CableLabs sets 'safe harbor' HD-VOD bit rate
Trying to find the balance between efficiency and quality is a key challenge faced by operators as they continue to rollout and expand high-definition VOD services.
Until variable bit rate solutions enter the deployment fold (see: Imagine Communications), operators must leverage a constant bit rate "sweet spot" that doesn't gobble up too much capacity, but still provides enough bits to ensure that the picture still looks good to the discerning eye of the HDTV consumer.
It appears that 15 Mbps is that sweet spot for HD-VOD content (movies, ads, etc.) delivered in a constant bit rate, MPEG-2-based stream, according to the recent release of some new "safe harbor" specs from CableLabs. Applying the safe harbor tag gives VOD content aggregators and operators a bar to meet, but doesn't set that bar in concrete.
In addition to the video content, that safe harbor bit rate must also accommodate the audio component (stereo, Dolby 5.1, etc.).
CableLabs - citing a bevy of authors and contributors* — released the Metadata 2.0 Specifications — Content Encoding Profiles 2.0 Specification on Jan. 5, 2007.
Although expressing concerns and constraints in determining the "optimal" bit rate for a given situation (ie. a show with talking heads, versus a fast-moving sports event), "success has been widely achieved suing the 15 Mbps transport bit rate," the specs explain in regard to the rate for HD-VOD content.
CableLabs adds that other rates are possible, but sets 15 Mbps as the safe harbor for HD-VOD, until improvements in system resource management or encoding (ie. MPEG-4) enter the picture. The safe harbor bit rate for standard-def VOD remained steadfast at 3.75 Mbps.
TVN Entertainment has been offering about 20 hours of HD-VOD programming per month for some movie studios, as well as MTV, Versus and Wealth TV, and expects HD-VOD demands to increase this year.
Dom Stasi, the company's CTO, said TVN has been testing various data rates for HD-VOD beyond the safe harbor set by CableLabs, and the rates in use today are in response to what programmers are asking for in terms of quality.
"It's something we have to be extremely careful about," Stasi said, understanding that cable operators have to be extra cognizant of the capacity HD-VOD requires, but that the quality of the picture has to fall in line with the desires of studios and content owners.
Although the industry could get away with compressing SD-VOD signals earlier on because they were being delivered to SD TV sets, "this time [with HD-VOD] there is no trade off," Stasi said, pointing out that cable "low definition HD contradicts itself."
— Jeff Baumgartner, xOD Capsule Editor, and CED Editor-in-Chief
Editor's note: Much more about the state of HD-VOD and the capacity challenges it presents for operators will be covered in much more depth in the February 2007 issue of CED.
* Home Box Office cited as Author, Version 1; Manzanita Systems Inc. as Author, Version 2. The specs also cite the following contributors: BigBand Networks, Broadcom Corp., Comcast, Concurrent Computer Corp., In Demand, C-COR, Harmonic Inc., Tandberg Television, Cisco/Scientific Atlanta, StarzEncore, SeaChange International
Look, ma, no postage! Netflix to start streaming
In a phased rollout over the next six months, Netflix will give customers the option of streaming video to their PCs. The new option will be available to subscribers at no additional charge.
Netflix will soon complement its mail-order
DVD rental business with a broadband offering.
Netflix said viewing will require the installation of a small browsing applet that requires a one-time download taking about a minute. Streaming of films can be accomplished with a broadband connection as slow as 1 Mbps, which provides what Netflix called "preview" quality. A 3 Mbps connection is sufficient to provide DVD-quality video, Netflix said. The service also supports PVR trick-play functionality.
"While mainstream consumer adoption of online movie watching will take a number of years due to content and technology hurdles, the time is right for Netflix to take the first step," said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in a statement. He said subsequent steps will include delivering video to handhelds and directly to TV screens.
Subscribers will be able to choose from approximately 1,000 movies and TV series. Most major studios support the service, Netflix said, and additional content is being provided by A&E Television Networks, Anime Network, Allumination FilmWorks, BBC Worldwide, The Independent Film Channel, and Starz Digital, among others.
The streaming library will gradually be expanded, the company said. Netflix has a DVD library that currently contains about 70,000 titles.
Netflix said it expects to make the new feature available to all Netflix subscribers by the end of June. The hours available for instant watching will vary based on subscribers' monthly plans. For example, subscribers on the entry-level $5.99 plan will have six hours of online movie watching per month and subscribers to the $17.99 plan will have 18 hours of online movie watching per month.
The introduction expands Netflix's capabilities just as Blockbuster has finally countered with its own DVD-by-mail service that is combined with its storefront service.
Broadband-fed TVs set for surge
TVs with broadband hookups —either through directly embedded connections or via separate devices— will reach 162 million units by 2010, says The Diffusion Group, calling recently events —such as Microsoft's plans to add its IPTV software to the Xbox 360— "just the beginning."
Devices such as the recently announced
Apple TV platform are contributing to a
'tipping point' for broadband TV, TDG says.
This surge will portend a new wave of TV viewing, shifting from a "walled garden" model created by traditional pay TV operators, to a more open version with a wider variety of niche content.
"As the Internet finds its way to the primary home TV - and it will - incumbent pay TV operators and established broadcasters will gradually lose control over the types of video consumers can watch. In the next few years, a growing number of consumers will look to the Internet as means of expanding the variety of content to which they have access, much of which will be available on-demand and specifically suited to their tastes," according to TDG Senior Analyst Colin Dixon, who penned the report ("Broadband Video: Redefining the Television Experience").
