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TiVo Braces For Comcast’s MPEG-4 Shift

TiVo has begun to alert customers to how they will be impacted by an MPEG-4 transition that Comcast has gotten underway in Augusta, Ga.

According to this customer support bulletin, first spotted by the ZatzNotFunny blog, Comcast is looking to transition its system in Augusta, Ga., to MPEG-4 in October, a move that will mean that cable channels in that area will not be viewable on older TiVo equipment that is not compatible with the bandwidth-saving format.

Specifically, TiVo points out that the TiVo Stream (pictured above), a Slingbox-like sidecar device that lets users watch live and recorded shows on mobile devices, won’t work with the MPEG-4 channels until “early 2015,” when TiVo issues a software update.

Likewise, TiVo also notes that its Roamio Plus and Roamio Pro models are compatible with MPEG-4, but their built-in transcoder for streaming (the function also supported by the stand-alone Stream device), will also be incompatible until early 2015, again in line with a Stream software update that will be compatible with MPEG-4.

Older TiVo Series3/HD models will only be able to receive local channels. “These TiVo customers must upgrade to a Premiere Series or Roamio Series DVR to continue to receive Comcast channels via TiVo,” TiVo said.

TiVo users with Series1 and Series2 boxes will need to replace their existing cable boxes with updated cable boxes that support MPEG-4, TiVo said, noting that customers who own a Series 3 or earlier TiVo device can contact the company about “special upgrade offers.”

A Comcast spokeswoman said Augusta is Comcast’s first “trial market” for the transition, pointing out that the operator is only transitioning HD channels to MPEG-4, not SD channels, which will remain in MPEG-2 format.

MPEG-4/H.264 provides a 50% bandwidth efficiency gain over MPEG-2. Operators are also starting to eye HEVC/H.265, which is 50% more efficient than MPEG-4, as they mull 4K/Ultra HD content strategies.

As for the move to MPEG-4 in Augusta, “[t]his will be a much more efficient use of bandwidth and make way for additional product improvements,” the Comcast official said via email.

Comcast has not announced when it plans to embark on similar transition and trials in other markets.

The MPEG-4 shift in Augusta follows other technology decisions made by cable operators that have impacted TiVo. The use of switched digital video by operators such as Time Warner Cable, for example, require that TiVo boxes with CableCARDs to also be paired with separate Tuning Adapters to ensure that they can access channels in an MSO’s switched tier. But that kluge may be fleeting, as TiVo has recently developed an “embedded” way of supporting cable SDV without a Tuning Adapter that relies on updated client software and some additional work at the cable operator's headend. TiVo originally developed that for BlueRidge Communications, and plans to do the same for Cogeco of Canada.

Despite the hiccup around MPEG-4, TiVo and Comcast have been trying to push forward in other areas.

In July, Comcast confirmed that it had completed the integration of its Xfinity On Demand service with certain retail-bought TiVo DVRs in all Comcast markets. Later that month, the companies announced that they were working together on a two-way, non-CableCARD security approach that would allow TiVo boxes bought at retail to access Comcast’s full suite of live and on-demand video services. They haven’t announced how they’ll technically get that done, but industry insiders have speculated on some ways they might go about it