MPEG-4 video: Unravelling the standard | ACMA

Interference

24 June, 2016 10:44 AM

Interference

MPEG-4 video: Unravelling the standard

By Editor

Remote pointing at a television

Have you seen a new TV channel advertised in your area or on your TVs electronic program guide (EPG), but for some reason you can’t view it?

This may be because TV broadcasters are now using a video standard called MPEG-4 for some of their new channels. The good news is MPEG-4 is more efficient at transferring data—which means we get to feast on more content.

Read on as we unravel the MPEG-4 video standard—what it is, how can you get it and what you can do if your current telly is not compatible.

Why do TV broadcasters keep changing their channel configurations?

Australia is divided into several TV licence areas and each of these licence areas has provision for two national broadcasters (ABC and SBS) and three commercial broadcasters. Each broadcaster is allocated the same amount of spectrum to deliver their TV services.

The number of channels that broadcasters can provide in this spectrum depends on the technology they use to compress the video and audio.

When digital television began in Australia in 2001, the MPEG-2 standard was used for video compression. Fifteen years later, standards have evolved and broadcasters are now using MPEG-4 for some of their new channels, so they can give their audiences more channels within the spectrum (bandwidth) available to them.

What is MPEG-4 video and why have broadcasters started using it?

MPEG-4 video is all about compression—it reduces the amount of data needed to reproduce a video and is an efficient way of sending video data.

MPEG-4 video is shorthand and refers to the MPEG-4 (Part 10) standard, which is also called MPEG-4 AVC (Advanced Video Coding), or sometimes H.264.

MPEG-4 video coding allows the same program to be broadcast using significantly less data than required using the MPEG-2 video standard. This means that if broadcasters convert the video content from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4, bandwidth will be freed up so they can provide extra channels or provide more high definition (HD) programs. How much bandwidth is saved depends on a range of variables, but it can be in the range of 40–60 per cent, so on average an MPEG-4 standard definition (SD) program takes about half the bandwidth of an MPEG-2 SD program.

New channels thanks to more efficient MPEG-4 standard

Some of the new channels using MPEG-4 video include:

Metro markets

Seven Network: 7HD, Racing.com

Nine Network: 9HD, 9Life, eXtra

Network Ten: Ten HD

Regional markets

Prime/7: Racing.com

WIN: WIN HD

NBN: NBN HD, Life

Why does it matter which video compression standard is used?

TVs use electronic chipsets that determine which video compression standard works on your TV. TVs tend to be either MPEG-2 only, or MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 compatible.

If your TV has an MPEG-2-only chipset, you cannot do a software or firmware upgrade on it to enable it to decode MPEG-4 signals.

Some TVs that are MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 compatible have a configuration setting that only allows MPEG-2 signals to be displayed by default. These TVs require you to go to the settings menu and change the option to enable MPEG-4 content.

How do I know if my TV is MPEG-4 compatible?

Your TV is MPEG-4 compatible if you can see and hear the channels that use MPEG-4 standard. You may have to perform either a manual or auto-tune to receive the new channels first.

If, after performing a manual/auto-tune, some channels on your TV only have sound and you cannot see any video on the channels that use MPEG-4, then it’s probably an MPEG-2-only compatible TV.

The age of your TV may also provide a clue—most TVs purchased before 2009/2010 tend to be MPEG-2 only, whereas many (but not all) TVs purchased after this date are MPEG-4 compatible. If you bought your TV after 2010 and you’re still not able to get any of the channels that use the MPEG-4 standard, you may need to check with your TV manual or manufacturer if it is MPEG-4 compatible.

Quick guide to get the new channels:

  1. Try an auto-scan of your TV (you may need to delete the channels first).
  2. Check digital TV tuning settings to see if there is an MPEG-4 AVC channels access option (some Panasonic TVs) and then perform an auto-scan.

My TV is not MPEG-4 compatible—what can I do?

If your TV is not MPEG-4 compatible, then there are a couple of options to consider.

The cheapest solution is to pick up a MPEG-4 compatible set-top box, which cost around $40–60 (sometimes even cheaper) and connect this to your TV. Most new equipment tends to be MPEG-4 compatible, but it’s worth checking before you buy.

Alternatively, you can purchase a new TV or a Personal Video Recorder (PVR) that is MPEG-4 compatible.

You can expect more MPEG-4 channels to start in the near future as broadcasters look for ways to bring more content to their viewers.

If I buy a new TV will it be compatible with the new emerging standards?

Technology is advancing at a rapid rate and broadcast standards are continuing to evolve.

The free-to-air broadcast industry is yet to determine future directions for compression standards to be implemented in TV markets in Australia. While almost all new TVs bought today would be compatible with MPEG-4, not many are yet compatible with future transmission standards such as DVB-T2 or future video compression standards such as MPEG-H HEVC (H.265) that might be rolled out in the future.