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Satellite Firm Lays Groundwork For Local DTV

Within the next two to three years, direct-to-home satellite subscribers could have access to all of their area’s local digital TV broadcasts via their satellite service.

Local TV On Satellite (LTVS), a company majority owned by Capitol Broadcasting of Raleigh, N.C., is making “great progress” in laying the groundwork to provide a local digital TV service platform that both DirecTv and EchoStar could make available to their customers, according to LTVS chief operation officer John Hutchinson.

The LTVS executive told TWICE that in getting the project off the ground, the recently approved Satellite Home Viewer Improvement Act (SHVIA) has removed a number of obstacles — the most important of which was gaining the right to retransmit local broadcasts. The company has commitments from more than 500 of the country’s largest broadcasters in key markets to allow their programming to be retransmitted via the service.

Further, nearly all of the financial backing and strategic investment partners are in place. The company is now finishing incorporation papers, after which names will be disclosed.

LTVS hopes to launch in 2002 and 2003 its spot-beam satellites into a single geostationary orbital position between the slots of both the EchoStar and DirecTv satellites. Hutchinson said the giant Ka-band satellites will be some of the largest ever launched and will carry some 800 digital channels. This will cover all digital off-air stations broadcast in more than 60 U.S. markets.

Hutchinson estimated that some 75% of the U.S. population would have access to the service. For this reason, LTVS is an advocate of a $1 billion federal loan program to create local TV delivery systems that can serve rural audiences that are not within the LTVS coverage area.

Hutchinson said the digital broadcasts will be relayed in uncompressed, unaltered form (up to a 19.4-Mbps bit rate), meaning viewers will see the programs just as the broadcaster intended, in high definition, standard definition or multicast standard definition formats. It will also relay any ancillary data, including Program and Service Information Protocol (PSIP) program listings and enhanced datacasting content, along with the video.

Special chipsets are being developed to receive the signals. These, Hutchinson said, would be built into the set-top satellite decoders for DirecTv and/or EchoStar so those subscribers could seamlessly tune in local channels.

The integrated service would use one access card, one box, one dish and one coaxial connection to the set. A special elliptical 24″ dish similar to those now offered for the DirecTv Plus and Dish 500 services and special LNB would be required to see both the LTVS birds and those of the DBS providers.

“At the end of the month the satellite provider would incorporate the subscription for the service into the bill, just as they do now for a movie package,” Hutchinson said. “The fee for the service would ultimately be determined by the DBS provider. They could charge as much or as little as the market allows them to.”

Hutchinson added that LTVS would relay data for electronic program guides used by satellite set-top boxes, and channels could be mapped according to the over-the-air channel number.

Chipsets for LTVS services could use IEEE 1394 data interfaces included in set-top boxes to support any interactive applications that may arrive. It could also be used to transmit digital broadcasts to PCs, he said.

The service will carry digital channels, but Hutchinson said set-top boxes could be programmed to downconvert digital broadcast formats for owners of analog TV sets. This would enable EchoStar and DirecTv to stop offering local TV channels on its own Ku-band birds and free that bandwidth for other programming options.

Additionally, any spot-beam birds used for local services, such as those now being proposed by EchoStar, would also be freed to expand two-way Internet and data services, he said. “We will take all of the capacity burden off of them.”

Although, neither service provider has committed to participate with LTVS yet, Hutchinson said he feels it is just a matter of time before they sign on. The company has partners that will enable LTVS to license the needed orbital locations.