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HBO Goes Moto for High-Def Compression

Premium-cable programmer HBO said it will use advanced compression technology from Motorola to support the transition of all 26 of its HBO and Cinemax networks to high-definition transmission -- a process scheduled to be completed by mid-2008.

HBO -- which has used Motorola's DigiCipher II MPEG-2 compression systems to deliver its standard-definition channels in digital form since the mid-1990s -- is switching its transmission scheme to MPEG-4 AVC encoders to conserve satellite bandwidth as it launches 24 new HD channels, in addition to the HD feeds of the primary HBO and Cinema networks it currently provides.

Direct-broadcast satellite service DirecTV, which also uses MPEG-4 compression for HD feeds, has already committed to carrying 10 of the new HBO HD channels.

While DirecTV is rolling out MPEG-4 compliant HD set-tops to support its HD expansion, the existing universe of cable set-tops uses MPEG-2, although operators have been ordering new boxes with MPEG-4 decoding capability.

As such, Motorola will supply HBO with new multiformat integrated receiver/decoder units that will deliver HD channels in both MPEG-4/AVC and MPEG-2 formats to cable affiliates. HBO will continue to deliver MPEG-2 versions of its existing HD networks (HBO HD East/West and Cinemax HD East/West), as well as new MPEG-4 streams of those channels. All of the new HD networks will be delivered in MPEG-4 only, so affiliates that want to carry them will either need MPEG-4 boxes or transcoding gear that converts them to MPEG-2. Motorola will also handle encryption and modulation of HBO's HD signals as part of a single integrated transmission system.

"HBO has a long history of delivering great programming in the highest quality and, just as we were the first to launch a high-definition feed, we are now the first to commit to the full breadth of our channels in HD,” said Bob Zitter, HBO executive vice president of technology and chief technology officer, in a statement. "Motorola's implementation of the highly efficient MPEG-4 encoding standard provides the quality that we require and that our customers expect.”

The HBO contract is a significant win for Motorola's compression and transmission business, which was an early leader in digital transmission with its DigiCipher products but has since lost market share to compression specialists like Tandberg Television and Harmonic. In that vein, the cable-equipment giant bought MPEG-4 compression specialist Modulus Video in May. Motorola had already been reselling Modulus' MPEG-4 products to its customers.

"We are very pleased to work with HBO on this important industry project," said Doug Means, corporate VP and general manager of Motorola Home and Networks Mobility, in a statement. "We expect this project to change the way programmers approach large-scale high- and standard-definition content distribution.”