Science & Tech

Setting the Record Straight on Dolby AC-4 and MPEG-H

The broadcast industry is transitioning to new technologies that will enable more efficient distribution of a wider range of entertainment experiences to a broader selection of devices. It is an exciting opportunity to upgrade and evolve broadcast technologies and business models to address the challenges of today and prepare for the future.

The next-generation ATSC 3.0 standard, currently being written by the industry, is at the forefront of this broadcast revolution. A key part of the discussion is selecting a reliable, efficient, forward-looking audio system. There are two advanced audio technologies under consideration: Dolby® AC-4 and the MPEG-H Audio Alliance TV System for ATSC 3.0.

As a leader of the team that created Dolby AC-4, I want to provide some facts about our proposal and address some issues with the MPEG-H Audio Alliance proposal.

What you need to know

Here are the key facts:

  • The cost of Dolby AC-4 is clear and affordable. Here is a summary of unit prices, which depend on device volume:
    • The cost of Dolby AC-4 covers more than just a patent licensing fee. It includes a patent license, an optimized software development kit, test streams, documentation, three-tier support, and product certification services.
    • Dolby AC-4 is a complete solution that is standardized by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the same organization that publishes DVB standards.
    • Dolby AC-4 is stable and available for implementation now. In fact, we expect that Dolby AC-4 will be available in professional products and streaming services in 2016, and in consumer devices from major manufacturers such as VIZIO and Sony Visual Products starting in 2017.
    • In contrast, the price, complexity, and commercial availability of the MPEG-H Audio Alliance TV System for ATSC 3.0 are unknown at this time because the Alliance has not revealed the extent of the technology and related intellectual property that is included.

Dolby AC-4 pricing details

Dolby AC-4 is competitively priced, with rates that are actually lower than the rates for Dolby Digital and Dolby Digital Plus™. Dolby only charges for one technology per device, which means that Dolby AC-4 effectively costs nothing in devices that include our existing technologies.

Our agreements run for five years with no price increase, and include a commitment that we will not increase the price by more than 15% at the time of renewal. In contrast, patent pools, which typically govern the pricing for MPEG audio technologies, come with agreements that allow for price increases of as much as 25% after five years.

Dolby AC-4 volumes are calculated on an annual basis, matching the approach of other audio and video licensing programs.

We have never charged content fees for our licensed technologies, and we do not plan to do so with Dolby AC-4.

In professional audio products, such as real-time or file-based encoders, we charge a per-unit royalty based on the device type. Manufacturers can include multiple Dolby professional technologies for a single price. The highest per-unit rate is $50 per group of eight transcoders—i.e., $6.25 per TV channel—to support a typical eight-channel multiplex.

Dolby AC-4 is being implemented across the ecosystem now

We have demonstrated Dolby AC-4 at public tradeshows such as IBC and NAB and during standardization. Dolby AC-4 is already specified in DVB for MPEG-2 Transport Stream and MPEG-DASH. And we are delivering the technology for integration by our partners:

  • Leading SoC suppliers such as MStar and ST Microelectronics have already integrated Dolby AC-4 and demonstrated working solutions.
  • On-air trials in France and the United States with professional partners Envivio and Harmonic have proven Dolby AC-4 in existing broadcast chains.
  • Complete monitoring solutions from Linear Acoustic are ready for quality control and confidence monitoring.
  • At IBC 2015, seven professional equipment providers demonstrated Dolby AC-4 solutions in their booths.

Dolby AC-4 is a complete package

We provide a complete technology package to the industry for Dolby AC-4. The package includes everything needed to implement Dolby AC-4, including object and source code as necessary, a reference implementation, test streams, and the backing of our global support teams.

The code that we provide is optimized, and we continually improve it to provide the highest efficiency for our partners’ processors, apps, and devices. It’s easy to implement and designed to solve real-world problems.

Our offering is very different than the reference code provided by MPEG. That code is designed to be functional and illustrative, but isn’t built to be directly integrated into a product.

