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USDTV Ramps Up to MPEG-4

The little company that could is once again cutting an edge in an industry considered by some on the verge of extinction. USDTV, the over-the-air pay TV provider in Salt Lake City, is converting its transmissions to MPEG-4/AVC compression. The move represents a first by a broadcast operation.

USDTV borrows bits from broadcasters in various markets and transmits a 30-channel lineup for around $20 a month. The service is up and running in Dallas/Fort Worth, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Las Vegas; and currently launching in Norfolk, Va. AVC will effectively double USDTV's payload, allowing them to add more stuff. The plan is to generate incremental revenue in the freed-up bits with pay-per-view movies, Spanish-language programming in Hispanic markets, and eventually, video-on-demand. VOD beta tests are scheduled for later this year.

According to USDTV, it has developed its own MPEG-4 AVC-to-MPEG-2 transcoder that plugs into the company's existing set-top receivers.

"Our engineers have designed an innovative plug-and-play device that connects to the USB port of our existing boxes and provides real-time transcoding from MPEG-4 AVC to MPEG-2, all without compromising video quality or security," said Garry Paxinos, senior vice president of engineering and chief technologist.

The company hasn't released subscriber numbers lately, but it hit the 10,000 mark about six months after launching in March 2004. The transcoder will save the hassle of swapping out the existing set-top boxes, which use Zenith DTV reception technology. USDTV said the device "will allow the company to switch instantly to MPEG-4 AVC without the cost and burden of replacing the set-top boxes currently in customer homes." The AVC set-tops, which will also have MPEG-2 decoders, are expected to start shipping near the end of the summer.

USDTV was started by veteran TV executive Steve Lindsley, who now serves as CEO. The company originally courted a partnership with Emmis Communications, but none materialized and Emmis went all radio. Then last November, USDTV nailed a $25.75 million funding agreement with Fox TV Stations, Hearst-Argyle Television, McGraw-Hill Broadcasting, LIN TV, Morgan Murphy Stations and Telcom DTV LLC.

Calling itself "TV for the People," USDTV peddles its receiver/antenna combinations through outlets like Wal-Mart and RC Wiley. It even goes so far as to list on the USDTV Web site dealers and retailers that display a live demo of the service.

USDTV will demonstrate its first live MPEG-4 AVC terrestrial broadcasts at NAB2006. USDTV will be the first broadcast operation to deploy MPEG-4 on a wide scale, but DirecTV is also using the advanced compression codec to distribute local-into-local HD for subscribers who buy the AVC-enabled box.