Could 1080p HDTV make it in Europe?

Charlie Ergen’s Echostar last week started preparing to “transmit” channels in 1080p, calling the ground-breaking new system TurboHD. We now have more information on the service, which represents a very clever way of using set-top box technology (and not much else) to deliver a compelling product to pay-TV subscribers.

TurboHD is Dish Network’s name for a new pay-per-view level of movie channels. They claim it matches Blu-ray quality, and is available where users have an MPEG4-equipped receiver, plus an HD-enabled hard drive. Dish says its new TurboHD services are supported by a proprietary system software upgrade that, starting August 1, was being rolled out to all their MPEG-4 HD DVR receivers. By early August, all Dish customers with MPEG-4 HD DVR receivers will have the only set-top boxes in the nation enabled to display 1080p content, “allowing them to maximize the full potential of their 1080p-compatible HDTV sets”.

The software upgrade commenced a few days ago, and Dish’s “channels” are now on air, says Dish. Ergen described the new service, which kicked off with a 1080p version of I Am Legend, telling analysts on August 4 that 10 or 15 channels will be created.

Ergen said: “Realize that we're starting with pay per view movies, our video on demand. So, the way that works is we don't actually need a lot of capacity because we actually download that in the middle of the night [direct] to your hard drive, so it doesn't take up a full linear channel. It takes us a couple of hours to download and then it was done. No more capacity was needed for that movie in 1080p. I think you will probably [get the same] from DirecTV.” Ergen said it was only satellite that could deliver this degree of quality and choice to consumers.

The question of whether a similar service could be offered to UK viewers is very definitely “yes”. Eric Cooney, CEO of professional compression equipment supplier Tandberg, speaking ahead of the giant NAB convention in Las Vegas in April, said: “Today’s broadcasters have concentrated on 1080i or 720p and this will change. The Holy Grail is to shift to 1080p at 50/60 Hertz. Our current partners are asking us for this additional functionality in order to deliver a superb customer experience and operational advantage. Operators are asking us these questions today, and this keeps our R&D technicians busy. I see this happening in the next three years, without doubt. The consumer electronics people are ready. TV displays, projectors, they are increasingly 1080p full high-definition. My guess is that it will be satellite that first offers these high-end services. It isn’t difficult to see the reasons why. Satellite, helped by further compression, could deliver these services as a distinct competitive advantage over cable and IP.”

In other words, pay-TV operators like BSkyB, or indeed anyone transmitting an MPEG4-based HDTV service to a hard drive-equipped box could match the Dish Network service tomorrow. Using abundant overnight capacity, the likes of BSkyB could efficiently download movies, or high-quality entertainment series like 24 into our homes overnight and at Blu-ray quality at “real” HDTV rates of 1080p/60Hz. Whether viewers would pay extra for a 1080p service (on a PPV basis) is another argument, but as an additional incentive for viewers to trade up to an HDTV service, the prospect is a no-brainer.