Whenever, Wherever, Whatever

Fleshed out VOD services, portable VOD players and more efficient compression rates are all on the docket for rollout over the next 12 months.
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LOS ANGELES
Satellite, cable and telecom companies have all told Uncle Sam that On Demand is a big deal for 2008, according to annual reports filed last February. Fleshed out VOD services, portable VOD players and more efficient compression rates are all on the docket for rollout over the next 12 months.


(click thumbnail)DirecTV has been beta-testing its hybrid On-Demand service since last fall.DIRECTV

At the end of the second quarter DirecTV will remove the beta moniker from its hybrid On-Demand service and provide full support regarding service and installation.

“Our On-Demand system is really a combination of pushing the most popular titles to the box [via satellite] and allowing customers to get other titles to the box on demand [via broadband],” said Eric Shanks, executive vice president of DirecTV Entertainment.

An added value to the service is “a great navigation guide,” he said. “What sets us apart from cable is that on our On-Demand you can actually find something to watch.”

The DBS provider’s VOD’s closed beta status of last October moved to public beta in February, with early adopters doing their own broadband-to-box installation using DirecTV’s starter kit. DirecTV declined to reveal how many users were already connected.

On-Demand promises thousands of hours of top programming (broadcast and cable fare plus movies). Since February, subscribers can remotely schedule a satellite delivery via their Internet or Web-enabled cell phone. Beta testers can also download programs at the spur of the moment through a broadband connection to their DVRs.

Later this year, the company expects to “significantly” increase the recording capacity of its HD-DVR, to introduce HD versions of its interactive applications, and to enable subscribers to watch HD programming on PCs via their DVRs, according to the annual report, filed Feb. 27. The report also noted DirecTV’s plan to introduce “a home media center that will provide SD/HD DVR functionality throughout the home and allow customers to access stored content, including video, photos and music, seamlessly from any connected television set in a household.”

According to DirecTV, the photos and music apps are already running. A VOD-option was also offered for the Masters (golf) tournament, enabling users to download “exclusive Masters preview and post tournament recap shows as well as round by round highlights.”


(click thumbnail)Comcast and Panasonic are developing the industry’s first portable DVR player powered by tru2way technology.VOD beta testers who posted their experiences on http://forums.directv.com indicated setup and connection issues and complaints about download speeds. Other analysts characterized streaming over the Web as “bleeding edge,” and predicted that broadband pipes would fill up fast trying to match the HD-quality that subscribers demand.

DirecTV acknowledged that the wild card in its service is the customer’s in-home broadband network. To address this, it is currently gathering information from its customers to better trouble-shoot problems on its Internet site and later through service providers. The company also said it was working to find the best balance between download speeds and picture quality.

COMCAST

In addition to expanding its number of VOD choices, Comcast’s near-term goal is to improve broadband efficiency and supplement its sources. Advanced encoding plus undisclosed, internally developed “strategically important software and technologies,” and the deployment of switched digital video would improve efficiency. Arrangements for long-term access rights to national fiber-optic-based networks and wireless spectrum purchases would widen its resources, the report indicated.

At January’s Consumer Electronics Show, Comcast announced plans with Panasonic for “the industry’s first portable DVR player, powered by tru2way technology,” (tru2way is the new name for CableLabs’ OCAP deployment platform). Cobranded “AnyPlay,” the P-DVR will feature 60 GB of digital video recording capacity, an 8.5-inch folding LCD display screen, and integrated stereo speakers when it becomes available to the public in early 2009. When placed onto a companion docking station, AnyPlay will function as a standard DVR set-top box; taken out of its docking station, recorded programs can be watched anywhere. It will also play back DVDs and audio CDs.

“We’re also working in partnership with Panasonic, LG and Samsung on some larger, flat-screen TVs that have tru2way inside,” said Derek Harrar, senior vice president and general manager of video services. These plug-and-play options, he said, should be available during the fourth quarter of the year, ready to deliver all Comcast services including VOD.

And Comcast indicated that it has “committed major resources” to building out an online video platform, developing back-end Web systems and securing new content distribution rights. Its Fancast.com service presently lets users watch, manage and find entertainment on television, online, on DVD or in theaters; it will also soon let them set their DVR from their computers, receive e-mail reminders about what they should watch, and set designated “Watch Lists” of their favorite shows.

Addressing complaints about Comcast’s TV VOD guide, Harrar noted that at the CES Show the company demonstrated one aspect of a beta version of Fancast on a set-top box as a possible alternative.

“There’s always guide development going on,” he said. “We’re on the 25th version.”

VERIZON

Bandwidth also figured prominently in the annual report filed by Verizon on Feb. 28. It cited major upgrades to its Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON) technology connecting the central office to the customer’s home and the transition of local networks to Ethernet over Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM). The company also continued to add Reconfigurable Optic Add Drop Multiplexer (ROADM) nodes in the transport network to further optimize it for video distribution services.

Verizon announced that it would be building its fiber network past 18 million households by 2010 (at year-end 2007 it was just shy of 9 million). It scored its biggest coup yet when, in early May, the telco giant announced that it expects to have 30 percent FiOS rollout in New York City by the end of 2008 and a full buildout by 2014, depending on subscriber numbers.

The resulting increase in bandwidth would let Verizon accommodate more high-definition VOD without seeking new advances in compression technology, and let consumers use VOD more frequently and cost effectively, according to Brian Whitton, executive director of Access Network Design and Integration. He said Verizon’s infrastructure now deploys 2.4 gigabits of data per second down and 1.2 Gbps up.

Verizon is also looking at time-shifted, place-shifted and source-shifted VOD. Details were withheld.

Whitton believes that Verizon’s hybrid set-top box also gives it an edge over the competition.

“The [TV] broadcast is carried across the same broadcast spectrum that the cable operators use—across the coaxial cable at up to 800 megahertz,” he said. “Anything interactive: program guide, VOD, game, widgets, is carried as IP across a GPON or BPON network and MOCA [Multimedia over Coax Alliance platform] into set-top boxes.”