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Cutting Through the Hype of HEVC (H.265)

While HEVC is a hot topic, far too many people are getting caught up in non-real-world use cases such as 4K, or think HEVC is going to be adopted in short order. In reality, the mainstream market is not yet ready for HEVC, and initial adoption will be because of HEVC’s bandwidth-saving opportunities, not for 4K UltraHD delivery.

HEVC probably will serve as the successor to MPEG-4, but many myths surround the technology and the rate at which it will be deployed. Frost & Sullivan digital media industry manager Avni Rambhia recently led a webinar discussing the current state of HEVC products and technology, and its strategic implications in the short, mid-, and long term for a variety of businesses. Here were some of the key takeaways:

Myth 1: UltraHD Is an Immediate Driver for HEVC

  • Higher-end profiles of HEVC are still under development.
  • True 4K source material is still hard to find (VOD or live).
  • Only one or two flagship UltraHD channels can be fit into today’s IPTV, cable, and direct-to-home (DTH) systems. A codec overhaul is neither necessary nor economical.
  • 4K TV sets are still in a nascent market stage.
  • Real-time encoders and power-efficient decoders for 4K resolution are still a few years away.
  • HDMI 2.0 is needed for the higher frame rates (40 fps–100 fps) that many consider a fundamental aspect of 4K. This is still a year or two away.

Reality: Bandwidth-limited OTT and VOD in SD and HD resolution, likely in conjunction with MPEG-DASH, is the most important short-term application for HEVC, not UltraHD.

Myth 2: Multiple-System Operators Should Upgrade From MPEG-2 to HEVC

  • AVC technology is mature enough for immediate adoption, and prices have fallen considerably across the board, making this technology far more affordable than it has been in the past.
  • Encoders and decoders for HEVC are significantly more expensive than AVC products. Moreover, mature, reliable, and scalable compression and transmission solutions are several years away.
  • It will be some years before commercial HEVC encoders can deliver compression gains that justify disruptive investments in the technology. Until then, cutting-edge AVC encoders and technologies such as switched digital video offer more cost-effective ways for better bandwidth use.
  • Today’s software-based AVC encoders can be upgraded in the field to support HEVC when the time is right, so investment is protected.

Reality: Service providers should begin to trial and test HEVC products now in preparation for potential rollout in the 2016–2018 time frame, but AVC offers immediate benefits in the meantime.

Myth 3: Many HEVC Products Will Hit the Market in 2013

  • While first-generation products are indeed being debuted in 2013, unit sales are small, content availability is minimal, revenues are uncertain, and consumer uptake remains very small.
  • Many vendors, particularly vendors of encoder and decoder cores, are deeply invested in HEVC products and are either releasing or close to releasing first-generation cores in 2013. Certainly, since there are as yet no ASIC or open source implementations of HEVC encoders and decoders, companies have a significant opportunity to demonstrate expertise and breakthrough innovation in a market that is otherwise plagued by commoditization.
  • However, the end-to-end ecosystem is yet to fall into place for any application.

Reality: Serious pilots and feasibility tests are underway, but serious, large-scale deployments are not. Applications such as videoconferencing and wireless OTT will be among the first to leverage HEVC, but even those will not see mainstream adoption before late 2014.

Conclusion: Key Takeaways and Recommendations

  • HEVC is a promising technology, but it will take at least 6–8 years to mature -- just as AVC is only now hitting its stride, nearly a decade after the standard was finalized.
  • Large footprints of legacy MPEG-2 and AVC equipment and limited maturity of HEVC products will hinder short-term uptake.
  • Encoder and decoder vendors (hardware and software) are in the thick of the battle to innovate and deliver real-time, power-efficient solutions to the market.
  • Vendors of other components in the end-to-end value chain need to be innovating now to incorporate HEVC into their product road maps.
  • Service providers, on the other hand, need to carefully evaluate all options available to them for optimizing bandwidth and develop an ROI-centric strategy to adopt and deploy HEVC.

This article appears in the June/July 2013 issue of Streaming Media magazine. A slightly different version of this article originally appeared on StreamingMediaBlog.com.

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