DirecTV Moves to MPEG-4

One of the more interesting announcements at CES this year was from DirecTV, who revealed that they would be launching four next-generation satellites by 2007 in order to carry more than 1500 local HDTV channels and 150 national HD channels. The first two of these satellites, dubbed Spaceway 1 and Spaceway 2, are scheduled to be sent aloft early in the second quarter of 2005, and they will transmit local HD channels to 12 US markets (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Dallas, Washington DC, Atlanta, Detroit, Houston, and Tampa) by mid-year.

Even more interesting was the announcement that these local HD channels would be encoded in MPEG-4 AVC rather than MPEG-2, which is the current encoding format. MPEG-4 AVC is more than twice as efficient as MPEG-2, which will allow more channels to be carried within a given bandwidth. However, current DirecTV HD receivers and dishes will not be compatible with the new signals; subscribers will have to replace their existing HD receiver and dish with a new one if they want to watch the new local HD channels. At this point, it's unknown what sort of upgrade path DirecTV will offer its current HD customers.

DirecTV's current national HD channels (HDNet, HDNet Movies, Discovery HD Theater, Universal HD, and ESPN HD) will remain in MPEG-2, at least for a while, so older receivers will still work with them. And the new receivers and dishes will be able to decode MPEG-2 signals, so new owners will be able to view everything DirecTV throws at them.