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EchoStar Introduces PVR During CES

LAS VEGAS -EchoStar plans to hold a press conference at CES this week to announce a new set-top Dish Network decoder that will incorporate a hard-drive-based personal video recorder that runs on firmware developed by OpenTV, the architect of Interactive television applications for digital TV services.

The integrated receiver descrambler (IRD), called the PRO 501 Powered By OpenTV, will store over 20 hours of highest quality video programming (in bitstream form). The recording service will be offered with no additional subscription fee, according to an EchoStar spokesman.

The unit will be the second hard-drive-based PVR offered by Dish Network. The company, working in tandem with Microsoft’s WebTV, had pioneered the field in 1999, when it launched the popular DishPlayer combination IRD, hard-drive video recorder and WebTV terminal.

Although claiming distinction as the largest PVR service operator (with an installed base of more than 150,000 DishPlayer devices), EchoStar said it has not yet determined whether it will continue its relationship with Microsoft on a new generation DishPlayer device, the Dish spokesman said.

EchoStar will continue to support the product with service, but in light of Microsoft’s rollout of the UltimateTV device this month (a product very similar to DishPlayer but working with Dish rival DirecTV), the two companies were not ready to discuss continuing ventures prior to CES.

Both DishPlayer and UltimateTV require an extra monthly subscription fees to operate the PVR functions and WebTV Internet-access system. The Dish spokesman said that while the PVR service has been a big hit with Dish subscribers, a much smaller percentage of subscribers bothered to pay extra to use the built-in WebTV portion of the device.

The new PRO 501 will instead offer a range of subscription-free interactive functions. In addition to using a special OpenTV-developed onscreen program guide to power the PVR recorder, the device will permit a variety of interactive data, graphics, t-commerce and two-way communications services through the OpenTV system.

One feature already available to Dish subscribers with currently distributed set-top decoders that access a more limited version of OpenTV is a regional weather channel that lets viewers access localized weather forecasts.

Additionally, OpenTV is expected to facilitate the use of Wink Interactive TV services, including pop-up text messages supporting TV programs; coupon and literature ordering from TV commercials; t-commerce transactions; and viewer polling.

EchoStar will deliver the “PRO 501” in the first quarter at a price to be announced at the show.

Key features of the device include pausing, advancing and rewinding live TV shows with 10-second skip-back and skip-ahead commands. Digital recording of programs from an onscreen guide with a quarter-screen PIP window lets viewers preview programs highlighted from the channel list.

In addition, the box is Dolby Digital compatible, and the IR blaster will set VCRs to automatically begin recording to tape live programs or programs stored to disk. It will not, however, include a dual-tuner to enable recording one program while watching another-a feature promised in the UltimateTV device and coming to the DirecTV/TiVo recorders in a future software download. (See related story, p. 80).

EchoStar will also unveil a next-generation stand-alone IRD called the PRO 301. The unit is described as a replacement for the current model 3800 and will feature a faster processor that will permit rapid tuning between channels. It also has a slim cabinet design, measuring 1.75 (H) x 14 (W) x 10-inches (D), and will have limited Powered By OpenTV functions to access various interactive overlays, the weather channel, and the quarter-screen onscreen guide with the ability to customize four sets of favorite channel lists.

It will also carry an IR remote and IR blaster allowing automatic VCR record programming. The latter is an added benefit from the 3800.

The PRO 301 will ship in the first quarter at a price to be announced.

In other announcements, EchoStar said it will ship in the first quarter its long-awaited model 5400 ($349 suggested retail ) combination IRD/DVD player with Dolby Digital capability.

The company will also demonstrate its model 6000 HDTV-capable IRD with the add-on ATSC 8-VSB off-air tuner module that just started shipping as a $149 option.

EchoStar also plans to announce new OpenTV interactive channels and services.