Imagine’s first product targets HD race

Mon, 01/14/2008 - 6:35am
Brian Santo

For more than a year, Imagine Communications has been making a philosophical case for using its particular version of variable bit rate (VBR) processing and statistical multiplexing (statmux) to achieve video quality while saving bandwidth. Today, Imagine is finally announcing its first commercial product.

Imagine says its Interchangeable Compressed Elements (ICE) Broadcast System gives cable operators the ability to carry up to 50 percent more high-definition television (HDTV) and standard-definition television (SDTV) digital broadcast signals within their digital broadcast spectrum – without sacrificing video quality.

The company had long talked about applying its technology for video-on-demand (VOD) in the context of switched digital video (SDV) networks. But VOD on SDV is only beginning and represents a small amount of any MSO’s capacity, observed Imagine SVP Marc Tayer.

Meanwhile, HD is becoming a huge business. Targeting HD first is not a shift in technical strategy or market strategy but a simple reprioritization in response to the market, Tayer said.

“Before, HD was added on an ad hoc, as-needed basis,” Tayer said. “All of a sudden, it’s a race.”

In the past few months, service providers have made it one of their highest priorities to add many more HD channels. A few cable operators now have about 40 HD channels, and many are in the 20- to 30-channel range, Tayer said, while the DBS companies, depending on how you count, are at about 80 channels.

The goal for many operators is 100 HD channels (Verizon said its goal is 150), “and it’s not painless to get there,” Tayer said.

Among cable’s options are splitting nodes, which Tayer said is expensive and disruptive; moving to MPEG-4, which Tayer characterized as extremely expensive and also disruptive; and migrating to SDV, which is also very expensive. Deploying Imagine’s ICE products – they fit between MPEG-2 decoders and QAMs – is, Tayer said, the most cost-effective and least-disruptive solution to buying more bandwidth.

Imagine’s video processing algorithms can fit up to three HD streams into a single channel without, Tayer insisted, sacrificing video quality. “Any statmux vendor can do 3:1,” he said, “but at what quality?”

Imagine’s next product will be a front-end processor for video transmitted in an SDV system.

Imagine’s ICE Broadcast System consists of ICE Broadcast Processors, which accept and reprocess compressed MPEG-2 digital signals using Imagine’s ICE-Q video quality algorithms. Then, using the ICE Multiplexer, these signals are statistically multiplexed for multiple program transport stream (MPTS) digital broadcast over cable. The processing makes it possible to transmit three digital HDTV or 15 digital SDTV signals in a 256 QAM channel while maintaining excellent video quality.

Imagine has long used the term ICE, but in a bit of re-branding, the company will drop the use of another acronym it frequently employed – QoD, or quality on demand.

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