An Atlas V rocket that lifted off from Cape Canaveral this summer put Cablevision that much closer to becoming a provider of direct broadcast satellite (DBS) service. The rocket’s payload, a Lockheed Martin A2100AX satellite, with an expected life span of 18 years, is the most powerful and advanced DBS ever-launched, Cablevision executives say. Dubbed Rainbow 1, the Ku-band satellite has 22 spot beams, an unusually large number for a commercial satellite. It also offers a contiguous U.S. (CONUS) coverage beam. D.K. Sachdev, a satellite engineer who heads the SpaceTel Consultancy, says Rainbow 1 would be capable of offering more than 450 standard definition channels. Its use of a “large number” of spot beams, in conjunction with CONUS coverage from the 61.5 degree West orbital slot along the eastern edge of the United States, will give Cablevision “flexible connectivity,” he adds. The high-powered spot beams’ technical capability lends support to Cablevision’s claim in FCC documents that consumer would only need a 13-inch antenna to receive Rainbow 1’s signals, Edmund Habib, a satellite engineering consultant, says. The use of MPEG-4 compression technology also could enable its delivery of high-definition TV. Others point to technical constraints. Being licensed to use only 11 frequency blocks, in full CONUS mode, Rainbow 1 currently could support only 143 standard TV channels, vs. the 500 of offered by the two DBS incumbents, says Roger Rusch, who heads TelAstra, a satellite consulting firm. Rainbow 1’s relatively low elevation angles at West for California and the Pacific Northwest, combined with a relatively weak CONUS signal, also means much of the country likely would face a heightened risk of signal fade due to rain or weather conditions, Rusch adds. Then there is issue of having only one bird in the air. “The other DBS systems have at least six satellites in a fleet and, therefore, could reallocate satellites and channel assignments to maintain service,” Rusch says. Cable Skunkworks? The controversies are not only technical. The launch has befuddled Wall Street analysts and irked cable operators accustomed to looking at satellite as the enemy. At the same time, however, a stroke this bold commands a certain respect. What such initiatives typically require are small but dedicated teams working outside the usual rules. In the defense industry they’re called Skunkworks—after a moonshine operation in the L’il Abner comic strip. Cablevision may have an extra maverick gene in its corporate DNA, but it’s not the only one pushing the envelope. The stealthy and brain-intensive network DVR work that AOL Time Warner has commissioned with its MystroTV division smells like a cable Skunkworks, for instance. Even Comcast, famous for undertaking one thing at a time, has its relatively free-wheeling new media development group. Publicly associated with VoIP technology, this multidisciplinary team also has been looking into technology that ranges from medical devices to video codecs to telemetry, Mark DeFrancisco, director of the group’s home service engineering unit, says. (For a look at its home-energy management trial, see Communications Technology, July 2003.) Whether the Dolan family can breakeven on Rainbow 1 is going to be a billion-dollar question. But the launch is a vivid reminder of the risk-reward premium and its corollary: nothing ventured, nothing gained. —Jonathan Tombes, with Paul Dykewicz, senior editor/analyst, Satellite News (www.satellitetoday.com) Comcast Advertising Sales is on the verge of significant moves in digital program insertion (DPI), says Vice President of Technology Paul Woidke. DPI is the generic term for the insertion of secondary digitized content into an existing digital bit stream. Comcast is optimistic that this is the next wave in cable advertising, though Woidke didn’t reveal specific rollout plans. “I can say we are absolutely at a variety of properties doing experiments with DPI,” he says. Comcast currently is offering DPI in its Los Angeles region. Forty networks are inserting digitized ads into digitized programming streams at 15 headends. The headends are members of the AdLink interconnect, which Woidke headed before joining Comcast Ad Sales. The analog programming streams are being encoded digitally at one site and distributed via fiber to the 15 headends, where the digital local spots are inserted. Comcast is not alone. Cox is already inserting digitized ads in its Orange County, Calif., region. Converging trends Two trends have converged to make inserting digitized ad spots in digital streams a potential moneymaker. The first is that technical standards making it possible to combine two MPEG-2 bit streams are set, and products are on the market. Efficient PDI requires both triggers and splicing. In analog, the triggers were out-of-band dual tone multifrequency (DTMF) cues. The digital in-band standard is SCTE 35 (formerly DVS 253). Another standard, SCTE 30 (formerly DVS 380), enables the splicing device, which speaks with the server, to have a properly digitized bit stream. As for products, servers are available from nCUBE, SeaChange and Nextream; splicers from Terayon, BigBand, Sencore and Motorola; and encoders from Harmonic, Motorola, Scientific-Atlanta and Tanberg. The other vital element is digital programming. Comcast and other operators recognize that the migration of the distribution path to digital from the uplink to set-top means that not adopting DPI would in effect limit local program insertion to the remaining increasingly low-value analog channels. Programmers such as ESPN and Lifetime recognize the issue, Woidke says, and are beginning to integrate digital programming from the uplink. For instance, ESPN is in the process of extending digital uplinks from ESPN News and ESPN Classic to the main ESPN and ESPN 2. —Carl Weinschenk

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