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Broadband Buzz Surrounds SBCA

Las Vegas – As expected, new interactive service capability, and the promise of the first satellite-based two-way broadband Internet-access systems, dominated the news at the 2000 Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association Show, here.

Hughes Network Systems commanded most of the attention on the first day of the event by showing a new two-way version of its satellite-based DirecPC system, which is due in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, EchoStar’s two-way broadband satellite partner Gilat-To-Home announced plans for a similar system in about three months.

Both services, which are now in beta testing, will be delivered over Ku-band satellites – the same type used to carry direct-to-home TV services for both small-dish platforms.

Gilat-To-Home said that in addition to being distributed by EchoStar dealers and installers, a special Gilat-To-Home receiver and dish (which can be used to tune Dish Network TV services) would be sold in tandem with Microsoft Network broadband service through RadioShack stores later in the year. The news is a potential concern to DirecTV – as it has enjoyed an exclusive distribution arrangement with RadioShack, which carries RCA-brand DirecTV systems and services – and it appears to be a potential Trojan horse for getting the DISH Network platform into the major consumer electronics retail chain.

Neither broadband provider would reveal pricing for the forthcoming systems, but they indicated rates would be “competitive” with current cable modem and digital subscriber line (DSL) services when they arrive. These wired broadband systems typically run about $40 per month, with lower rates when taken along with cable TV service.

A third venture, known as iSKY, plans to deploy a two-way broadband Internet service based on Ka-band spot-beam satellites that can be accessed by both DirecTV and EchoStar dishes next year. The technology promises to be less expensive, and potentially faster, than its Ka-band rivals when it is deployed.

To underscore the importance of these services, SBCA president Chuck Hewitt announced during opening ceremonies that market research studies indicate as much as 25 percent of current satellite TV customers say they would be willing to pay up to $40 per month for two-way broadband Internet service via satellite.

EchoStar CEO Charlie Ergen, meanwhile, said he expects revenue from interactive services such as two-way broadband and personal video recorders linked to satellite services to outstrip baseline television service revenue within five years.

Satellite vendors and retailers here at the SBCA show are hopeful that the broadband systems can stave off an aggressive challenge from the cable industry, which is using cable modem services to entice new subscribers back to cable while retaining existing ones.

In other news, Sony announced it would have two different combination hard-drive video recorders and DirecTV receivers this year. First, the company said that like Thomson, it would offer an UltimateTV receiver, which combines a DirecTV decoder, WebTV terminal and hard-disc video recorder in a single box.

The SAT-W60 will sell for $449 when it ships in the fall and will include a wireless IR keyboard, and dual satellite tuners for picture-in-picture TVs or recording two different programs at one time. The unit will use a WebTV onscreen program guide with up to 13 days of programming information. Subscription prices for the UltimateTV service will be announced later this summer.

The company also unveiled a combination TiVo/DirecTV receiver that is similar to one announced last month by Philips. The SAT-T60 will sell for $399 when it ships this fall, and buyers will have the option of paying an additional $9.99 per month or a one-time $200 lifetime fee for the TiVo service.

The box will offer both DirecTV and TiVo onscreen guides (giving users an option) and will be capable of dual-tuner capability after a future software download. Like the current dedicated Sony TiVo recorder, the T60 will offer one-touch VCR programming on Sony brand VCRs, for users who want to archive recordings for future playback.

Both recorders will cache the digital bitstream signal from the satellites, eliminating unnecessary digital-to-analog conversion steps while maintaining optimal picture clarity. Both devices will also hold up to 30 hours of video at one time.

Sony said it would also deliver this year two new DirecTV decoders that will receive Wink Communications Interactive programming. Models SAT-B60 ($200 suggested retail) and SAT-A60 ($300) each include Wink reception, caller ID capability, multi-satellite capability, and a new silver metallic cosmetic design. They will ship in October.

Wink also announced here that Philips and Samsung plan to offer Wink-enhanced DirecTV receivers later in the year.

Sony said its first HDTV set-top box (SAT-HD100) will ship in November at a $699 suggested retail price not including the dish. The box will receive off-air terrestrial DTV broadcasts in addition to DirecTV’s standard and high-definition channels. It will output the 1080i and 480i DTV broadcast formats for playback on DTV-compatible monitors, such as Sony’s Hi-Scan TVs.

The news on Hughes Network Systems’ Platinum HD DTV set-top decoder was not as good. The company said that development glitches have pushed back delivery again, this time to the end of the third quarter.

HNS also showed its AOLTV/DirecTV box, which incorporates a 166MHz Pentium chip, VX Works operating system with Liberate middleware and 56 Kbps dial-up modem for the first iteration. It will ship in the fourth quarter.

Thomson said sales for its RCA DTC-100 DTV set-top decoder and DirecTV receiver continue to be strong. Additionally, the company is now selling an RGB-VGA adapter for TVs with HD component video inputs for $129.95.

Thomson also demonstrated its previously announced UltimateTV receiver and the Wink-enabled DirecTV decoder lineup.

Pace Micro Technology signed an agreement to build digital set-top boxes for a new satellite TV service BellSouth is planning to deliver next year.

Pace Micro, which makes decoder boxes for Europe’s satellite giant British Sky Broadcasting and cable companies including Comcast, was given an initial order by the telco for 200,000 boxes over a 12-month period.

The medium-power system will be based on the DVB digital transmission standard and will carry broadcast video and data services including e-mail and Internet access. BellSouth plans to offer the service throughout its nine-state, 14 million-home market.