OTA HDTV Reception Q&A

Updates on the DTV transition and how to receive over-the-air digital television for free.

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Location: Richmond, IL, United States

Hello there! I created this blog to share the information about over-the-air HDTV reception you have been wearily searching the Web or calling technical lines for, whether you have decided for less expensive means to get your favorite TV shows, or still adjusting from the over the air broadcast DTV transition that occurred on June 12, 2009. After working for a leading antenna manufacturer for almost 5 years, during which time I've shared my expertise with those who asked on the phone and by email at work, I decided to do the same in the Blogosphere! Confused about getting your local HD channels? Just click through the archives, some of the most useful information is in the early posts from 2005-06. If you want to get in touch with me with antenna related questions, just leave a comment anywhere on this site.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

HOW WILL MPEG-4 INFLUENCE HOW CONSUMERS RECEIVE HDTV AND PAY CHANNELS?

Right now digital cable, satellite, and over-the-air free DTV is using the MPEG-2 codec, the same as for DVDs. However, the more efficient MPEG-4 codec is opening up new opportunities for content delivery, most notably alternatives to cable and satellite. The MPEG-4 codec has facilitated Apple iTunes to deliver videos and episodes of popular shows for consumers to purchase and download, and now the major broadcast networks and a few of their cable partners have been providing iTunes video content, and the library continues to grow.

The excitement over MPEG-4 is that because its compression is more efficient than the MPEG-2 standard, more digital standard definition and high definition channels can be packed into a content provider's available bandwidth. Unfortunately, with HDTV programming becoming more available, and consumer interest growing, more HD channels are coming available. In the past year TNT, NBC Universal (USA/Sci-Fi), MTV, National Geographic channel, and HGTV have launched cable/satellite HD channels, and ESPN has been heavily promoting their HD channels, and has been providing the most live HD content. Needless to say their premiere HD shows will be SportsCenter and NFL Monday Night Football. On a quick side note, I loved watching the FIFA World Cup on ABC HD, whose broadcast (on the soccer field anyway in addition to studio and analyst face time pieces) was converted from a live global 1080i HD feed from the host German broadcaster, and ABC and ESPN took advantage of the global feed by providing complete World Cup HD coverage from the opening match to the championship final.

Unfortunately the increasing demand for bandwidth is leaving the cable and satellite companies somewhat painted in a corner. Between the two, the cable companies are the more trapped. The cable companies are providing analog channels which require a lot of bandwidth to begin with, and then comes the bandwidth for the MPEG-2 digital cable channels. To provide MPEG-4 digital cable channels would require their thousands of customers to change their digital cable converter boxes, and that would require the cable company to buy a lot of new hardware, and that may contribute to even more increases in rates. In addition, the cable companies have needed to compress the native broadcast HD streams to load the channels into their digital tier, and people have noticed the diminished quality in the HD pictures compared to watching broadcast HD over the air, which is not compressed beyond the transmitter. This restricted bandwidth from cable providers also is slowing down the ability to add new HD channels to the lineup, and a strong argument for the cable industry against "must-carry" of local broadcasters' complete broadcast DTV content, which may include local broadcasters' primary channels, some of which are HD, and multicasts. Cable companies fear that must-carry would force them to actually remove a few channels that are of strong interest to some of their customers.

The satellite companies are taking the more aggressive approach to deliver more HD channels and converting to MPEG-4. Their plan is to launch new satellites providing MPEG-4 content and pack more HD channels, most notably local channels via satellite with HD programming. Because the satellite providers are going to lauch new satellites, those interested in receiving the new HD channels and local channels would require a new dish and a new receiver. However, existing customers who opt to stay off the HDTV bandwagon for a while can continue enjoying their all-digital standard definition channels without the need to change their dish or receiver. Simply put, satellite companies are more capable than their cable competitors of increasing their available capacity for HD and MPEG-4 channels by just simply lauching new satellites and giving the consumer the option to upgrade. How they will charge consumers so the satellite providers can pay for the new hardware remains to be seen.

