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Chinese A/V codec rises

Posted: 03 Apr 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Mike Clendenin? A/V codec? MPEG-4? H.264? WMV-9?

A Chinese A/V codec is on the verge of becoming a national standarda domestic rival to MPEG-4/H.264 and WMV-9 that backers say will save China-based manufacturers and consumers millions of dollars in fees and royalties in the next few years.

Since mid-2002, the Audio Video Coding Standard (AVS) has been inching its way through a relatively open technical-development process. China's Ministry of Information Industry recently completed a one-year review and quietly approved AVS in December as a candidate for a national compression standard, passing it to the Standards Administration of China, which should formally approve it in the coming months.

That would mark a small victory for Chinese standards setters because the effort to craft the codec was largely transparent, with more than 130 domestic and foreign companies, as well as universities, taking part in the AVS Working Group.

"In some other standards working groups, they didn't deal with intellectual-property rights very well. It was closed. Some members didn't have the right to own the patentsothers didn't have a chance to propose their technology, so they would have no chance to have their own patents in that area," said Gao Wen, chairman of the AVS Working Group. "We've learned a lot about playing the game when it comes to making standards."

If all goes well, systems using AVS will be ready for market introduction by Q3 or Q4, with potential applications ranging from cable STBs to mobile phones and high-definition optical-disk players. The next step for backers will be to take the spec to the International Organization for Standardization/International Electrotechnical Commission with the hope of making AVS an internationally accepted codec, Gao said.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences has been working on compression technologies for several years, but no concerted move for commercialization was made until 2002, at the height of acrimony between Chinese manufacturers and various DVD licensing agencies. Tensions arose from licensing fees that the Chinese thought excessive, given the plummeting prices of DVD players at the time.

The AVS initiative was part of a wider Chinese effort to lessen reliance on foreign IP. Increasingly frustrated over clashes with licensing groups like MPEG LA, China is striving to wean itself from foreign standards and the royalty payments linked to them. That has led to standards development in several areas during the past few years, including 3G communications spec TD-SCDMA, a WLAN initiative called WAPI, the EVD optical-disk format and a forthcoming spec for DTV. To date, none have been a huge success, although some analysts believe TD-SCDMA may outdistance CDMA in China.

Although commercialization of AVS is probable, a few challenges remain and the next few months will show whether backers can tidy up those loose ends for the spec to launch on schedule.

For instance, a few companies that likely hold essential patents for AVS are not members of the AVS Working Group and have not agreed to license IP on a reasonable and non-discriminatory basis. Another potential sticking point lies with some members of the AVS Working Group that hold significant IP in the rival MPEG-4/H.264 standard. They are not thrilled with the prospect of licensing their IP for a lower price to the AVS camp so that it can meet the flat-rate licensing target of 12 cents per decoder.

"Not having exclusive control over the price is a big, big problem for all of these companies. That's not something they have faced before and it is not something they can easily accept," said Cliff Reader, a consultant to the AVS Working Group who is in charge of building the patent pool and negotiating licensing with patent owners. "I'm sure they are concerned about a precedent being set."

Although there have been claims that AVS will save Chinese manufacturers and consumers hundreds of millions of dollars, it's not clear yet whether the total will range that high. Initially, some of those claims were based on comparisons with MPEG-2. If a comparison is made between decoder royalties for AVS and MPEG-4/H.264, then the cost is roughly the same. Unlike MPEG-4/H.264, however, the AVS group probably won't charge "participation fees" for using the codec for subscription-based services, over-the-air free broadcast or duplication of content on a title-by-title basis. That could be a source of savings.

Another key goal is forging a simpler approach than the multiple licensing agencies that are needed for a device maker to be covered under MPEG-4/H.264. "That is a critical area. We need to have a clear document and clear commercial guidance on licensing and payment," said Daniel Fu, chairman and chief technology officer of Celestial Semiconductor Inc., a Beijing design house that was the first company to develop silicon for AVS, through close cooperation with the government.

Early movers
Despite the uncertainty over the patent pool, a handful of Chinese fabless companies have already moved ahead in developing AVS-compliant chips. The best-known is probably Celestial. With its eye on the Chinese satellite STB market, the startup has developed an SoC that includes a hardwired accelerator for AVS video. Vimicro Corp., a maker of multimedia cellphone chips, is also supporting AVS through a software decoder running on an embedded CPU.

There is also growing interest among Chinese system makers. Seventeen companies, including Haier, Huawei, Lenovo, SinoSat and Skyworth, have set up the AVS Industry Alliance, which is tasked with commercializing the specification.

Some international corporations are showing interest as well, but are holding back at the moment as they try to determine whether AVS will be a fringe standard in China or something that emerges as mainstream. "In terms of commitment, it will happen, but it won't happen as fast as some people thought," said Bob Krysiak, corporate VP of Greater China for STMicroelectronics. Krysiak said ST is ready to support AVS in its satellite platform, but he noted that the government isn't sure whether the countryside is ready for HDTV. He sees AVS in Chinese satellite systems rolling out sometime in 2007, when more infrastructure is in place in rural areas.

So far, satellite seems to be the best bet for AVS. Because of its closed system, operators need only support one codec, and a low-cost one like AVS would be attractive to operators serving extremely cost-conscious consumers.

Many other chip companies are waiting as well. Broadcom Corp. said it would eventually develop technology for AVS, but it remains cautious at this point. LSI Logic Corp., an early mover in supporting China's optical-disk standard, is holding off. And SigmaTel Inc., a member of the AVS Working Group, is evaluating the codec, but has no plans yet to support a hardwired implementation of AVS, as it has for MPEG-4, a spokesperson said.

- Mike Clendenin
EE Times

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