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Satellite Providers Continue MPEG-4 Transitions

The HDTV programming avalanche continues with a roar at International CES as the two major satellite providers showcase their new plans in Las Vegas.

In a nutshell, DirecTV and Dish Network are adding more HD channels, delivering local stations in high-definition to millions of consumers and, after a few hiccups, continuing the long transition to MPEG-4 receivers from their current MPEG-2 systems.

You can see Dish Network’s high-definition-capable MPEG-4 receivers at the company’s CES booth, the first of which was quietly rolled out with limited distribution in December.

DirecTV will show its two newest high-defintion receivers, an MPEG-4 capable receiver as well as an HD DVR that’s due early in the first quarter.

In late November, DirecTV began beaming local HD stations to Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

By the end of the year, HD locals were expected to be available in Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

The company sends four channels — ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC. New customers who signed up for the HD programming package received the dish and box for no charge while existing customers paid $99 for a new dish and received a free HD box. DirecTV is the nation’s No. 1 satellite service with more than 15 million subscribers as of October 2005.

According to the DirecTV chief technical officer Romulo Pontual, Detroit was the first test market and once the system was proven in the real world, a straight rollout occurred — and continues today.

“We did a consumer survey and received very positive feedback,” he said. “They like the video quality and the user interface. We expect to be in 36 markets by April, covering 57 percent of U.S. TV households. And more markets will be added throughout the year.”

Pontual acknowledged that the company was a bit capacity constrained but that things were now moving smoothly, given the huge backroom changes that occurred in the changeover to MPEG-4.

Among the changes are a newer more secure encryption system, new modulation and compression systems as well as upgrading video head ends. “We’re launching our VIP series MPEG-4 receivers at CES, and they’ll arrive in the March/April time frame,” said Michael Neuman, president of EchoStar Communications, whose Dish Network is the second-ranked satellite provider with almost 12 million subscribers.

He said the VIP not only stands for the traditional Very Important Person but the “IP” — for Internet Protocol—was an indication of the added capabilities of the receivers.

While playing coy — additional details would be announced at the show — Neuman said it was possible that the boxes could receive data over high-speed connections, “opening the enormous wealth of services over the Internet. We would have the potential to continue all of our linear programming, then allow customers to interact with the Internet, taking the experience one step further.”

Along with the new receivers on display at the show, Neuman said Dish Network would officially unveil 11 new VOOM channels, adding to the 10 it currently offers subscribers. “Without a doubt we have the broadest HD lineup of anyone,” Neuman said, adding that local HD stations would roll out on a market-by-market basis throughout the year

Neuman noted that anyone who wanted all 21 channels or local high-definition stations would have to upgrade their receiver.

Neuman said all the nitty-gritty details would be announced at the show since they were still finalizing their plans. He stressed that it doesn’t mean they’re going to replace every box currently out there.

By offering many news services and programs, “we want to make it exciting for consumers so they’ll want to migrate to the VIP series,” Neuman said. He felt the changeover was a “consumer non-event. There’s no reason for them to care about MPEG-2 or MPEG-4. The reasons for them to care are the services.

“We’ve been happy with our take up of HD, but frankly we’re much more excited about this year, especially with the price of displays dropping so rapidly. This is a great opportunity for us. We want to be known as the national leader in HD and we’ll stress why we’re a better choice than cable,” Neuman said.