Latest in Features

Image credit:

The Clicker: Satellite TV and IPTV vs, Cable

Peter Rojas
Every Thursday Stephen Speicher contributes The Clicker, a weekly column on television and technology:

winbook powerspec lc30d tv

If last week's column on OpenCable and CableCARD left you feeling a bit like Tantalus, let's consider for a moment the alternatives to cable: IPTV and satellite. While Comcast and its partners in crime are busy evading the long arm of the FCC, cable's two biggest competitors are quietly preparing their technologies and their infrastructures for a full frontal assault on the HD market.

Between the bandwidth of fiber, the advances in compression technology, and the upcoming launch of additional satellites, the IPTV market and the satellite market will soon have the ability to offer hundreds of HD channels.

Sounds great? Well? yes and no. If you didn?t like the, uh, ?openness? of OpenCable, you?re probably not going to like IPTV and satellite. At least with OpenCable the consumer stands a chance of having a choice in set-top boxes.

What happens when a benevolent dictatorship goes bad?

Whenever I write about the lack of third-party HD-DVRs, I inevitably receive a slew of email gently pointing me to the HD TiVo, a device DirecTV (the aforementioned benevolent dictatorship) so kindly offers. These emails assume that somehow I have forgotten about the device. I haven?t; it is simply not a third-party device. It lives at the mercy of DirecTV and, uh oh, it?s about to die.

On September 8th of 2004, DirecTV announced its intentions to address what many consider DirecTV?s Achilles? heel, local HD channels. Over the next two years DirecTV will be launching 4 new satellites. These satellites will add the capacity for both 1500 local HD channels and 150 national HD channels.

In addition to adding raw bandwidth, the new satellites will also mark the beginning of DirecTV?s transition from the long-in-the-tooth MPEG2 to the soon-to-be-long-in-the-tooth MPEG4. In doing so DirecTV will be leaving current HD TiVos out of the revolution. So, if not the HD TiVo, then what? The answer lies in the three words that strike fear in the hearts of consumers and technologists everywhere: developed in house. Gasp! DirecTV will be offering its own ?Home Media Center.?

Much like Microsoft?s ?Media Center Edition with Extenders? or TiVo?s ?Home Media Option?, DirecTV?s ?Home Media Center? is designed to be its own whole-house system. The fear is, of course, that this product will continue in the tradition of cable and deliver a product that falls short on usability and features. If (when) this happens, there will be no third party to fall back on.

Where is the FCC there? Nearly one forth of all premium television users are satellite users. Yet, unlike cable, there hasn?t been a successful movement to give the consumers the kind of flexibility which OpenCable has the potential to do.

How do you shoot rockets into the sky without drawing the attention of a regulatory body that would seemingly control breathing if it were, in fact, digitally transmitted? Beats me, but apparently the answer lies somewhere in that fetching Australian accent that Murdoch brings to the table.

Coming back to earth

While DirecTV is busy launching satellites, the good people at SBC are apparently relying on a well-placed pun to save them from the heavy hand of the FCC. Yesterday SBC released a press release suggesting that legislators and regulators take a ?light-touch? when regulating the emerging IPTV market.

SBC recently detailed its LightSpeed project, a four billion dollar infrastructure investment with the goal of bringing fiber (a light-based technology) into the homes of 18 million households across thirteen states. This fiber will be used to add video services to SBC?s existing voice and internet offerings.

SBC is hoping to convince regulatory bodies that its product is all-together different from traditional cable and, as such, should be regulated differently from the traditional cable television industry. If their lobbying proves unsuccessful, they will likely need to go through the same process cable does, involving arduous negotiation with local municipalities.

?In short,? says Lea Ann Champion, senior executive vice president of IP Operations and Services for SBC Communications Inc, ?we are not building a cable network, nor do we have any interest in being a cable company offering traditional cable service. Instead, we intend to offer customers a new total communications experience, one that they can customize to suit their families? needs and tastes.?

While yesterday?s suggestion of a ?light touch? dealt with regulations as they relate to infrastructure, SBC?s attitude still begs the question: how open will emerging technologies be to third-party products such as TiVos? My guess: not very. SBC is hoping to offer the same third-party services which Comcast et al. are fighting to retain. However, SBC is doing so without mandates such as OpenCable. At what point do consumers hope for the FCC to step in? Or, is that monster too dangerous to wake?

As always, if you have comments or suggestions, feel free to write to

Until next week, save my seat!

From around the web

ear iconeye icontext filevr