Q&A: Motorola’s Mark Schaffer

Recently Fox announced that it would become the first major U.S. programmer to distribute all of its programming in high-definition for its broadcast and cable networks. Motorola will supply the technology for this groundbreaking move, which is scheduled to start in early 2009 and continue into 2010. Mark Schaffer, director product management, IP video solutions and home and networks mobility at Motorola, talked to HD Update about the gear Motorola will supply. An edited transcript follows:

Q: What are some of the key technologies and products that you’ll supply to Fox as it moves to all-HD distribution?

A: We have been working with Fox for about 18 months to come up with a solution that fit its needs, which are quite diverse across their broadcast, cable and sports networks. The challenge was to come up with one solution that would allow all the nuances of their different needs to be accommodated by one system. In the past they’d had to work with a number of vendors to meet those needs.

Starting with the encoders, we’re providing the SE-3000 which is an MPEG-2 HD encoder because this will be a MPEG-2 distribution network. One strategy that Fox may undertake with some of their cable networks is to provide 38.8 Megabit pipes over the satellite transponder. The satellite transponder will accommodate 55 Megabits or so but this will allow them to provide some QAM friendly statistical multiplexes to their affiliates. Given the importance of conserving bandwidth, high quality HD multiplexes are very important to the cable operators and this will allow Fox to provide that.

The other important piece is the control system. The control system that we will be providing -- especially for the sports content -- requires very agile and addressable retune capability so the receiver will to tune to the right channel at the right time. That is something Motorola has a lot of experience with and that experience gave Fox a lot confidence in our product.

The last important piece is the IRD [integrated receiver/decoder] or the radio as Fox calls them. This is a space where we have been involved for a long time. We have a lot of commercial IRDs deployed across a lot of different programmers. The particular one we’ve develop for Fox is similar to a product we’ve already deployed but it has some new capabilities.

The down conversion capability [of the IRD] is one of aspects that Fox required from us. It can take the high definition signal, read the AFD [active format descriptor] signal associated with that and provide the appropriate format of the standard definition content.

Those radios also have a very agile tuning capability -- as commanded by the uplink -- and that was very important for Fox.

So those are the three aspects that we provide. In the past, because of their operational diversity, they had to use a variety of vendors. The fact that we were able to come up with a single solution that fits everything that Fox needed was very important [in getting the business.]

Q: Have you seen any other major programmers decide to distribute content only in HD? Aren’t most still distributing both SD and HD feeds?

A: Fox is the first that we know of. So far, all of our customers have been simulcasting in both HD and SD.

Q: I know you can’t talk dollars but I would assume this is one of the biggest deals you’ve done with programmers on HD side?

A: Yes, it is very substantial.

Q: Fox is using DVB-S2 compression for the satellite transmission. How much savings in satellite capacity will they be able to achieve with that?

A: It is very substantial savings. Depending on the error correction they use, the DVB-S2 standard, allows for up to two times the amount of bandwidth that you could achieve before.

Overall, DVB-S2 has been very important to all of our customers in the last 15 months that have been deploying new HD services. We’ve seen some very robust deployment over the last 12 months and we expect that to continue.

Q: Can it effectively double satellite capacity?

A: In some of the higher end of our deployments, we’ve done up to 73 Megabits on a 36 megahertz transponder. Traditionally our customers were doing between 27 and 40 Megabits over a satellite transponder.

Q: What were some of the different requirements that you had to deal with for Fox’s broadcast and cable operations?

A: One was the creation of multiplexes of the satellite and the bit rates that are being used. For cable distribution they maybe more inclined to be cognizant of [quadrature amplitude modulation] pipes and creating multiplexes or virtual multiplexes that affiliate can use for those 38.8 Megabit pipes. That way they can just pass it through to their cable affiliates without too much technology.

It is a little different in the broadcast space where the bandwidth requirement is 19.3 Megabits. So you have to be more cognizant of those pipes.

There are other nuances but basically we are basically providing them with a set of tools and they can pick and choose the tools they need for the different launches.

Q: Despite the economy, vendors say the demand for equipment for HD upgrades remains very strong. Why?

A: The operators are competing to get more HD on their plant and the programmers are competing to get carriage on those packages. I think the mentality this year has been something like a land grab. Once the operators make their choices on HD programming, that bandwidth may never free up again and the programmers are doing all they can to get as much HD out as quickly as possible so they get on the operators’ pipes.

Q: How fast do you see MPEG-4 being adopted on the cable side? Obviously HBO has gone in that direction.

A: In the last 12 to 15 months we’ve been very successful with MPEG-4 rollouts. I think we’ve been involved with about 63 channels in the last 12 months. If you look at how many HD channels we’ve launched in the past eight years, we’ve done a very substantial percentage of that recently in MPEG-4. Of course, we continue to launch MPEG-2 but we’ve been doing a larger number of MPEG-4 HD channels.