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H.266 Standard to Bring High Quality Video to Slower Broadband

Tuesday, July 7th, 2020 (7:55 am) - Score 5,465
broadband internet video and movie streaming

At present most consumer UK internet traffic is made up of video content (70-80%) and one of the problems with having a slower broadband ISP connection is that you’re often stuck with lower quality streaming. But that could be about to change with the new H.266 Versatile Video Coding standard, which offers 50% more compression.

Video quality is constantly improving and so is availability via video streaming platforms. The most common streams today are currently still distributed at 1080p / HD (pixel resolution of 1920 x 1080), while those who tend to pay a bit extra often get 4K / UltraHD (3,840 x 2,160) and we’re now starting to see the first early 8K (7680 x 4320) content.

NOTE: Resolution is only one aspect of how you define video quality, but for our purposes it’s the easiest to understand. See here and here for more.

The introduction of ever higher resolutions tends, at least at first, to push up data (bitrate) demands. For example, on Netflix it’s recommended to have a stable broadband download speed of 5Mbps for HD and 25Mbps for 4K (other platforms user similar figures). In reality the variable nature of video content means that the bitrate will fluctuate as the detail on display changes, but for the most part such figures are a reasonable guide.

Obviously, this can be a problem if your broadband connection remains below that level or indeed if you have a busy home where several high-quality streams may be active at the same time. Sadly we don’t all have access to “ultrafast” (100Mbps+) or “gigabit-capable” (1000Mbps+) broadband yet.

However, video compression and optimisation technology has done a fantastic job of keeping pace with such changes and as a result it’s today possible to fit increasingly high-quality video down ever slower broadband lines. For example, early 4K streams would gobble data at up to 200Mbps, but improvements in video compression via new codecs pushed this down to 50Mbps and then later.. 20-30Mbps, as is common today.

Enter H.266

At this point we could go off on a tangent about how introducing greater compression is more of a maths and processing problem, but it’s easier to just say that every few years a new video codec (often a bunch of codecs with similar features but different licensing conditions) come out that help to further squeeze high quality video streams down to an increasingly small bitrate.

One of the best-known standards of the last generation was H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding (HVEC), which was launched in 2013. A few years after that ISPreview.co.uk did a simple test to show just how much of an impact changes like this can have on internet connection performance. We compared compression between the older H.264 and newer H.265 standards at a similar level of quality output.

H.264 / AVC MPEG4 720p [MKV]
Video File Size: 987 MegaBytes

Time to download at 2Mbps = 1 Hour 9 Minutes
Time to download at 24Mbps = 5 Minutes 44 Seconds

H.265 / HEVC MPEG-H 720p [MKV]
Video File Size: 243 MegaBytes

Time to download at 2Mbps = 17 Minutes
Time to download at 24Mbps = 1 Minute 24 Seconds

We could have compressed the H.265 copy even more and made it just 160MB in size, but this would have lost just a little too much quality.

The good news is that a project to develop the next generation of video standards, which was initiated by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2017 (here), has this week celebrated the release and official adoption of a new global video coding standard – H.266/Versatile Video Coding (VVC).

The Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute (together with partners from industry including Apple, Ericsson, Intel, Huawei, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Sony) are claiming that H.266 “reduces data requirements by around 50% of the bit rate relative to the previous standard.” Put another way, if an HD stream needed 5Mbps before and 4K needed 25Mbps, then under H.266 this could fall to just 2.5Mbps and 12.5Mbps respectively. Good for consumers and ISPs alike.

The H.266/VVC standard was developed with ultra-high-resolution video content in mind (4K, 8K etc.), as well as support for things like High Dynamic Range (HDR) and Omnidirectional 360° video.

Benjamin Bross, Head of the Video Coding Systems at Fraunhofer HHI, said:

“After dedicating almost three years toward this standard, we are proud to have been instrumental in developing H.266/VVC. Because of the quantum leap in coding efficiency offered by H.266/VVC, the use of video will increase further worldwide. Moreover, the increased versatility of H.266/VVC makes its use more attractive for a broader range of applications related to the transmission and storage of video.”

