Thursday, December 20, 2007

Choosing your HD service - HD Cable, or DirecTV HD?

So as I've written over the past few weeks, we've upgraded to an HDTV and TiVO-HD, along with HD service with our local cable company (Cox).

A lot of folks have chosen to go with satellite for their HD service, and that can be a very good choice. DirecTV has far more channels in HD than most cable providers. As of today they have 85 HD channels available, whereas in my market, Cox only offers 24.

Both are of course expanding their offerings. DirecTV have said they will have 100 channels available in HD by the middle of 2008 (it was originally supposed to be by the end of 2007, but they are still 15 short). Cox is planning on 80 channels by the end of 2008, rolling them out 12 per quarter, the first group coming March 8th.

More important to many, DirecTV offers out of region NFL football, and MLB baseball on an exclusive basis (they have NASCAR and NBA with enhanced programming but not exclusive). If you live in Phoenix, and want to watch a Patriots homegame that's in local blackout, DirecTV is the only way you can get it.

In terms of general HD programming, that situation is going to equalize over the next two years. By 2009, HD will be the default choice for all cable and satellite providers, and the basic HD tier will be included for free (Cox has just announced this in fact. They will stop charging for basic HD service as of 2008).

Also, by 2009, all broadcast TV will be fully transitioned to HD, because of the analog cutoff. This means all your local channels will be in HD; and by extension all national network channels. Unfortunately, a lot of the cable channels will still only be 480p ED (extended definition), because the providers are trying to save bandwidth by using lower resolution and higher compression.

The broadcasters have all gone to HD, because switching off analog (which they legally had to do anyway) cost them roughly the same whether it was SD or HD, and HD got them more viewers. The cable providers on the other hand (although HD is also bringing them more viewers); are not as enthused, because their networks have bandwidth limitations that OTA (over the air) digital broadcasts don’t have (or rather the limits exist, but they are not an issue for a single channel broadcast). This means infrastructure upgrades for a lot of cable systems; which have cost them billions of dollars over the past few years (and will continue to cost them billions for the next two or three years as well).

These limitations also exist for satellite providers, but the sat companies don't have millions of miles of substandard copper cabling to replace; they just need to replace the head ends and receivers, and rent more bandwidth on the satellites (or launch more satellites - they’ve been doing both).

This has allowed satellite providers to move faster in putting HD content out there; but the costs are still substantial. There are only so many satellites in the sky, and only so much bandwidth available on them. Right now, HD service with DirecTV requires a clear view of a 5 satellite constellation; and that's the limit without launching more satellites, and upgrading every subscribers dish.

In order to minimize these infrastructure costs, the cable and satellite companies have both limited the number of HD signals they are offering; and they are compressing those signals as much as possible.

Of course compression allows them to squeeze more programming into a given amount of bandwidth; but it also reduces quality. Some channels are contracted to be broadcast with less compression, and some signal formats or content survive compression better. This compression is one reason why some channels look quite poor in HD (food network for example), while others look flat out spectacular (discovery HD).

By about 2010, the cable companies will have completed their physical plant upgrades in most regions; and the satellite providers will have reached the maximum capacity of their existing infrastructure without a MAJOR upgrade (as in hundreds of billions of dollars major). At that point, other than contract exclusivity (which I predict won't survive very long in the ubiquitous HD era as more customers complain to the sports leagues rather than switch providers), the programming should equalize between cable and satellite.

I should note cable and DirecTV are not the only alternatives. There are still c-band ("big" dish) and Dish Network on the satellite side for example; and a few lucky folks in some markets have fiber optic based TV services.

Dish offers a similar level of service to DirecTV, with 70 HD channels (and growing), and a SIGNIFICANTLY better HD-DVR (also TiVO technology based, but without the extra features); but they don't have DirecTVs marketing muscle, or their exclusive contracts.

Right now Dish stands at about 14 million subscribers, to DirecTVs 17 million (those are world wide numbers, though both have the vast majority of their subscribers in the US); and neither company are in particularly great financial shape, though both have strong revenues.

Simply put, the Satellite business is expensive, and capital intensive. Every satellite launched can cost upwards of a billion dollars, they have a limited lifespan (15-25 years depending); and sometimes the launches fail (there were two major failures last year for example). Local cable companies have their cable plants to maintain, which are also very expensive; but the cost is spread out to the local providers rather than concentrated on two companies.

