4, high-def technology?

A: We took a strategic view a number of years ago that this is where the industry is going and needs to go and we recognized that there was compelling business case for high-definition. We knew that because we had seen high-definition in our labs and we knew it would capture the heart and soul of the viewer. Once people have seen what its like to see a movie or a sporting event in high-definition, we knew they were going to be willing to pay a premium for that entertainment value.

So, we recognized that high-definition was not going to be a luxury item but would end up being [a mass phenomenon.] Then we asked how are we going to get from here to a place with the technology where high-definition would be ubiquitous? It was obvious that MPEG-2 could not deliver that and that the only way to bring this forward was to do a step change in technology.

Tandberg has always been a leader in the compression area for digital television so we decided to drive forward even though a few people were still skeptical. At that time, MPEG-2 had been ubiquitous for 10 years and there was a question of whether anything was going to replace that. But we said we believe the technology is there. We believe we can do this.

We have a top notch engineering team. They did the research and initial planning and they also said yes we can do this. So we invested what we needed to invest even though -- like everyone who is a pioneer -- we had some skeptics out there in the industry who said you’re crazy, the technology is not ready. In fact we proved them wrong.

Q: How fast do you see the industry moving to MPEG-4 and what factors might slow its development?

A: MPEG-4 AVC is a proven technology today and it will completely supplant MPEG-2. The only thing that is holding back MPEG-4 AVC from becoming ubiquitous is legacy issues.

For over the air broadcasting there are hundreds of millions of television receivers and they only support MPEG-2 so you can’t have just MPEG-4 for broadcast television because not all of the receivers will see signal.

There are regulatory reasons as well. The FCC says that for broadcast ‘thou shall use the MPEG-2 video standard.’

But if it weren’t for legacy devices and regulatory issues, then MPEG-4 AVC would be just sweeping the country and completely replacing MPEG-2 across all industries.

Basically, if you have a green field operations where you are not required by regulations or you do not have an installed base of millions of devices you would not launch an MPEG-2 system today. You would launch MPEG-4 AVC.

In fact world wide, things are very different. Most of the rest of the world was behind the U.S. in the standardizing and delivering high-definition service for digital television. But during that delay, they’ve announced standards across the world that will in fact be using MPEG-4 AVC as the standard for doing HD.

The bottom line is that in the direct-to-home, whether it is over satellite or fiber cable, the rule of thumb is that MPEG-4 AVC as a compression technology requires roughly half of the bit rate the MPEG-2 needs for the same picture quality. So, MPEG-4 it is the only technology that can be supported in a lot of cases for HD.

For a telco using a DSL type network MPEG-4 is imperative. If you are going to have high-definition, it is impossible to launch a viable high-definition service with MPEG-2 because HD it takes up too much bit rate.

With fiber it doesn’t matter so much but typically in most cases you are bandwidth constrained.

The other thing that we haven’t discussed here is satellite. There are limited numbers of transponders and it is very expensive. So if you would like to launch twice as many HD services with the same amount of bandwidth, you’d better come up with a better technology. 

So there have been some changes, not only in compression but also in more efficient satellite modulations. That has jumped started the [DBS] industry moving towards MPEG-4.

Q: Dish and DirecTV have announced plans for adding some 1080p content. Will cable have to respond even though it would put additional pressure on their available bandwidth?

A: The cable industry in the U.S. is already feeling the pressure from direct-to-home satellite, because satellite is claiming they have many more services than cable. Having movies in the 1080p format just raises the bar one level more in terms of quality. If you have a 1080p display, then receiving a movie in 1080p will greatly improve the picture quality.

I can’t speak for the cable MSOs but it is putting pressure on them and I’m sure they are looking into this as well.

Q: As broadcasters produce more of their sports and news in HD, do you also see them embrace MPEG-4?

A: Absolutely. Our technology brought the high-definition signals back from Beijing to the NBC broadcast studios all in MPEG-4, which proves the value of MPEG-4 AVC high-definition right now. There were also two other major [international] broadcaster that used Tandberg Television equipment for the Olympics.

Everyone is going HD. Even if the end user is going to end up viewing the content in standard-def, most of these places are converting their entire plant operation over to high-definition because that is the best way to archive it because you know someday you’re going to be in high-definition.