Facebook turns on AV1 technology to speed up video streaming

The social network takes its first steps to send video using a new technology that can cut your data use, improve quality, and deliver videos faster.

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If you watch videos on Facebook, good news: They'll soon be showing up on your phone or PC faster.

The world's largest social network has begun using new video compression technology called AV1, it announced at the Video @Scale conference Wednesday and in a blog post. AV1 is developed by a consortium called the Alliance for Open Media, founded by tech powers like Google, Amazon, Cisco Systems, Mozilla and Microsoft, but it got more clout in 2017 when Apple and Facebook joined too.

Better video compression may sound like obscure technology, but it's actually critical as more and more of what we do online involves video. That includes watching movies and TV shows, video chat with friends and family, taking online classes, and monitoring home security. Better compression keeps the data flowing through network congestion, delivers higher-resolution video, and keeps monthly network data caps at bay.

AV1 needs about 30 percent less network capacity to match the quality of Google's earlier VP9 video technology and about 50 percent less to match the current king of video compression, H.264, Facebook research concluded.

Facebook didn't compare the technology to HEVC, also called H.265, a rival video compression technology whose expensive patent licensing requirements provided the impetus for AV1.

However, at this early stage in AV1's existence, it's got some drawbacks. One big one is that it takes a lot more computing horsepower to compress the video in the first place. Facebook worked around the problems -- check the blog post if you're curious -- but AV1 allies expect the kind of encoding improvements that are typical for maturing video compression.


AV1 video sizes are smaller than competitors' but for now take a lot longer than Google's VP9 to encode, Facebook concluded. 


AV1 is still very new, so don't expect an immediate benefit. It's only available in Google's Canary version of the Chrome browser -- a very rough-around-the-edges test version -- and processor support to handle AV1 isn't due until 2020.

"As major web browsers add AV1 support, Facebook video will gradually increase the number of videos served using AV1 while we continue to help speed development and implementation of AV1 across the digital video ecosystem," Facebook's Daniel Baulig and Yu Liu said in the blog post.

Mozilla's Firefox browser added early AV1 support months ago, but it doesn't yet work with Facebook. Firefox and Chrome use different, incompatible AV1 prototypes dating from mid-2017, Mozilla said. "We are working to update the AV1 version in Nightly," Mozilla said, referring to the rapidly updated test version of Firefox.

First published April 25, 2:08 p.m.

Update, 2:58 p.m. PT: Adds comment from Mozilla.

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