When it comes to MPEG-4 advanced video coding (AVC), the traditional cable operators are encumbered by the large number of MPEG-2 legacy set-top boxes that are currently deployed because they would have to be replaced. While cable operators are intrigued by MPEG-4’s 50 percent reduction in compression bit rates, which would free up bandwidth, their migration to MPEG-4 will be more gradual than telcos, IPTV providers and satellite operators. U. S Digital Television, a Salt Lake City-based wireless pay-TV service provider, also has MPEG-2 set-top boxes in the four cities where its service is deployed, but COO and co-founder Richard Johnson said USDTV’s vision from the beginning was to switch over from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 to take advantage of the improved compression. The MPEG-4 service, which USDTV said will be the first rollout of MPEG-4 by a U.S. broadcast TV service provider, is slated to begin this summer. "By moving to MPEG-4, we gain more spectrum and two benefits," Johnson said. "The first is that we’re able to use the recaptured spectrum for linear services, and the second is that we’ll be able to offer more relevant bits of quality. We can actually improve the quality of the video signal by moving to MPEG-4. "As you encode your bit streams, you dedicate a certain number of bits to achieve what would be minimally acceptable for a visual experience. Now (with MPEG-4) you can toggle how many bits actually contribute to that." Johnson said that MPEG-4 has 1.5 Mbps per channel for an ADI SD broadcast, but by increasing it to 1.6 Mbps it will improve the average quality level and viewing experience. "Because we broadcast terrestrially, we see the benefit of using quality as a way to keep our customers happy, so we throw a couple of extra bits in there that we’ve recaptured by going to MPEG-4," Johnson said. It’s all in the dongle USDTV takes MPEG-2 signals from programmers and cable providers and converts them into baseband at its network operations center (NOC) in Salt Lake City. From there, the signals are re-encoded into MPEG-4 AVC and sent over the network to the four cities that USDTV currently serves. USDTV will use Tandberg‘s end-to-end broadcast encoding systems based on its MPEG-4 AVC SD compression technology for its deployment. At the customers’ homes, the MPEG-4 video signals will be transcoded by a matchbox-sized dongle, which is plugged in by the customer into a USB port in the set-top box, back to MPEG-2 for display on analog or HDTV sets. At the recent NAB show, USDTV was awarded TV Technology‘s STAR Award (Superior Technology Award Recipient) for its MPEG-4 AVC dongle, which was developed by USDTV engineers. "Prior to the switch to MPEG-4, we’ll ship out the dongle to our customers," Johnson said. "The dongle is intelligent enough to wait for an MPEG-4 signal, and then it will initialize it and do the transcoding." MPEG-4 set-tops With the dongle, USDTV doesn’t need to worry about replacing the legacy MPEG-2 boxes that are already in the field, but it does plan on releasing an MPEG-4 box later this year. The new boxes will also have MPEG-2 to be able handle local broadcast channels that aren’t in MPEG-4. The new set-top boxes will ship in two phases, with the first scheduled for this fall. The boxes will include a new system-on-a chip processor from Sigma Design, as well as the latest demodulator from ATI. Early next year, USDTV will begin shipping MPEG-4 set-top boxes that include a 250-gigabyte hard drive. "That hard drive will provide your typical PVR type function," Johnson said. "More importantly for us, we’ll be able to distribute movies and other ‘push VOD’ content down into homes. As you can imagine, being a digital terrestrial provider is a very efficient way of distributing content because I can send a movie to one home or to 5.4 million homes in Los Angeles for the same cost." USDTV, which was formed in 2003, is currently deployed in Salt Lake City, Dallas/Fort Worth and Albuquerque, with plans to add Norfolk, VA, later this year. The cost of the service is $19.95 a month. – Mike Robuck Digital Doings: Roberts, Britt Talk Tech at CableLabs Confab In case you missed yesterday’s CableFAX Daily, here’s the story that ran in regards to the CableLabs‘ analysts briefing on Tuesday. Going all-digital dominated discussions at CableLabs’ analyst briefing yesterday, with cable’s top two CEOs predicting that the transformation won’t happen any time soon. Instead, Comcast‘s Brian Robertstalked up digital simultrans, while Time Warner‘s Glenn Brittenthused over switched digital video, which frees up bandwidth by allowing MSOs to deliver only the channels selected by viewers to the set-top. TW expects to roll it out over the next three years or so. Britt declined to say how much capex switched video would require, but he did say that TW was able to offer simulcast, switched digital and its "Start Over" service in South Carolina for $10 million or $16 per home passed. Comcast also is developing the tech, but "we didn’t think switched digital was here now and ready for us," Roberts said. Neither predicted when cable would go all-digital. "We’re focused on the consumer’s needs, not just doing technology for technology’s sake," Britt said. Comcast execs have debated whether 20 or 40 channels would remain analog until at least 2011. "It would be better if we don’t make hard decisions like that," Roberts said. "Let the consumer drive it." With about 80 percent of Comcast’s market digital simulcasting its entire analog lineups at the end of ‘05, the MSO is ramping up its "Enhanced Basic" service. Enhanced Basic puts VOD into basic homes with low-cost digital boxes. Some weeks Comcast sells 10,000-15,000 homes on the service, Roberts said. Both execs weighed in on net neutrality, repeating cable’s stance that it’s a solution in search of a problem. "Everybody tries to dress it up as a consumer item [instead of saying we’re] advocating this because it’s in my business interest," Britt said of net neutrality proponents. Future Gazing Roberts hopes to have 100 hours of HD VOD programming available in some markets by year-end. Another prediction: He’ll be surprised if Comcast doesn’t improve phone results every quarter this year. Wireless phones are another matter, with Roberts saying it’s not yet proven that customers want a bundle that includes the service. As for Britt, he said TW is on track to have five markets OCAP-ready by the end of ’06. For a replay of the Time Warner Webcast (email registration is required), go here.
For the Comcast segment, go here.