Can Harmonic Relieve Cable's MPEG-2 Pain?
That "universal" box, dubbed the DiviCom Electra 8000, aims to be a Swiss Army Knife of sorts for the digital video world, while taking more than a gentle jab at competitors such as Tandberg Television and Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT). It's designed to encode and transcode MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 AVC (H.264), and to handle standard-definition and high-def fare all the way up to the 1080p 50/60, which offers frame rates about twice that of 1080p/24. (See Harmonic Intros New Encoder.)
Operators "used to [require] four encoders to cover those," says Harmonic product manager Elie Sader. "Now with one, unified [device], they have four options."
Harmonic is targeting the multi-function device to multiple sectors, including cable operators, satellite TV operators, IPTV service providers, and even broadcasters.
MPEG-2 pain relief?
But, from a U.S. cable perspective, the capability that's likely to be the most intriguing involves HD and MPEG-2, a compression scheme that applies to the vast majority of the digital set-tops already deployed. With demand rising for HD content, that MPEG-2 baggage is a considerable headache.
"The MPEG-2 universe is in dire need of compression gains," Sader says.
Today, operators can squeeze two HD feeds into one channel and get away with as many as three if they are using some state-of-the art variable bit rate (VBR) techniques. But MSOs will need even more headroom if they hope to keep pace with the piles of linear HD channels DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV) and Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) are putting out there.
To help remedy that, Harmonic claims its new VBR-optimized encoder can squeeze up to four hi-def feeds into one channel without sacrificing video quality. It's also capable of upconverting icky-looking SD feeds. In that SD example, the newly-encoded video should look better than the source material.
"This product is not cutting corners," says JC Morizur, Harmonic's senior director of product marketing. "We expect to set benchmarks for video quality." [Ed. note: Harmonic recently provided Cable Digital News with a live lab demo at its Sunnyvale HQ, and the four-to-one feeds looked pretty sharp and were free of glitches and hiccups… but, again, this was shown in a controlled demo environment.]
Cable won't be the only industry that can take advantage of this. Satellite operators, which are still reliant on MPEG-2 but have a smaller legacy to contend with, can also tap Harmonic's new encoder and enjoy similar bandwidth efficiencies.
Harmonic is also selling these wares to IPTV service providers, holding that the 8000 can produce a glorious hi-def image at 5 Mbit/s using MPEG-4 -- important if the goal is to allow for telcos with limited DSL capacity to deliver more than one video stream a time.
Finally, Harmonic also thinks the Electra 8000 will apply to the over-the-air market as broadcasters look to multiplex their new all-digital signals and jam in, for example, one HD signal and 3 SD feeds.
But who's buying into all this? Admittedly, the product is just rolling out so there's not much to talk about yet. Still, one "significant player in North America" has already put in a purchase order, according to Sader, who declined to say which sector actually placed it.
Harmonic expects the Electra 8000 to reach full production by June. The first public demo will be at The Cable Show, which kicks off on April 1 in Washington, D.C.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News