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EchoStar Bows ‘VOD’ Service

Although Echostar unveiled several new products at International CES, here, according to CEO Charlie Ergen, Dish Network’s “perfect storm” won’t hit until the Fall when the satellite service begins its transition to MPEG-4 technology.

When that occurs, a lot of “new programming — particularly HDTV — will arrive,” Ergen said.

The new compression technology will allow Dish Network to deliver many more channels, especially local high-definition channels.

The company will offer customers “an upgrade path to get any new equipment to watch [MPEG-4] channels, but they will still be able to watch their current HD programming they are enjoying today,” said a company spokesman. Pricing for the equipment had not been determined.

For the near future, Ergen was upbeat about the Dish Player-DVR 625, which the company said will be the first DVR capable of accepting so-called “video-on-demand (VOD) downloads” of first-run movies.

The new VOD system, scheduled to kick off in March, will offer around 30 first-run movies initially, before expanding to around 100 after the service shifts to MPEG-4 compression. The DVR-625 will hold up to 100 hours of near video on demand content as well as another 100 hours of regular program recordings.

First-run movies will self-erase within 24 hours after the customer presses play for the first time.

Another highlight was the announcement of a trio of “Portable DVRs” — players that let consumers take the content downloaded from the DVR-625 and carry it with them.

Mark Jackson, Echostar Technologies’ president, described the devices as “roach motels for content. The content goes in but it can’t come out other than being erased by the consumer.”

Available with 2.2-inch, 4-inch and 7-inch screens and 20GB and 40GB capacity (depending on the model), the devices accept CompactFlash cards for personal photos and music, plus they have Firewire and USB 2.0 inputs to accept shows from the DVR-625.

Also announced was the Dish Player DVR-942 ($749 suggested retail) high-definition receiver, which is due this month, and new bundles with flat-panel televisions.

On the programming side, Michael Schwimmer, marketing and programming executive VP, said the company would expand its interactive programming in 2005. Among the new content will be a Karaoke sing-along channel ($4.99 a month) as well the ability to bet on horse races where state laws allow it.