Keeping Up With Satellite Could Be a Turn-Off

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In November, technology editor Matt Stump wrote a telling story about DirecTV Inc.’s plan to enter the Detroit market with digital television services that employed the latest, greatest form of data compression, known as MPEG-4.

For direct-broadcast satellite provider DirecTV, it was and is a path to gaining a leg up on telephone and cable-company competition for the pay television customer. By the end of 2007 — that’s next year — DirecTV promises to broadcast 2,000 channels of high-definition programming, thanks to this compression technology. About 1,500 would be local TV stations, removing one of cable TV’s big advantages over satellite providers.

DirecTV will beam all the channels, everywhere. But the set-top box will determine which local channels should be let through to any given customer. Oh, yeah: There would be 500 channels of national programming, too. All in high-definition. Is cable ready to compete?

Probably not, if there really will be 500 channels of ESPN, Fox, National Geographic Channel and other high-quality, high-definition programming out there, next year.

By raw measures, cable — the original broadband communications platform — is about to run out of capacity. “There’s no room at the inn,” said John K. Morrow, vice president of strategy development at Scientific-Atlanta Inc., the gear maker — at least if you use straightforward math.

The problem? The cable-system customer. No one wants to alienate the one that brung you to the dance. That would be the folks who just want to watch TV. They don’t care that much about standard-definition, high-definition or any other definition of what they’re watching. They just want to turn catch up with Tony Soprano on Home Box Office or find out Jon Stewart might say on Comedy Central about Dick Cheney and his inability to shoot straight.

That means they just want to attach their TV to a coaxial cable outlet, turn on the power and hit the remote until they find what they want. No need for a fancy digital box or a 62-inch digital screen. No desire to pay for having lots of set-top boxes around the house, converting analog signals to digital ones; or passing through hundreds of new channels they probably don’t care about.

Hey, they’re only going to watch seven or eight channels, anyway. Such customers are about half of cable’s fan base. Why turn them off? Because you’d almost have to, if you want to keep up with the satellite-TV arms race. Delivering 500 high-definition channels right now would use up all the bandwidth on almost all cable systems in this country.

Even with that latest generation of compression, 500 HD channels would consume approximately 750 Mhz of bandwidth. How much bandwidth does the typical cable system employ? 750 Mhz. So, if you want your system to be showing 500 channels of high-def programming by the end of next year, you better be ready to boot all the analog channels — all 80 of them — off your systems. Not to mention pulling back on telephone service, high-speed Internet access and everything on-demand.

That’s the theory anyway. But it’s not the way cable networks will get there. “You don’t have to do a sudden cold cut,’’ said Wilt Hildenbrand, executive vice president of engineering and technology at Cablevision Systems Corp.

If you assume instead a migration to HD channels over a series of years, then the picture is different.

Say a Cablevision system devotes 200 Mhz of the 600 Mhz that currently carries analog channels to high-def. Then, say you use MPEG-2 compression, to put three channels of high-definition programming on the space that used to go to one analog channel. What do you get? 80 channels of HDTV. Go to MPEG-4? You get 160 channels. Go to 600 Mhz and MPEG-4? You get your 500.

There are other ways to add bandwidth, easily, as well. Replace amplifiers, at $1,000 a mile, and you get another 100 Mhz. Or, put all niche channels on a switching system, where they’re only broadcast digitally when someone in a given neighborhood actually wants to see them, said John Hildebrand, vice president of video technology at Cox Communications Inc.

Then you can support as many channels as you want. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 400 or 4,000,’’ he says. Which, in turn, changes the question altogether.

No longer is it, will cable — or satellite — be able to deliver 500 channels of HD programming. It’s, where will all those channels come from.

Will they really ever exist? “Show me the list of what those 500 channels are,” said Cox’s Hildebrand.

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