A uniform and transparent licensing model based on the FRAND principle (i.e. fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) is apparently planned to be established for the use of standard essential patents related to H.266/VVC. For this purpose, the Media Coding Industry Forum (MC-IF) was founded. The first software (encoder and decoder) release to support H.266/VVC is then due this autumn 2020.

The big caveat in all this is that such changes tend to require ever faster computer processors (CPU), which can make backwards compatibility with some older devices (e.g. particularly internet connected TVs, Smartphones, set-top-boxes etc.) a bit more problematic. Generally, it tends to take a few years for any new standard to fully propagate and so we may have to wait a bit longer before the benefits start to be realised.

As for where the limits to all this are, that is much harder to answer. But suffice to say, we wouldn’t be surprised to see another such advancement some 7 years from now.

Leave a Comment
14 Responses
  1. Avatar Danny

    Does anyone know if Netflix and other streaming platforms have returned to the pre covid video bitrate or are still using a lower standard?

    • So far as I’m aware they’ve all returned, at least that seems to be what various updates over the past month or so have been saying. But that’s a different topic.

  2. Avatar Buggerlugz

    Like Mark said considering the high level of CPU requirements for X265 (due to its very high compression), especially in 4k, with many set-top boxes, cheap KODI solutions and streaming sticks really struggling to decode at high bitrates, I don’t think this idea has been thought through very well.

    Case in point, I recently had a x265 1080p cartoon for my kids, which was totally unplayable on my Raspberry Pi 3 Kodi box (sound only, 1fps video decoding) yet it played just fine on the Xbox one using Kodi.

    • In fairness that’s just the reality of such improvements and this was just as true for prior standards. Processing power is always an issue and indeed the only reason such things are possible is because CPUs and GPUs continue to get better.

    • Avatar Chris

      Greater compression always has to use more CPU power.

      What you will see as the new codec is standardised is hardware encoders/decoders embedded into chips like we already have for h.264 and 265 to offload the effort from the CPU.

    • Avatar Frank Butcher

      The Raspberry Pi 3 does not support x265 hardware decoding.

      I swapped my Kodi on Pi3 combo for an Amazon Fire TV Stick (£19.99 recently + £7 for an eBay USB wired ethernet adapter) and sideloaded Kodi on the FireStick, works really well and supports x265 decoding in hardware.

    • Avatar SimonHayterUK

      Problem sounds like you buying naf boxes. Imho the Nvidia shield is the best TV box on the market due to the GPU processing power they pack in these boxes. I’ve had many boxes over the years, from ODROID, Apple TV, Amazon Boxes and even boxes with S912, S905x2 and S905x3, and I can tell you ARM Mali is light years behind NVIDIA GPU. Go Nvidia shield and don;t look back.

    • Avatar Frank Butcher

      Bit of a price difference tho with a Shield… are you offering to pay :o)

  3. Avatar Osk

    If this get adopted would this solve the stalemate between Apple and it’s devices and YouTube?

    I assume this is a royalty free solution meaning these companies don’t have to stump up license fees ?

    • Remains to be seen. Licensing conditions around these things are still a bit of a mess.

    • Avatar Matthew

      If your referring to 4K Youtube than I believe that has been solved as TVOS coming this fall is going to allow 4K Youtube. Not sure what exactly has happened but Apple has announced that.

  4. Avatar Roger_Gooner

    In seven years from now we should certainly see STBs with the chipsets that support H.266. If by then 4K content has increased considerably (and there will be some 8K as well) then ISPs such as Virgin Media would be interested in deploying a suitable STB, no small task as there could be up to 4m needed.

    • Avatar Matthew

      Seven years from now i expect Cable and Satellite TV will be very different then they are now anyway. I see Virgin Media staying similar but honestly they need a lot more original stuff as at moment it’s simply a worse version of Sky but I expect Sky will be moving to a IPTV type system like they now have in Italy or at least in a transition process.

  5. Avatar Chief dilldaddler

    4K/8K but only when you stand 3ft away from the TV otherwise the dreaded compression artefacts. Go stand right next to your 4K TV watching a Disney+ / Netflix UHD / Prime UHD video it looks terrible. Then go grab a 4K bluray and realise why streaming sucks if you value picture quality. Still after all that, being able to watch better quality video with lower file size if you are on poor broadband is deffo a bonus. I just hope we don’t see lower streaming quality for all.

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