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What’s going on with HEVC?

H265 HEVCThe growing demand for video online and over the mobile networks means people are looking for ways to send better video using less bandwidth. Back in 2013, HEVC/H.265 was approved as the next standard for video compression to meet those needs. It’s able to double the compression while providing the same video quality as the current standard H.264. It can also provide higher quality video using the same bit rate as lower quality video provided by H.264. Though the standard was approved over two years ago, it’s only recently that hardware vendors and content providers have begun using it. After all, it takes time to go from a standard on paper into something you can actually use!

Basically all that tech speak means you get to watch videos and full length movies in HD using less bandwidth than you do today. This takes the pressure off networks, mobile networks especially, that are already swamped trying to provide the high quality video everyone wants. It’s a win win for just about everyone.

It’s not free

While the standard was developed by the ITU-T, a United Nations organisation overlooking digital communications, it relies on patents by many of the major technology companies. Those patent holders don’t want to give away their hard work for nothing, so everyone that uses HEVC will have to pay a licensing fee.

The trouble is, there is a lot of confusion about which patents are used, what companies are involved, and what it is they will want to be paid. So to simplify things these companies form legal bodies known as patent pools.

At the moment, there are two patent pools, with rumours of a third starting. The first was MPEG LA which included 23 companies, but that isn’t all of the companies that hold patents relating to HEVC. They proposed a reasonable licensing structure aimed at hardware developers – like the ones who make blu-ray players, video cards for computers and the like. Since the announcement of the fees, HEVC has been included in major companies hardware including NVIDIA (makes video cards for computers) and AMD who will be including graphics processing on their Carrizo line of Advanced Processing Units (APU).

The second patent pool is called HEVC Advanced. It recently announced its licensing terms and started an uproar among many in the community. The pool is comprised of an unknown number of patent holders. Unlike the MPEG LA licensing, they’ve chosen to apply fees to the content creators, rather than the hardware makers. They are asking for a fee, plus a percentage of the gross revenue from any company that uses the standard.

Dan Rayburn of Streamingmedia.com explains in this blog post why the industry needs to reject the HEVC Advanced licensing terms. In another blog explaining the details he says, “While HEVC Advanced is quick to say how ‘fair and reasonable’ their terms are, they aren’t. The best way to describe their terms would be unreasonable and greedy.”

Why licensing matters to HEVC and us

The concerns over the licensing terms aren’t just about the money it will cost if the patent pool doesn’t change its terms. Ultimately it’s about adoption of the technology. HEVC can deliver 4k video in ways H.264 can’t. If it isn’t implemented because of the cost, it will affect the industry and consumers. For example, HEVC has already been added to the Blu-ray standard, and Apple uses it for FaceTime over mobile networks. If they remove that capability, we consumers will have fewer choices.

According to Rayburn, the excessive fees will wreak havoc on content providers which ultimately means we either won’t get access to higher quality video, or we’ll be paying a lot more for it.

Unless, content providers and hardware makers opt to use a different standard. While HEVC is in the process of being rolled out by many companies, Google is working on VP10 which is intended to compete with HEVC in terms of quality and compression. It is still in development however, but it is supposed to be open source and royalty free. As long as Google wants it to be anyway.

Another project, called Thor, is also trying to develop a totally new, open source, and royalty free standard as well. It’s spearheaded by Cisco though they are working with other organisations, like Mozilla, who are contributing code or algorithms. They’ve openly said they’d welcome input from Google and their VP9/10 project. They simply want to create an even better standard by using the best from all sources – as long as it doesn’t rely on patented technology (which Google’s VP9 does, but as long as they offer it for free it works out the same).

If the industry does as Rayburn suggests and simply refuses to pay the latest patent pool, then chances are these issues will all just disappear. Then we’ll find ourselves enjoying HEVC and the benefits it brings. If, on the other hand, HEVC Advanced tries to enforce the licensing fees then the industry will just use another solution. One that’s free or at least reasonably priced. And since one of equal quality isn’t really ready yet, we’ll have to wait for one to emerge. In the meantime, we’ll pay for more bandwidth and higher quality, or get used to the idea our videos will look as good as they do now and that’s all.

Oliver Burt

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