But now a new player has arrived in the television content delivery arena - the telecommunication companies, or telcos. Verizon has just started its fiber-optic based FiOS TV service in some East Coast markets, including select areas of the New York City market, while AT&T, recently merged with SBC, has started rolling out their U-Verse "triple play" service of phone, DSL high-speed Internet, and television services. AT&T just launched their television service in San Antonio, with more markets to be added between now and the end of 2008, close to the analog broadcast television shutoff date of February 17, 2009. Here in Iowa, my telco is Qwest, and I have not seen any information of plans to provide television services on fiber optic/phone line at this time, although it certainly is inevitable. Qwest is providing 5 Mbps DSL premium service in my area.

While cable and satellite systems rely on radio frequency (RF) channels delivering digital TV bits to receivers with "radios" in their respective receivers, similar to off-air VHF/UHF ATSC MPEG-2 receivers but using different modulation schemes, the telcos will deliver data streams on their lines using Internet Protocol, or IP, instead of RF cable. Digital television involves datastreams of bits, ones and zeroes, and they can be delivered either via RF packets on cable, or along phone lines or fiber optics using varying electrical pulses. The lines would then be connected to Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) set-top boxes which would decode the pulses and store information on a hard drive, and stream content to TV sets using the appropriate video output. Because of the new technology, the telco services can start from the ground up and go right into delivering video content, including HD channels, using the more effective MPEG-4 video compression standard. As a result, the new telco services are already capable of providing 180 digital channels, including about 20 local and national HD channels, for $40 per month plus $10 for renting an HD IPTV box, and an additional $12 per month for DVR services, very competitive to digital cable or satellite services. The telcos have not needed to invest a lot of capital to develop the infrastructure needed to launch their services. However, some households may still be hesitant to go IPTV on the basis that they would need to wire their homes with CAT-5 telephone or fiber optic lines and replace the cable. Thankfully, companies like Swedish-based Multilet have developed special diplexers to faciliate the transisition by delivering IPTV content and DSL service over existing RF coax cable. So, the door has flown open for customers to go IPTV when the service becomes available in their area. If a telco service goes right into MPEG-4 video delivery, they will have a great competitive advantage over the cable and satellite companies needing to upgrade their infrastructure and hardware to deliver more HD programming with the best picture quality possible.

USDTV, the Salt Lake City based over-the-air pay TV service available in Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Alberqurque, is also going from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 to provide select popular channels using broadcasters' available bandwidth on their over-the-air DTV channels. Initially the channels available for $20 per month were MPEG-2; howvever, going to MPEG-4 would allow them the ability to add more channels. Because USDTV at last count has 16,000 subscribers in their four markets, the transition is not hard; they have developed special "dongle" add-ons to customers' existing boxes to decode MPEG-4 datastreams embedded with the broadcasters' free DTV MPEG-2 streams available to anyone with a DTV set with an antenna input. Yes it is possible to embed MPEG-4 multicasts with MPEG-2 streams on the same DTV channel, it is just that a tuner capable of using either/or is needed to view it all. After that, USDTV can provide new set-top-boxes that can do both MPEG-2 for the free channels and MPEG-4 for their pay channels, and they had hoped to get these out by years' end and expand into new markets.

Unfortunately, USDTV's expansion plans hit the brakes this month as they haved filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. It would seem to me that USDTV had spent their backing granted last fall by several broadcast partner groups on investing in these new MPEG-4 encoders for the broadcast engineers and the new receiver technology. Now USDTV is stuck providing their service to only four markets and is not planning to add new subs at this time until they get through the bankruptcy plan, and maybe provide the MPEG-4 upgrades to their existing subs. That is, if they can afford to I fear that USDTV will need yet another strong financial backing like last fall in order to them to expand into new markets next year. By then, maybe the telcos will already have made their presence known and turned over existing cable and satellite subs, even if USDTV can provide a pricing and lineup plan that still would be an affordable alternative to even the telco TV service. The phone companies simply have more money and reputation, and it's easy for them to send an announcement to customers in their phone and/or DSL bill.

4 Comments:

Blogger Steve Fialkoff said...

Thanks for some great info. What do you think the quality of over the air HDTV in cities with large buildings blocking the way
will be like?,

11:16 AM  
Blogger Derek (IA) said...

Thanks Steve for the great question, I just posted a new blog about it right here: http://otahdtv.blogspot.com/2008/12/what-will-quality-of-ota-hdtv-be-in.html - dated 12/17/08.

8:59 PM  
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3:27 AM  
Blogger Emmanuel said...

Thanks for some great info.is there a way to upgrade strong str4664 to mpeg4

7:12 PM  

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