Playout & Transmission Global Viewpoint – August 2015

Cisco to Nix HEVC with Thor?

Bandwidth reduction has always been essential for the delivery of video content. The first wheeze was interlace, which cut the bandwidth required for analog video by half. When digital video came along sophisticated algorithms could be used for data compression, with MPEG-1 and motion JPEG being early examples.

H.265 is just the latest implementation, but while the compression efficiency is impressive compared to interlace, it is not without its drawbacks, and the primary one is licensing costs.

A recent Cisco blog (August 11) by Jonathan Rosenberg describes Thor, a project to develop a royalty-free codec to compete on performance with HEVC/H.265. This follows hot on the heels of Advance HEVC announcing costs for licensing their IP.

Cisco has open-sourced the code for Thor on GitHub and forwarded Thor to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) NetVC workgroup. The goals of the NetVC group are to produce a high-quality video codec that meets the following conditions:

1. Is competitive (in the sense of having comparable or better performance) with current video codecs in widespread use.

2. Is optimized for use in interactive web applications.

3. Is viewed as having IPR licensing terms that allow it to be widely implemented and deployed.

The beef that Cisco has with HEVC stems from the licensing terms, especially now there are two pools to deal with: MPEG-LA and HEVC Advance. Rosenberg writes in the blog “The total costs to license H.265 from these two pools is up to sixteen times more expensive than H.264, per unit. H.264 had an upper bound on yearly licensing costs, whereas H.265 has no such upper limit.”

I have a feeling of déjà vu about all this, as the cost of licensing MPEG-4 in its original iteration (part 2) was not attractive when compared with the proprietary Windows Media. Eventually more equitable terms and conditions were reached, and MPEG-4 has gone on to be ubiquitous.

Codecs and IP

Codecs can be open source or proprietary. The international standards generally include proprietary ideas, which are licensed to users. Proprietary codecs are licensed by commercially confidential agreements between partners.

Open source codecs are developed by a group of individuals, each contributing their intellectual property free of licensing fees. In contrast, the international standard codecs have generally been developed by the expert groups like JPEG and MPEG where commercial enterprises collaborate in the development, each contributing their IP, which is generally patented. The patents are then pooled and licensed as a whole by organisations like MPEG-LA. This one-stop approach simplifies the licensing, removing the need to negotiate fees with each patent holder. A good example is MPEG-4/AVC.

The licensing terms of video codecs vary. Some require manufacturers to pay a fee per encoder, others want content distributors to pay patent royalties. As an example, HEVC Advance quote a price to provide HEVC content compliant services as 0.5% of attributable revenues, plus around $1.50 per CE encoder.

There are several open-source codecs including VP9 and Theora. VP9 was developed as pat of the WebM Project, an open-source project sponsored by Google. Anyone may use these codecs royalty-free on the condition that they comply with the license terms. The current project is VP10, aimed to compete with HEVC

The Theora codec was developed by the foundation, and has similar roots to VP9, stemming from On2’s VP3 codec. Theora has similar perfomance to the original MPEG-4 pt 2 now has a project dubbed Daala to develop a codec with similar efficiency to HEVC

Daala is the code-name for a new video compression technology. The effort is a collaboration between Xiph.Org Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and many other contributors. The goal of the project is to provide a digital media format that is free to implement, use and distribute, which has a technical performance that compete with H.265.

A new entrant is V-Nova, a commercial codec which delivers very efficient compression. The technology breaks away from the thread of DCT compression that the MPEG codecs follow, using new algorithms that exploit the processing power of today’s devices.

Business not Technology

All these issues boil down to patent licensing issues rather than technology. Broadcasters and OTT platforms would like to avoid paying royalties on revenues, the old MPEG-2 model of a fee per codec has been favorite. How this pans out lies with the lawyers cooking the deals.

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