This large capital cost, is the primary reason why satellite companies haven't been able to simply add a huge number of services and run away with the market. That said, as you can see by the numbers, mini-dish providers combined now represent a little less than 1/3 of the US "enhanced" television market (the 106 million households with cable, satellite, or other non local broadcasts); a huge leap from where they were 10 years ago.

C-Band services, which once dominated satellite; have fallen out of favor in regions where mini-dish services are available. Though they are still going strong outside of those regions, programming availability may be inconsistent. Many new HD signal streams are in a format that no c-band home receiver can decode for example, so even if you wanted to you couldn't subscribe to them.

The major Telcos are leveraging some of their cable plant expenses, and beginning to offer television services over their local loop; where the loop has been upgraded to either FTTP (fiber to the premesis, also called FTTH) or FTTN (fiber to the node, also called fiber to the neighborhood). These services use high bandwidth fiber optics to transmit IP (internet networking) based telephone, internet, and television programming.

Currently these services are well known as Verizons FiOS (an FTTH service), but other providers offer varying levels of service in different areas. THe second largest provider of these services is Qwest. Both telcos also resell DirecTV in areas where their FTTP/N services are unavailable.

CUrrently these services are both technically immature, and not commonly available. Most providers of the service are in the midst of a transition from first generation VDSL services which used analog multiplexed television signals over relatively low bandwidth links (under 40 megabit, which is barely sufficient for two simultaneous HD streams) to second generation services which offer several hundred megabits of fully digital bandwdith (enough for 10 simultaneous streams or more). Because IPTV only streams one channel per receiver from the head end at any given time, you can in theory offer better service on every channel, without overcompression or compromising on resolution.

Unfortunately, fiber to the neighborhood, and fiber to the home are still rare; and in the first generation form are significantly worse than cable in quality of service. I can't wait for them to be common and viable alternatives, but that isn't likely before 2010 or perhaps later.

Of course that's 2010. Given the fact that as of today, satellite offers ME personally better programming choices however, why did I still choose to go with cable?

Well I didn't exactly, I chose to go with a digital TV service from Qwest (my telco), but it was so poor (they sold me second generation service, but delivered first generation) I canceled it the same day it was installed, and went BACK to cable.... but I still went back to cable instead of going to satellite.

Honestly, Cox HD service is so-so, unless you skip their DVR and buy an HD TiVO. I wholeheartedly recommend doing so. The COX DVR just plain sucks.

With DirecTV you get more HD channels, and for now a TiVO based DVR (though they are moving away from TiVO next year some time), but you have to deal with DirecTVs shortcomings.

So why?

Three things:

1. Loss or degradation of signal

With satellite, you get loss of signal in certain atmospheric conditions. Lots of people say this never happens to them; but lots of others say it happens all the time.

If you can get a good install, and there’s not a lot of electrical noise in your neighborhood, and no obstructions; you’ll only have signal problems during heavy rain and wind.

...Of course we get heavy rain and wind every day for six weeks, twice a year (our monsoons); and high winds can be an issue year round. We also get dust storms here, and they can block signal as well.

Basically, your signal depends on your neighborhood, and the quality of your install. If you can get good, strong, clear, unobstructed signal then signal loss should only be an issue during the peaks of the monsoon (or heavy snow fall, or thunderstorms). If your signal is marginal, then you could get dropouts all the time, with just high winds and blowing dust (which we get all the time down here).

I know a lot of people around this area with DirecTV, and just as I note above; they get mixed results, depending on the weather, their neighborhood, and the quality of their install.

2. Latency

It can take up to 20 seconds for your satellite receiver to lock in and tune a station when you flip channels (it's also filling a read ahead buffer, to smooth out signal jitter). I find this INCREDIBLY irritating. Forget about flipping through channels to see what's on; you pretty much have to use the program guide no matter what.


DirecTV charges a HELL of a lot for their HD DVR, it doesn't record very much video, and it just isn't as good as a real TiVO.

For now, DirecTV uses software licensed from TiVO for their DVR, but beginning in 2008 they are moving to their own software. Worse, the current software doesn't have NEAR the features that TiVO does.

Oh and even though you're paying $300 for your DVR, it isn't yours; it's a lease. If you cancel your DirecTV service, they own the box not you; and you (obviously) can't take it to another provider.

For me, all those irritations more than counterbalance the better HD programming that DirecTV offers over Cox. You on the other hand may weight your priorities differently.