NHK \’Mobile TV\’ to Start MPEG-4 Alternative in 2005

Japan Broadcasting Corp (NHK) and commercial TV broadcasting companies have started to study seriously video codec alternatives to MPEG-4.

Candidates include the H.264, MPEG-1 and others. The broadcasting industry has almost reached a consensus to realize ubiquitous “Mobile TV,” regardless of the kind of codecs on lease in 2005, using available mobile devices.
Their policy has been drastically changed, giving up adoption of MPEG-4 as the cornerstone for mobile TV.MPEG-4 Licensing Issue Out of the Blue

In broadcasting for mobile devices, a channel of 6MHz bandwidth is divided into 13 segments, one of which is assigned for video. In the earlier plan, because of its higher compression efficiency, in order to utilize the limited bandwidth effectively, MPEG-4 is expected to be adopted instead of MPEG-2, a commonly used format for the current broadcasting.

If everything goes smoothly, the terrestrial digital TV broadcasting was scheduled to begin its services in December 2003.
Then an issue was raised out of the blue to broadcasters — the MPEG licensing matter.
In January 2002, MPEG LA, LLC, which manages collectively MPEG related patents, announced its plan to collect royalties from contents providers delivering MPEG-4 compressed video for mobile devices.

It is the first proposal to collect royalties for MPEG-4. An individual licensee must pay the royalties of US$1,000,000 at maximum per year.
The broadcasting industry is strongly opposed, saying, “The burden of royalties for an MPEG-4 license, in addition to the huge capital investment for the digitalization, threatens operation of local broadcasting stations.
We can hardly start mobile TV broadcasting with this kind of royalty system.”

NHK and commercial TV broadcasters set up a conference to discuss MPEG-4 licensing issues in November 2002, and made repeated visits to MPEG LA, LLC and rights owners to request reconsideration of royalty to the broadcasters. No progress has been seen in the negotiation.
In February 2003, MPEG LA held a presentation in Tokyo to reaffirm its intention to collect royalties even from the broadcasters, and made its position clear that among the contents providers, the broadcasters cannot be treated differently.

“We don’t mean that we have closed the window for negotiation,” said a senior manager of a commercial broadcasting station, “but it is hardly expected that in the future, MPEG LA will make a proposal agreeable to us. With hanging on MPEG-4, we will never be able to begin our broadcasting.
” This is a dominantly shared view toward MPEG LA among the broadcasting businesses in Japan.

Digital Broadcasting to Mobile to Start in 2005

Now, broadcasters are resetting the target date of starting broadcasting to the year 2005, and making up their mind to start the services based on codec technology other than MPEG-4.

The reason to set up the year 2005 for the start of broadcasting is because of a limited broadcasting area. In the initial plan to start the terrestrial digital broadcasting services in December 2003, the broadcasting area is limited only to a part of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka.
Even if the broadcasting for mobile devices would be started at the same time, chances of receiving the services would be scarce, and so the mobile devices would not be attractive to potential customers. The industry now thinks it is better to wait until the broadcasting area gets larger to a certain extent.

Assuming the time required for developing the terminals is one and a half year, the specifications will be finalized by the summer of 2003 if possible, and added to the codec standards.
Since March 2003, Association for Radio Industries and Businesses (ARIB)’s committee for digital terrestrial broadcasting has been working substantially.

One of the reasons the broadcasters are hustling to start digital broadcasting for mobile devices is that rivals may possibly start similar services for the mobile devices ahead of them if their services delay further.
For instance, Qualcomm Inc, at CTIA Wireless 2003 held in March 2003, revealed its technology for simultaneous delivery of video over the mobile phone networks. There are many other prospective rival technologies, such as widespread hot spots using wireless LAN technology. So they wish to disseminate mobile devices that receive digital broadcasting faster than rivals.

Licensing Policy of Alternative Plan Still Uncertain

The alternative plans to MPEG-4 nominated are MPEG-1, H.263, H.264 and others.
In November 2002, NHK and the commercial broadcasting companies did comparison analysis of these formats and MPEG-2. As the result of comparing picture quality of each video encoded by 352 x 240 pixels and 128kbps, MPEG-2 was labeled not usable because of much block noise.

The best performance is said to be the H.264.
However, it was just ratified in March 2003 as an international standard. Not only the rate of royalty for patents, but also an entity to manage the patent rights, have not been established yet. There may be a good possibility that after all MPEG LA will start to take care of license management and request royalties just like MPEG-4, because H.264, called MPEG-4 Advanced Video Codec (AVC), is indeed a successor standard to the current MPEG-4.
The broadcasters intend to take a strong position to request H.264 rights owners reconsideration of patent royalties, but nothing is clear at this moment. There is a specification called H.264 Baseline, which has been worked out to aim at a royalty-free product.
There still remain uncertainties such as: With the profile to bypass the licensing issue, how much can the picture quality be secured? Will it be really free of royalties?

Such being the situation, generation-old codecs such as MPEG-1 and H.263 are brought into view.
For instance, FM Tokyo Broadcasting Co, Ltd, is planning to start test broadcasting of terrestrial digital radio, and is proceeding with preparations, taking into account the adoption of MPEG-1.
The reason for expecting a format like MPEG-1 is that there is nearly no demand on the royalty for the patent for now.
The broadcaster foresees that even if a royalty is charged, it may be only for an encoder/decoder like MPEG-2, but not for contents providers, as MPEG-1 is the base technology for MPEG-2, and the members that established both standards are nearly the same.

The shortcoming is that the compression factor of the format like MPEG-1 is lower and the picture quality less than MPEG-4. Nevertheless, TV stations are seeking the possibility of adopting one of these formats, just in case the frontrunner H.264 fails.

Read the the full article on neasia.nikkeibp
See also this interview of Yutaka TANAKA,Executive Research Engineer,
NHK Science & Technical Research Laboratories.