Pie from the Sky

The first public day of the 2005 International Consumer Electronics Show reached new heights with announcements from Echostar's Dish Network and DirecTV. These satellite-TV providers plan to turn the sky over the equator into the equivalent of a freeway in rush hour. Two new Dish satellites and a septet of DirecTV satellites by 2007 promise to put every man, woman, and child in America within reach of hundreds of high-definition channels. Portable DVR hard-disk recorders from Dish Network - you can take it with you. To enable this explosion of HDTV, both satellite systems will gradually convert their broadcasts to the MPEG-4 digital encoding system, which is more efficient and flexible than the MPEG-2 system used for DVDs and for HDTV broadcasting by ground-based TV stations. Initially, only viewers desiring high-definition programming will need to discard their existing receivers in favor of new MPEG-4 models, but the satellite companies plan to ultimately change over their entire operations, requiring all subscribers to trade up to new receivers. Dish sounded more amenable to allowing users to trade in older models, while DirecTV assumed subscribers would purchase new receivers.

A "Perfect Storm" of ConvergenceDish led off with chairman Charlie Ergen's promise that this fall would see "the perfect storm" in terms of the convergence of technologies to expand and improve satellite programming and broadband Internet service. Dish will begin transmitting local HDTV channels by the end of the year. Much earlier, in February, it will offer video on demand (VOD) interactive programming through its new DVR 625 satellite receiver, which combines "TiVo-like" features with 100 hours of storage. (Ultimately this will be upgraded to 200 hours.) To start users off, Dish will automatically download 30 movies along with popular TV shows (subscribers will be able to select programs themselves for future downloads).

The new DVR 942 HDTV receiver/hard-disk recorder, which can save 25 hours of high-def or 180 hours of standard programming, can simultaneously feed HDTV programming to one TV and a different channel of standard-definition programming to another TV. It can also transmit audio via power-line networking anywhere in the house with an audio client receiver.

Most amazing, however, was Dish Portable DVR, a hard-disk recorder with a built-in 7-, 4-, or 2-inch screen and a 20- or 40-gigabyte hard drive. Using USB2 for transferring data, it can download a movie from a Dish DVR in just 5 minutes. Dish pointed out it's the only portable digital video recorder that will let you watch movies without either DVDs or an Internet connection. It easily connects to a TV for playback with full MPEG-2 resolution. The Portable DVR also stores photos, MP3 audio, and PC video. To foil pirates, there are no digital outputs.