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Video software

MPEG-4 Here We Come!

Some interesting tidings emerged today from the Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) , the cable industry's standards body. (See SCTE OKs Standard .)

The organization's Digital Video Subcommittee (DVS) announced the approval of a new standard (PDF) that incorporates H.264/MPEG-4, an advanced codec that promises bandwidth savings as much as 50 percent over MPEG-2.

And, as we all know, the capacity-strapped cable industry is looking for ways to conserve bandwidth so it can stream out more video-on-demand, squeeze in more broadcast high-definition channels and, further down the road, free up spectrum channels for the super-speedy Docsis 3.0 platform.

And let's not forget that HBO is going to distribute gobs of HD programming via the bandwidth-saving codec by the second quarter of 2008, giving cable MSOs a transcoding challenge to chew on. (See HBO Bets Big on MPEG-4 .)

So, does this new technical standard -- SCTE 128 2007 – AVC Video Systems and Transport Constraints for Cable Television -- mean the cable industry is going to make a massive move to MPEG-4 posthaste?

No, of course not. But it's at least a formal step in that direction. Considering cable's massive MPEG-2 legacy, it's too expensive to enlist a big set-top switch-out strategy. Most expect operators to begin using MPEG-4 in a targeted fashion, likely starting with HD (linear and on-demand) content with boxes that can handle both the old and new codecs.

On this point, we can just look at what Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is working on. Earlier this year, the MSO outlined some details for its Residential Network Gateway (RNG) project, which is developing an "open" set-top platform.

The "mass market" RGN 100 will use MPEG-2, while the RNG 200 (an HD-DVR) and the RNG 1000 (a "converged CPE") both add in MPEG-4 support.

And, heading into next year, Comcast is expected to widely deploy a new compression scheme -- using MPEG-2 -- that could save up to 50 percent of bandwidth while (if the claims truly hold) not affecting video quality. (See Comcast Ready to Reclaim Bandwidth.)

This new standard, though important, marks just an MPEG-4 ripple in the cable sea. The wave is still far off on the horizon.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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