MPEG-H 3D Audio and the MPEG-H Audio Alliance

We have seen a stream of new information from the MPEG-H Audio Alliance about the MPEG-H Audio Alliance TV System for ATSC 3.0 over the past few weeks, but there are still gaps in the overall story. (The MPEG-H Audio Alliance does not speak for MPEG or the MPEG participants. We should know—we are a longtime participant in and contributor to the MPEG process.) The Alliance has still not revealed solid details on the cost, complexity, and availability of their proposal.

What we know is that the true MPEG-H 3D Audio standard is built on top of a wide range of existing MPEG technologies with many IP holders, including Agere, Apple, Dolby, DTS, Ericsson, ETRI, Fraunhofer, Huawei, Iosono, Philips, LG Electronics, Microsoft, NEC, Nokia, NTT DOCOMO, Orange/France Telecom, Panasonic, Qualcomm, Samsung, Sony, Technicolor, and VoiceAge.

Recently, the MPEG-H Audio Alliance publicly stated that their offering to ATSC is not MPEG-H 3D Audio as defined in the issued MPEG Standard, but instead is based on a “subset” of the tools (and IP) in MPEG-H 3D Audio. However, they have not revealed the details of what is in the subset. Today, no one knows what technology their proposal actually contains; we only know that it is somehow based on MPEG-H.

The Alliance recently announced a licensing program for the IP owned by Fraunhofer and Technicolor. The price for this program is not the full cost for a manufacturer to implement the MPEG-H Audio Alliance TV System for ATSC 3.0. We don’t know the total cost because we don’t know what is in the “subset” of technology and related IP. The licensing program does not currently include the IP from Qualcomm (the third member of the Alliance). Nor does it include optimized implementation code or a set of comprehensive test vectors. Also, since the Alliance proposal is a subset of the full standard, it is likely a decoder will not play all streams of MPEG-H 3D Audio from other sources, for example, OTT services, at least not without paying additional royalties.

Compare that with the clear pricing for Dolby AC-4, for which manufacturers get a complete solution, including the technology and support to implement it.

Dolby is embedded in the broadcast industry today

Today, we have hundreds of people at Dolby who are dedicated to supporting the broadcast industry, making sure that audio works and flows through the infrastructure of products created by us and our partners, from content creation to playback. We have a long history of reliably supporting our technologies, and our teams do everything from advanced research and development to providing on-the-ground support. Dolby personnel regularly work with global host broadcast organizations contracted to produce TV feeds for numerous international sporting events such as the Soccer World Cup tournaments and the Olympics, as well as supporting local content creation in existing and emerging markets. We provide a global effort for a global industry and have done so for decades.

We believe it is important to make solutions openly available to the industry in specifications and standards issued by organizations such as the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC), Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), European Broadcasting Union (EBU), International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), and European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

We have helped lead the industry in standardizing technology and processes for content creation and interchange. For example, Dolby and the BBC co-chaired the ITU group that led development of the key audio definition model. This international recommendation supports descriptions for channels, objects, HOA (Higher Order Ambisonics), binaural, and bitrate-compressed audio elements. It is an important milestone in enabling the open interchange of next-generation immersive and personalized content.

In addition, we are working with NHK and others on next-generation loudness recommendations through the ITU. This is a continuation of Dolby’s decades-long commitment to ensuring that the broadcast industry has a reliable system for consistently managing loudness.

In standards discussions such as the one around ATSC 3.0, our message is not, “If we win, we will get to work on supporting the industry and building tools.” Our message is, “We’ll continue providing the full service support for our technology that you’ve come to expect from us.”

Choosing a broadcast standard is never an easy process. But I believe that in this case, the differences between Dolby AC-4 and MPEG-H Audio Alliance TV System for ATSC 3.0 are striking. AC-4 is a complete, ready-to-implement package with clear and affordable pricing from a company that has been a reliable partner to the broadcast industry for decades. MPEG-H Audio Alliance TV System for ATSC 3.0, in contrast, is a functional but non-optimized reference code whose pricing and IP structure are uncertain. I think the right choice for the broadcast industry is clear.