WebRTC Expert Feature

June 03, 2014

The Video Conundrum


You can’t spend much time around WebRTC without hearing about the video issue. For most of us this is news, as we did not even know there were video issues. The issue of which codecs will dominate in the future is a question of the web world vs. the traditional telecom world. 

Modern digital video is a truly amazing thing: with 24 color bits, sensor video bandwidth varies from .75gbps for 1080i video at 30 frames per second to 2.99gbps for 1080p video at 60 fps.  Modern video codecs can reduce that huge stream to between .5 to 3mbps with little visual consequence. Video broadcasts (cable, VDSL, and satellite) operate between 2.5 and 3mbps.  Blu-ray average bit rates are 10 to more than 30mbps with dynamic bit rates tailored to the scene. 

This is possible by the incredible advances in video codecs, crucial pieces of technology that strip out the meaningless bits and leave only those that our eyes can see. The technology that makes this possible is based on literally hundreds of innovations over the last 30 years, resulting in a technology that, driven by Moore’s Law, is actually reducing the bandwidth needed for a specific level of visual presentation by about 50 percent every 5 to 7 years.

However, the codecs are encumbered by the very innovation that enables them. Dozens of companies, from the telecom space to computing, video, and entertainment, have developed and patented the techniques that go into today’s codecs. These companies have a goal to monetize those investments. To accomplish this, in the telecom and entertainment industries, standards have been agreed to that incorporate the innovations and patents, and an organization called the MPEG-LA licenses commercial use in PCs, mobile phones, and disc players.

The challenge has come in the way these are licensed. While your smartphone may have a license for a specific codec like the h.264 standard, a software application loading on the phone requires a separate license for the same codec. This is very contrary to the way the web works, with open interfaces and code. Google developed a new codec called VP8 that it offered as open source unlicensed code. Google even negotiated with the MPEG-LA for unlimited use licensing of this codec. (However, some codec patent holders claim they have patents that are infringed on by VP8 and are outside the MPEG-LA license, and have said they will sue VP8 implementers.)

For Google, reducing cost and simplifying is critical. Google has spent a large amount of money and time on Android to eliminate the cost of the mobile OS, reducing codec cost is the next step.

This battle is impacting WebRTC. Google is adamant that WebRTC, as a web technology must be unencumbered by the licensing constraints of past codecs. Google believes this is essential to enabling the next explosion of web users and innovation. Companies that have invested millions in developing the underlying technologies that are used by modern codecs feel strongly that they should be compensated for their use.

At this point WebRTC is caught in the middle.

There is a huge challenge as to how to resolve the issue. The IETF Working Group has taken an extraordinary step of calling for a vote on preference to try to resolve the issue. While WebRTC has rolled out, primarily with VP8, it impacts other players like Apple, which has implemented H.264 acceleration in hardware in iOS devices, a function that would be lost with VP8.

While the IETF vote may produce a winner, I believe it is time to move to a reasonable licensing for the intellectual property in codecs. Device manufacturers are paying for the codec license on the devices. That license should extend to any software running on that device.

Regardless of the codec decision, the power of WebRTC is the enablement of a web communications paradigm. The next generation of codecs (currently H.265 and VP9) deliver a 50 percent bandwidth reduction, or a doubling of quality in the same bandwidth. The power of 60 fps HD video at 1080p enables telepresence-level video on virtually any device. How this will change the way we communicate will be profound.

Phil Edholm is the president and founder of PKE Consulting LLC and works with INTERNET TELEPHONY parent company TMC to stage the WebRTC Conference & Expo, which will be held next time from June 17 to 19 in Atlanta.




Edited by Maurice Nagle



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