Can H.265 save us from the mobile video tsunami?

Everyone knows that mobile data traffic is set to explode, driven by ever-increasing adoption of smartphones and tablets and the incredible growth of video traversing mobile networks. But a new video format is on its way, which could alleviate some of the strain on those networks by delivering high-quality video with half as many bits.

The new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) spec, also referred to as H.265, should be a lot more efficient than H.264, which is the format of choice for most IP-enabled devices and applications. The format, which is being developed by the ISO/IEC Moving Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) and the ITU-T Video Coding Experts Group (VCEG), is expected to need 25 to 50 percent fewer bits for the delivery of H.264 video of the same quality.

As video growth explodes, network operators will welcome any help they can get in lowering the load of TV and movie content being streamed to mobile phones and tablets. With that in mind, saving up to half the number of bits for the same quality video file seems an attractive proposition.

Last year, the amount of data pumped over mobile networks topped an exabyte — that’s 1,000 petabytes or a billion gigabytes — and there appears no end in site to the growth in mobile data. Cisco estimates, (s CSCO) for instance, that global mobile data traffic will increase 26 times from 2010 to 2015, to 6.3 exabytes per month. That’s being driven by connected devices grabbing a large portion of data being transfered. Cisco expects that the amount of Internet traffic served to PCs will drop from 97 percent in 2010 to 87 percent by 2015, due to growth in the number of smartphones, tablets and connected devices owned by consumers.

Video is also a big part of that growth: A recent report from Visiongain estimates that video traffic will make up more than 60 percent of global mobile data traffic by 2016. The research firm estimates that the percentage of smartphone users who watch mobile video will grow from 29 percent to at least 40 percent by that date. And with the availability of high-speed LTE networks, the quality of video streaming over those networks will only continue to improve.

But all that mobile video will soon begin putting strain on mobile networks. Earlier this month, a report from Tellabs showed that delivery of mobile data could become unprofitable for network operators by as soon as 2013. As network operators look for ways to improve the efficiency and profitability of their networks, H.265 looks like a possible savior.

The good news is that H.265 is on its way to standardization. The bad news is that it likely can’t come quickly enough. The spec is expected to be circulated for comment next February, with some initial applications taking advantage of it in early 2013. The immediate expectation might be that mobile networks could see some short-term benefit from more efficient video delivery.

However, Elemental Technologies CEO Sam Blackman said in a phone interview that we’ll probably see higher-quality video on more devices than see the amount of mobile data transfered drop. That is, video producers will likely boost video quality rather than issuing the same quality video and taking advantage of the bandwidth savings. While it might not help operators, it will be a boon to consumers, and could make mobile video even more attractive and in-demand.