TranSPORT: HEVC Promises To Lead Live Sports-Content Delivery Into Next Stratosphere

With the potential to achieve twice the compression efficiency as today’s H.264/MPEG-4 AVC scheme, High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC/H.265) promises to be a true game-changer for video delivery. From its impact on contribution and backhaul to OTT and LTE delivery to the rise of 4K/Ultra HD and even 8K content, HEVC has the industry abuzz.

“The rule of thumb is that HEVC gives you the same perceived picture quality as H.264 at half the bitrate for direct-to-consumer [applications],” Ericsson SVP of Technology Matthew Goldman said at the recent SVG TranSPORT conference. “For contribution and content acquisition, it will be roughly about 30%. That was the same type of [improvement] that AVC in 2003 [offered] over MPEG-2.”

However, HEVC remains very much in its infancy, and MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 will remain the primary delivery mechanism for broadcast, cable, and telco delivery to the home for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, HEVC is on the way, and, in many cases, such as for LTE broadcast and OTT multiscreen delivery applications, it’s already here.

In January 2013, Version 1 of HEVC was completed for direct-to-home and consumer applications and published six months later. Last July, Version 2 debuted with the additions of Range extensions (RExt), Scalability extensions (SHVC), and Multiview extensions (MV-HEVC). Further development is planned over the next two years that will add High Dynamic Range (HDR), Wide Color Gamut (WCG), and Screen Content Coding (SCC) capabilities to the HEVC standard. As with any standard still in its development stages, this constant evolution combined with the excessive buzz around HEVC has caused its fair share of confusion in the industry.

“It’s not done yet; that is why people get confused in the industry,” adds Goldman. “HEVC is a very exciting new standardized codec, but it is still in active development. In terms of rollouts, different market segments will happen at different times. We know that, for LTE broadcast and on-demand content, it’s already being done, and we see HEVC out there already for over-the top [delivery]. It is still hindered by the fact that the end-to-end ecosystem is not quite there yet. For the legacy [markets] that require new chips and set-top boxes, HEVC is not there yet, but it will be rolling out over the next few years.”

OTT Will Lead the Way
While HEVC looks to have an immediate impact on streaming, OTT, and LTE broadcast applications, it will likely be several years before traditional MVPDs embrace the compression technology. The primary factor for this lag in adoption is the satellite, cable, and telco operators’ desire to earn an return on their multibillion-dollar investment to build out MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 infrastructure.

“I think the second-screen arena is where HEVC is really going to make its mark,” said Steven Silva, VP, technology and strategy, 21st Century Fox. “Right now, the main broadcast infrastructure is still MPEG-2 and, to a lesser extent, MPEG-4, and that infrastructure is going to be with us for a while. Over the last 10 years, we’ve built a huge HD infrastructure, and a sudden changeover to HEVC and 4K is going to be quite and undertaking. Somebody is going to have to throw out a lot of money. And, in the end, you have to monetize it somehow.”

The 4K Factor
Much of the talk around HEVC regards its role in the potential rise of 4K/Ultra HD content and the television-set manufacturers that are driving the format.

CEA projects North American shipments of Ultra HD displays to surpass 800,000 or more by the end of this year (representing nearly $2 billion in revenue, an increase of more than 500% over 2013). Internationally, (according to NPD DisplaySearch), 2.1 million 4K sets were shipped in the second quarter, versus 1.6 million in all of 2013. Despite the growing sales, however, 4K sets still represent an extremely small portion of the overall market (less than 1%, by some estimates). In addition, there is still a serious dearth of 4K content to feed these sets.

This slow-but-steady growth curve creates plenty of unique challenges for HEVC-technology vendors looking to be ready for a possible 4K explosion in the near term.

“What’s really driving it [are] the consumer-display manufacturers who are forcing this issue. You can’t walk into any large electronics store without seeing UHD sets everywhere,” said Mike Antonovich, SVP/GM, Americas, ATEME. “The display [manufacturers] in China, Korea, and Japan are moving away from HD sets and are only going to be making UHDTV sets over the next 18 months or so. And then there is the challenge of aggregating content. So that all creates some interesting challenges for us.”

Despite the challenges, he remains positive about the future of HEVC for 4K delivery: “The good news is that HEVC and 4K are going to happen. There’s no question in my mind that sports is lagging, not leading. Once somebody blazes a trail here, we are all going to see the market explode.”

Real-World HEVC Deployments Have Already Arrived
Although HEVC is not likely to hit the mainstream for several years to come — especially for linear live sports telecasts  — several successful live HEVC 4K transmission have already been conducted. The highest-profile event within the sports market was Broadcom’s live Ultra HD satellite broadcast of the 2014 World Cup in collaboration with Globosat and Elemental. The special live broadcast of the final three matches of the World Cup marked the latest live sports event to be delivered in 4K using HEVC, including the Osaka Marathon in October 2013 and the French Open this past summer.

“If you asked me six months ago, I would have said we are two years away from major HEVC proliferation,” said Dan Marshall, SVP, worldwide sales and service, Elemental Technologies. “I think we are going a lot faster than that. It’s happening faster than any of us realize.”