Riding the MPEG-4 Wave

Cable’s years-long goodbye
to MPEG-2 is far from over, but
the shift toward MPEG-4 — the
newer, more-efficient video format
— has passed the halfway mark on
the satellite-delivery front.

Today, the majority of high-definition
channels are delivered by
programmers to affiliates in the
newer format. Of the 143 HD feeds
available from a dozen major network
programming groups, 72% are
in MPEG-4 format, according to an
analysis by Multichannel News.

“Any new HD service that’s going
up today is in MPEG-4,” said
Bart Spriester, vice president and
general manager of Cisco Systems’
Digital Media Networks business.

That’s because video encoded in
MPEG-4 requires roughly half the
space, meaning programmers can
pack more HD into the same satellite
bandwidth. Using MPEG-4,
coupled with DVB-S2 (the second
generation of the digital video
broadcasting satellite modulation
standard), up to 10 HD services
can be delivered over a 36-MHz
transponder, versus four or five
in MPEG-2, said Mark Schaffer,
Motorola’s director of product
management for the satellite programmer

“The satellite transponder is an
expensive resource, so it’s essential
to maximize the efficiency of
that,” he said.

The downside: Most digital set-tops
deployed by cable operators
today are capable of decoding
only MPEG-2. That means that
to deliver services available from
programmers only in MPEG-4 —
like Starz Entertainment’s entire
HD lineup, and most of the HBO
and Showtime Networks high-def
multiplexes — MSOs must install
receivers that can automatically
transcode the video into MPEG-2
for delivery over the cable plant.

Cisco, Motorola, Ericsson and
others sell integrated receiver/
decoders that provide such automatic
conversion, which can cost
anywhere from 33% to 100% more
than single-format units.

Now, cable operators are looking
to tap the MPEG-4 capabilities in their newer set-tops, to take advantage
of the bandwidth efficiencies
over the last mile . Comcast,
for example, earlier in 2010 started
to deploy dual-format MPEG-
2/MPEG-4 set-tops and has fewer
than 10 million in operation.

At some point later this year,
Comcast plans to begin delivering
ESPN 3D in MPEG-4, whereas it’s
currently carried in MPEG-2, according
to Comcast senior director
of corporate communications Jenni
Moyer. The MSO has required
subscribers who want the 3D sports
service to verify that they have an
MPEG-4-capable box — and if they
don’t, will upgrade them to a new
model — so that when it throws the
switch, they won’t lose the signal.

“We’re committed to MPEG-
4, and essentially all new set-top
boxes that we purchase and deploy
will be MPEG-4-capable,”
she said. Comcast has purchasing
agreements for dual-format set-tops
with Motorola, Cisco, Pace
and Samsung Electronics.

DirecTV and Dish Network, the
two satellite operators, were earlier
adopters of MPEG-4 and today
deliver all their HD channels
in the format to subscribers.

Still, MPEG-2 lives on even on
the delivery side.

ESPN, for example, still delivers
its four HD services — ESPN HD,
HD — in MPEG-2. Fox Networks
Group declined to provide
updated figures for this story, but it
had previously planned to deliver all
its HD programming in MPEG-2.

And the bulk of standard-definition
programming is exclusively
available in MPEG-2.
However, starting in early 2011,
at least one major programming
group is looking to move
its standard-definition feeds over
to MPEG-4, according to Cisco’s
Spriester. (He declined to identify
the company.) The media company’s
expectation is that will
achieve payback within three
years based on savings from
satellite-transmission costs, after
the cost of distributing transcoders
to cable affiliates.

“They’ll cut their transponder
costs in half,” Spriester said.

Not all programmers will be
willing to foot the up-front cost
for a wholesale changeover on
SD anytime soon.

When Starz switched its HD
feeds from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 in
2007, the move was comparatively
easy because the HD services were
not fully distributed at that point,
said senior vice president of programming
operations and information
technology Ray Milius.

“Migrating all the SD folks over
would be a considerably more expensive
proposition,” he said.


Breakdown of feeds from major programmers:

* Also simulcast in MPEG-4

** Turner additionally provides 18 SD feeds in MPEG-4

Source: Multichannel News research