NAB Shows Industry Responding To Hot Trends

By | April 26, 2004 | Feature

By Paul Dykewicz, PBI Media LLC

LAS VEGAS–The annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference is a good barometer of emerging hot trends and technological advances that will impact the satellite industry. This year, the seemingly endless exhibits and new product rollouts highlighted the growing momentum for high-definition television, interactive TV services and networking capabilities that include satellite as a core technology.

A sizzling trend that will affect satellite television broadcasters is a rapid expansion of HDTV. Attendees from outside the satellite industry generally expressed favorable views of the latest HDTV cameras, production equipment business prospects. Costs for such equipment, along with HDTV sets that consumers buy, also are dropping. A s a result, a much-anticipated lift for satellite operators appears to be on the horizon.

A market-savvy official one of the operators, Loral Skynet, described HDTV during a panel discussion at the NAB as a solution for filling a portion of the existing excess transponder capacity. Robert Hedinger, executive vice president of sales, marketing and client services at Loral Skynet, said HDTV’s need for additional bandwidth compared with traditional content could help to offset a dearth of growth for bread-and-butter fixed satellite services (FSS) during the past couple of years. Consumer demand for HDTV also is growing as more programming tailored to that technology is produced, he added.

Among the companies supporting the technical delivery of HDTV is BT Broadcast Services (BTBS), an exhibitor at NAB that launched what its officials called the industry’s first end-to-end, high-definition (HD) solution that fully integrates fiber and satellite. The new service aims to increase revenue opportunities for major broadcasters by helping them satisfy emerging demand for HDTV coverage.

SkyStream Networks, a provider of IP video, also intends to play a role in HDTV’s delivery. The company demonstrated real-time MPEG-4 encoding capability on its video delivery platform during the show.

MPEG-4, the next-generation compression technology standard, will conserve bandwidth to allow HDTV and other rich applications to take place without a commensurate increase in costs. Hybrid services that incorporate MPEG-4 and the exiting MPEG-2 technology will be able to deliver improved quality video over satellite, cable and telecommunications networks, company officials said.

Satellite TV also will be aided by interactive television, said Allison Dollar, co-president of the Interactive Television Alliance. The move toward interactive television in the United States has been slower to take hold than it has been in Europe but clear progress is occurring.

For example, DirecTV executives publicly voiced interest in enhancing their offering of interactive services since the satellite TV service’s purchase by News Corp [NWS] late last year. A reception given by the alliance at the NAB show drew dozens of attendees who expressed optimism that interactivity was on the cusp of leading to expanded availability in the United States.

With satellite TV taking the technology to heart, cable TV should not be far behind.

Technology Agnostic

The NAB show also reflected a growing trend for networking services to incorporate satellite, wireless, wireline and fiber-optic cable technologies to provide communications services. The distinctions of the past in which networking equipment focused on just one technology or another seem to be history.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulators told me recently that they had noticed a trend for the filings they review from companies now calling for the use of more than one technology to provide communications or network services. Intelsat, PanAmSat [SPOT], SES Global [SESG] and other satellite operators are buying or partnering with companies that offer fiber or other networking capabilities to supplement their core satellite services businesses. Earlier this month, SES Global bought teleports that had been operated by Verestar through the latter company’s Chapter 11 proceedings. Teleport industry officials told me at NAB that the price paid for those premium teleport assets was surprisingly low.

The clear lesson is that satellite operators and companies once focused on other technologies are tending to offer whatever service a customer wants in the way that makes the most sense. Companies that provide equipment are adapting and keeping pace by introducing new products. For example, Harris [HRS], a communications equipment provider, unveiled a new plug-and-play module to support video-over-IP for rich-media-content distributors that range from satellite to telecom service providers. The NetVX Gigabit module is an integrated high-speed network connectivity service that can establish links with all packet- based services. It also can receive satellite signals. The new technology will be used in the transition to digital services, and it supports as many as 64 bi-directional MPEG streams over IP, Jackie Broo, manager of public relations at Harris, told me during an interview. The new module was featured and demonstrated at the NAB.

Those looking to remain viable in the future need to recognize that the world is going digital, and customers don’t really care if one technology or another helps them to get there. An assortment of technologies have a role to play in that transition and the forward-looking executives will be positioning their companies to deliver cost-effectively what their customers want — whether it comes via satellite, fiber or something else.

Paul Dykewicz is senior editor and senior analyst of Satellite News. He can be reached at 301/354-1769 or at pdykewicz@pbimedia.com.

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