Making a smooth transition from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4

January 16, 2014 - 2:41pm
The explosion of content creates new demand for advanced compression standards.

When it was first introduced in 1998, the MPEG-4 compression standard offered an impressive alternative to the audio and video coding offered through its predecessor, MPEG-2. As the Internet, smartphones and over-the-top video services have become more popular, MPEG-4 has gone from a more powerful, if not compulsory, upgrade from MPEG-2 to a virtual necessity for operators that want to offer more programs while consuming less bandwidth.

TV Technology contributor James Careless recently wrote about the "post-MPEG-2 world." Compression technologies, led by H.264/MPEG-4/AVC and High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC), are substantially more efficient than the compression standards they have replaced. Many content providers and networks are making a steady shift to the higher standards, converting some distribution affiliates and channels to MPEG-4. For its part, the Advanced Television Standards Committee has added capabilities specifying the use of emerging standards for video transport. However, several factors are impeding an industry-wide shift, producing a "chicken and egg" issue in which either providers or content would have to take a step forward. However, legacy TV receivers cannot utilize MPEG-2, and content providers do not want to prevent their consumer base from having access to programming.

"The [Consumer Electronics Association] doesn't want to alienate people with legacy HDTVs, until there is enough MPEG-4 or newer content on air to justify promoting these receivers," Patrick Waddell, chair of the ATSC Specialist Group on Video and Audio Coding, told Careless. "Meanwhile, the broadcasters don't want to invest in offering MPEG-4 or better until there is a large enough viewing audience to justify the move."

In the meantime, content requiring MPEG-4 compression will likely appear incrementally. Right now, it is much more likely to increase in adoption than HEVC, which only streams to a small selection of 4K-compatible televisions, according to Tom's Guide. In any event, the explosion of content delivery expectations should compel broadcasters to consider advanced compression systems for optimal video transport.

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