France champions HEVC

France has taken a lead in deployment of the HEVC codec in the two months following its ratification by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) with several product announcements and the first commercial deployment for Video On Demand (VOD).

Thomson Video Networks has claimed that its ViBE VS7000 multi-screen video encoding/transcoding system announced in time for demonstration at the NAB show this week is the first product to support HEVC for both live and offline applications. Meanwhile French transcoding vendor ATEME has announced what definitely is the industry's first open-source implementation of a software media player supporting HEVC, enabling service providers and broadcasters to proceed more rapidly with testing of the new HEVC codec in the field.

This comes just after the launch by France Telecom’s Orange of a VOD service based on a Samsung connected TV supporting HEVC, with the objective of making HD content available to a larger proportion of its IPTV subscriber base. Orange is the world’s largest IPTV operator with almost 6 million subscribers, of which over 5 million are in France, and has identified three use cases for HEVC.

Firstly video quality can be improved for a given bit rate and this is being exploited in the newly launched HD VOD service. The second benefit is to extend the reach of the service at a given quality level over the operator’s ADSL network, and Orange will deploy HEVC for this during this year. As a rule of thumb HEVC is twice as efficient as H.264/MPEG4 and so can deliver a given quality at half the bit rate, or twice the resolution at the same bit rate. In the case of ADSL it can roughly double the distance from the nearest DSLAM reachable at a given quality. For Orange this will mean being able to expand its footprint and compete with rival cable and satellite operators from its existing strong subscriber and content base. Then the third HEVC use case will come later for deployment of ultra HD.

Thomson envisages OTT being the biggest driver of HEVC in the short term, but closely followed by traditional IPTV and then cable TV services, with UHDTV waiting in the wings. "With the explosion of WebTV services, video content now represents the majority of Internet traffic,” noted Eric Gallier, vice president of marketing at Thomson Video Networks. “By integrating the new HEVC compression standard into the ViBE VS7000, Thomson Video Networks is paving the way for HD and Ultra HD content on any kind of device and any kind of network. Combining the bandwidth savings of HEVC with exciting new technologies such as MPEG-Dash, eMBMS and LTE, the VS7000 lowers operating expenses while easing the path to video delivery in today's multi-platform world."

Like Orange, Thomson has participated in the development and definition of HEVC and according to its CTO Claude Perron has found that it cannot be treated as a commodity at this stage but requires expertise to extract the best balance between quality and compression efficiency. "The secret lies in the way the tool set is implemented. This is exactly why we made the decision to develop our own HEVC compression technology for our ViBE VS7000,” said Perron.

Among vendors demonstrating Thomson’s HEVC technology at NAB 2013 is Japanese mobile operator NTT DOCOMO, which has just announced it will license HEVC decoding software to enable full HD video streaming on smartphones and other devices. Mobile video will be another driver for HEVC because of the potential for delivering HD quality to smartphones and tablets, combined with the fact that HEVC has been designed to skew the computational effort towards the encoding side to make the decoding on client devices as light and cheap to deploy as possible.

ATEME, the other French vendor making the running with HEVC, has just announced the first open-source implementation of a software media player for HEVC that can be used to play back live or file-based audio and video content, as well as encapsulating and transmitting the material as a stream. This is the result of collaboration between ATEME, the French Institute of Electronics and Telecommunications Rennes (IETR) and the technical institute Telecom ParisTech.

At the same time ATEME was demonstrating its TITAN File and Live transcoder with support for HEVC, in combination with the GPAC player, at NAB 2013. GPAC provides an open-source development of an HEVC test-bed, featuring an HEVC decoder known as OpenHEVC and is capable of playing video up to 1080p HD resolution at 25 or 30 frames per second on a single core CPU.

"The support of HEVC in GPAC is a milestone for the broadcast industry, allowing us to move from relatively static demonstrations of the new codec to much broader and more meaningful field trials,” said Jerome Vieron, advanced research manager at ATEME.

Sweden’s Ericsson might dispute France’s leadership in HEVC, having launched its firstHEVC/H.265 encoder for live and linear TV over mobile networks over six months ago at IBC 2012. But this was just encoding and predated ratification of the standard.