Motorola Builds HD Bridge

As programmers pile up their high-definition platters, they're also starting to move to newer MPEG-4 compression technologies — and that has had cable operators groaning.

MPEG-4 Advanced Video Coding is much more efficient than the older MPEG-2 standard, cutting bandwidth needs roughly in half. Here's the problem: Cable operators have deployed more than 50 million digital set-top boxes that can receive only MPEG-2 video.

Motorola is proposing a way out of this thicket with a new series of integrated receiver and decoder devices that automatically convert MPEG-4 video programming into MPEG-2. The DSR-6050, at one-rack-unit high, will receive MPEG-4 satellite feeds and convert them into MPEG-2 at a bit-rate that can be specified by the programmer.

One of the primary design goals for the product was ensuring the transcoded MPEG-2 stream met programmers' image quality expectations, Motorola director of product marketing Mark Schaffer said. “That was a big barrier,” he acknowledged. “The programmer's goal is that the signal they send over the satellite is the one that gets to viewers' TVs.”

HBO, which plans to deliver all 26 of its channels to operators in HD format by mid-2008 using MPEG-4, is expected to recommend the DSR-6050 to cable affiliates as its preferred means of distributing those channels. (HBO has said it will continue to deliver four main HD channels — East and West Coast feeds for HBO and Cinemax — in MPEG-2.)

Having HBO's endorsement is a feather in Motorola's cap, Forrester Research analyst James McQuivey said. “It's a very good signal to the rest of the market that somebody who cares about high quality believes this is going to work well.”

McQuivey said he wasn't aware of products on the market similar to the DSR-6050, but added that competitors like Tandberg Television, Thomson and Scientific Atlanta “probably have something like it cooking.”

Motorola declined to provide pricing, but Schaffer said the DSR-6050 will cost around 33% more than typical IRDs. Still, he claimed, that's around one-tenth the cost of a separate MPEG-4-to-MPEG-2 transcoding system. The first DSR-6050s are expected to enter trials with more than a dozen systems in the fourth quarter, with products slated to ship in the first quarter of 2008.

A second product in the family, the DSR-6010, will convert MPEG-4 HD into MPEG-2 standard-definition format, allowing a programmer to specify whether the downconverted signal should be letterboxed or cropped for 4:3 displays.

That would allow for programmers to eventually move to all-MPEG-4 distribution, Schaffer said.

Another feature of the DSR-6000 line is that it supports Motorola's DVB-S2 advanced modulation scheme for satellite transmission, which is able to pack 77.5 Megabits per second into a 36-Megahertz C-Band satellite transponder compared with 40 Mbps with QPSK/8PSK modulation.

Using DVB-S2, Schaffer noted, about nine HD MPEG-4 streams would fit into 77 Mbps, compared with 10 standard-definition MPEG-2 streams in 40 Mbps.

That's a key enabler for delivering expanded HD lineups, McQuivey said: “As the world moves toward MPEG-4, and we see the number of HD channels increase dramatically, you're going to need the [satellite] uplink to modulate the signal in a hyper-efficient way.”