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HBO to go all-digital, all MPEG-4 in 2008

Wed, 06/20/2007 - 8:30am
Brian Santo

HBO executive vice president of technology Robert M. Zitter dropped a minor bombshell this morning, saying that HBO is going to transmit content entirely in HD, encoded in MPEG-4, starting next year.

The announcement came during a Cable-Tec Expo panel called Building the Sustainable, Competitive Network, which also hosted executives from Charter Communications, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable. One exec was visibly struck by the info, as if he were immediately calculating the ramifications for his company.

There have been significant improvements in MPEG-4 in the last year, Zitter said, encouraging HBO to make the move. MPEG-2 is still viable, he said, but HBO simply can't transmit 26 channels all in HD using MPEG-2. "MPEG-4 is going to be the silver bullet in our holsters a few years from now."

That will put pressure on cable operators, who will still have plenty of legacy boxes deployed that cannot handle MPEG-4.

"If it was my choice, I would simulcast in 2 and 4," said Marwan Fawaz, CTO of Charter Communications.

Instead, operators will have to deploy transcoders to convert MPEG-4 streams into MPEG-2 video before broadcasting it to those boxes, and start deploying boxes that will accept both forms of MPEG.

Zitter also said HBO intends to transmit its MPEG-4 video at 8 Mbps. When asked how HBO arrived at that rate, Zitter said it was a subjective decision, based on what looked good, with some added overhead for transcoding.

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