LCD flat screens coming to high-end properties
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.
It appears likely, and perhaps ironic, that the first place a lot of people may have their first close personal encounter with HD and flat-screen television is in the privacy of their hotel room. After several years in development, satellite-delivered premium HD programming will be captured on-site and transcoded on existing coaxial cable to thousands of flat-screens in Marriott and other hotel rooms in a gradual deployment now underway.
The on-site distribution of HD and other digital content at hotel properties will use transcoder technology developed specifically for the lodging industry by LG Electronics. DirecTV recently approved the LG transponder for converting its premium non-terrestrial HD content securely.
The DBS firm will work in tandem with LodgeNet Entertainment, a well-established Sioux Falls, S.D.-based telecom company within the lodging industry that already provides "the final mile" in disbursing TV content to about a million rooms at nearly 6,000 hotel properties in North America. DirecTV's Spaceway F1 satellite was successfully launched in April, and Spaceway F2 was scheduled for launch this summer. Both birds will be used to handle additional HD capacity for DirecTV, which says it's going after HD (local broadcast and premium) in a big way. For its part, LodgeNet also knows a thing or two about DBS.
"Our business for 25 years has been delivering satellite TV content to hotel rooms," said Peter Klebanoff, LodgeNet vice president of sales and industry relations.
"We did it as a distributor as pay-per-view emerged, then we evolved into digital VOD, and now we're into HD and digital file servers to store content."
Klebanoff said his company was the first to rid hotels of the costly responsibility of maintaining set-top boxes in its rooms (hardware and software), replacing the boxes with coded card inserts that are today's hotel standard.
Beyond establishing close ties with hotel chains, Klebanoff said LodgeNet has a long history with Hollywood programmers themselves, whose chief concern with HD content remains the possible high-quality piracy of their expensively produced content.
"We knew first and foremost, we needed to address the security issue head-on," Klebanoff said.
Soon, LodgeNet was also talking with manufacturers including LG, which hired a professional cryptologist, and that led to devising the security protocol Pro:Idiom. LG developed this digital platform from scratch (or as LG says, "From a clean sheet of paper") specifically for the hospitality market and licenses it to competitors without charge.
Pro:Idiom employs a DRM (digital rights management system that blocks access to all unencrypted HD-SD content until it's actually prompted and presumably, paid for by the end-user in the hotel room.
"Even we at LodgeNet don't have access to the actual HD content," Klebanoff said.
The LG transcoder, which taps into the firm's own Pro:Idiom technology, receives HD feeds from DirecTV and reformats them to meet the ATSC standard for distribution through a hotel's existing coaxial cable system (thus, saving the hotel huge amounts of money for not having to rewire its infrastructure).
LodgeNet's considerable storage capacity is widely distributed--namely because each hotel property has its own server which can hold up to a terabyte of digital content for VOD services. The servers are typically refreshed with new content on a monthly basis by DirecTV feeds. Each hotel server can retain about 125 movie titles (depending on the content and fewer, if HD) and several dozen syndicated TV programs at any given time.
"Clearly the popularity of HDTV is growing quickly among consumers," said John Wolf, senior director of media relations for Marriott International. "Much like Marriott stayed ahead of the game in installing high-speed Internet access a number of years ago, we want to ensure that we meet our customers' expectations in terms of 'must-have' technology. We feel the introduction of HDTV will set us apart from our competition and give us a competitive advantage." (Hilton, Ritz-Carlton, Hard Rock, Radisson, Hyatt Regency and other high-end chains are also planning gradual HD rollouts.)
Wolf said the property-by-property introduction of HD will be part of Marriott's regular renovation cycle. At the Cleveland Marriott Downtown, HD will be available in every room. Similar plans are underway for the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront near Inner Harbor. (Hotel renovation cycles vary widely, but most full-service properties undergo upgrades every several years, and some, only once per decade.)
KEEP IT SIMPLE
Like LodgeNet's Klebanoff, Wolf also underscored the importance of keeping the technical end of things simple for hotel consumers. "The real differentiator with this rollout is the connectivity panel, which will enable guests to connect nearly any digital device into the HDTV [set]. For instance, a tiny PDA screen suddenly becomes 32 inches big, making it easier to read e-mails and view attachments.
"Guests of Marriott will be able to split their screens so they can work on a presentation on their laptop and watch TV at the same time. For entertainment, MP3 players, iPOD-type devices, videogames--including networked games over the Internet--and camcorders can be routed to the HDTV, as well," Wolf said.
LG-USA Senior Vice President Richard Lewis said the HD rollout makes sense for both industries.
"While hoteliers looked for new and creative ways to differentiate their rooms, LG was establishing itself as a leader in flat-panel plasma and LCD TVs. At the same time, HDTV was taking hold in the consumer market and content was becoming more widely available. The convergence of all these forces is now happening in a big way," he said.
LG initially will roll out its 32-inch LCD flat screens for Marriott. Each unit will be fitted with two 15 watt speakers. (5.1 surround sound would require complicated, costly wiring configurations.)
"We have three 32-inch LCD models and one version of our 42-inch plasma with built-in digital rights management, plus a wide range of other sizes that work with our add-on module that will handle the [VOD] interface," Lewis said. Some flat-screens likely will appear under the brand name of Zenith, an LG subsidiary. And LG 42-inch plasma displays will be used at some properties, including the Chicago Hard Rock Hotel and the Beverly Hills Hilton in Los Angeles.
Yet beyond all the fancy hardware, Lewis emphasizes that content security and DRM remain paramount issues.
"The main challenge is to educate people on the need for digital rights management and how this can affect their access to new high-definition content. This was the main driver for creating Pro:Idiom content protection, and remains a key area of concentration for LG," he said.
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