He points to five factors that, together, are creating a "tipping point" for broadband TV:
1 - The widespread adoption of broadband services.
2 - The expanding variety of video content available on the Internet.
3 - The introduction of Internet video viewing platforms (ie. Microsoft's Xbox 360 and the Apple TV system).
4 - The entry of "top tier" content.
5 - A migration from short-form "snack" Internet video to full-length shows and movies.
'Start Over' takes home the hardware
Time Warner Cable's innovative "Start Over" service won an Emmy Award for Achievement in Broadband and Personal Television.
Start Over, launched by Time Warner in late 2005, allows customers to restart select programs already in progress.
In addition to Time Warner Cable, four technical partners also were recognized with the Emmy: Harmonic Inc. (encoders), Concurrent Computer Corp. (servers, real-time catcher), BigBand Networks (multimedia routing), and Scientific Atlanta (set-tops, digital infrastructure).
Cox, Comcast ink OCAP accords
Comcast Cable and Cox Communications both moved ahead with plans to support digital TVs outfitted with the OpenCable Application Platform (OCAP), an interactive middleware specified by CableLabs.
Among them, Cox inked a letter of intent (LOI) with Samsung Electronics that aims to accelerate the development of interactive digital cable services that use OCAP and run on Samsung HDTV sets, as well as set-tops and digital video recorders.
Cox noted that interactive services and apps, including an OCAP-based IPG from GuideWorks LLC (a joint venture of Comcast and Gemstar-TV Guide), are running on Samsung OCAP-compliant DLP HD sets in the MSO's Gainesville, Fla. system. The trial is leveraging a digital headend and multistream CableCARDs from Scientific Atlanta.
"Our successful trial of the Samsung OCAP solution illustrates Cox's dedication to offering customers additional devices that will operate seamlessly alongside our current leased devices," said Cox SVP and CTO Chris Bowick, in a statement.
Meanwhile, Comcast and Panasonic said they will begin joint testing of OCAP-based interactive digital cable-ready TVs.
The test, slated to begin later in January, follows in the wake of an OCAP set-top deal between the companies that was announced at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show. Panasonic and the MSO expect testing of new OCAP-based TVs to run through 2007, with initial commercial availability of the first model targeted for early 2008.
"The development of OCAP-powered TVs is another example of how Comcast is working with the CE industry to enhance the consumer viewing experience by making it even easier to enjoy new interactive applications combined with the convenience of integrated digital cable services," said Comcast SVP, Technology and Policy Mark Coblitz, in a statement.
Under the agreement announced last year, Panasonic agreed to make and supply Comcast with an initial 250,000 HD-DVR "RNG" set-tops stocked with Panasonic's OCAP middleware. Comcast also had an option to buy up to 1 million set-tops in the first year.
DirecTV DVRs tap music from Viiv PCs; video next
DirecTV has verified its Plus HD DVR for Intel Corp.'s Viiv platform. The deal is an outgrowth of a 2006 pledge between the two to collaborate.
DirecTV claims its set-top is the first verified to work with Viiv. DirecTV customers who have the Plus HD DVR can access pictures and music on their TVs directly from Intel Viiv technology-based PCs.
The Viiv functionality is now available as a public beta trial to all DirecTV Plus HD DVR customers. Later this year, DirecTV plans to provide the ability to stream video from Viiv PCs to its HD DVRs.
DirecTV introduced its HD DVR in the third quarter of 2006. The company has not said precisely how many customers it has who have an HD DVR, but indications from the company's discussion of its Q3 results (its most recent) suggest the number is likely measured in the tens of thousands.
EchoStar dishes out free HD-DVRs, mobile system
EchoStar Communications will offer a free HD digital video recorder to new customers starting Feb. 1.
EchoStar will offer its ViP622 DVR receiver for free as part of its "Digital Home Advantage Program." The model features multi-room DVR capabilities, as well as a 30-second skip feature.
Meanwhile, like DirecTV, EchoStar also announced a portable DBS system.
EchoStar's version, dubbed "MobileDISH," is an in-car system that uses a special, roof-mounted antenna designed by RaySat.
EchoStar expects to launch MobileDISH commercially in the Spring. The company claims it will be compatible with most cars, RVs and trucks, and "performs exceptionally well at highway speeds."
Vidiom wants to put CE companies to the test
Vidiom Systems Inc. has launched a new program that aims to help CE manufacturers prepare their products for CableLabs OCAP certification testing and eventual field deployment.
Vidiom's new service includes support for CableCARD Interface Testing, OCAP Stack testing, performance testing, Sun Java Virtual Machine testing, and integration testing with different network profiles, as well as engineering services.
Elsewhere, Vidiom announced it has successfully ported its OCAP software to the Broadcom Corp. BCM7400 (single decode) and BCM7401 (dual decode) HD reference platforms.
Apple TV a cable threat?
Analysts and observers in this MarketWatch report say Apple TV could eventually pose a threat to cable and satellite TV companies.
One serious obstacle in its path? Content.
Although Apple will offer more than 350 shows via its iTunes store, "the content probably has to be broader," said New Global Telecom SVP John Guillaume.
Some cable operators, meanwhile, already offer VOD libraries of more than 2,000 titles.
Comcast to TiVo-enable SA boxes, too
Comcast systems based on Scientific Atlanta's digital platform won't be left out of the MSO's strategy to offer premium DVR services from TiVo, says Multichannel News.
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