John Merli /
11.23.2005 12:00 AM
DirecTV Nears Local HD Launch
LG tapped for MPEG-4 tuner box

WASHINGTON: DirecTV subscribers in some markets soon will begin receiving locally broadcast HD signals from their satellite dishes, proving that sometimes the shortest distance to local HD content is a straight line to space.

The DBS rollout comes closely on the heels of DirecTV's recent decision to tap LG Electronics as its chief supplier of HD set-top boxes, a move that is at least partly based on LG's proprietary video compression technology, according to both firms. LG said its HD-capable boxes will be configured for MPEG-4 satellite broadcasts.

The new LG box (Model H20) also will have the ability to process MPEG-2, which is how DirecTV's national HD and SD programming is currently delivered. The box also has a built-in ATSC tuner for terrestrial reception, since DirecTV will not carry all DTV stations in any market, at least to begin with. Eventually, all DirecTV subscribers will be converted to MPEG-4, although the conversion likely will not be completed until mid-2007.

The LG HD STB/receiver will provide up to 1080i picture resolution and be able to access Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Satellite HD, SD and terrestrial ATSC via the tuner will be integrated with DirecTV's current channels into one electronic program guide. The box offers full screen, stretched, letterbox, pillar box and cropping features, and the ability to customize viewing for native resolution HD and SD formats.

In October, DirecTV began testing its local HD services in the Detroit market. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Houston, and Tampa will be launched in early 2006.

THE TWEAKING STAGE

Ambitious in scope, with every local HD broadcaster in the country targeted for eventual carriage, DirecTV's plan will come in several deliberate stages in order to more easily and quickly tweak the system along the way where necessary.

"Initially, we'll just carry the four primary network stations in HD in each market--NBC, CBS, FOX and ABC," said DirecTV spokesman Robert Mercer. "Customers in these markets will require MPEG-4 receiving equipment, and a Ka/Ku-band dish, since these channels are being broadcast from Ka-band orbital slots at 103 and 99 degrees."

The HD dishes are slightly larger than the typical 18 to 20-inch DirecTV dish.

DirecTV plans to launch its new Spaceway 2 satellite in late November, affording it the additional spectrum to continue adding local channels through 2006. Within the next year, the company will launch two more satellites, and by the end of 2007, Mercer said his firm should have the technical capacity to carry the HD signals of all 1,500-plus local broadcast stations (though not multicast channels, per se), as well as about 150 national HD channels.

As an incentive to subscribers, consumers will be able to receive a DirecTV HD box/receiver for free with a $200 mail-in rebate. (Customers must agree to a two-year commitment to the HD package, which is about $11 monthly.) For customers who subscribe to a DirecTV package that already includes local analog broadcast channels, the HD stations will be added at no extra charge. The DBS firm also is offering new customers three months of its national (non-local) HD package for free.

Mercer does not foresee any major stumbling blocks to securing rights to local HD signals in the months ahead.

"The process is proceeding smoothly and we expect to offer the four primary broadcast networks in HD in each of the markets that we're launching this year."

LG Electronics, for its part, views its team-up with DirecTV as a significant stride towards the nation's gradual digital conversion, with a revised cut-off date now likely to be early 2009. That would make the start-to-finish DTV transition (using November 1998 as the launch date) slightly more than 10 years in duration.

The new DirecTV boxes also represent the market launch of LG's celebrated fifth-generation VSB chip, which has achieved success in overcoming severe multipath environments (see "Is DTV Reception Problem Solved?, Sept. 8, 2004).

"What should be of special interest to local broadcasters is that these boxes are the first to incorporate LG's fifth-generation VSB chipsets for the ATSC tuners, which most broadcasters believe significantly improve indoor reception," said John Taylor, vice president of government relations at LG Electronics USA.

The built-in DTV antenna will allow viewers to capture some, if not all, local HD stations off-air, such as WB and UPN affiliates. LG's fifth generation VSB chipset won a CES Innovations Award in 2004.

The new HD boxes will be distributed under the DirecTV brand name and feature the DBS service's electronic program guide, security software, digital outputs (HDMI/HDCP) with simultaneous component/composite output, and a Linux operating system and USB port.

To date, DirecTV's most popular packages include every NFL game played each week. This season, more than 120 of those games are being fed by DirecTV in 1080i.


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