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SA Preps HD Converter for Headends

More help is on the way for cable operators looking for an MPEG-format fix: Scientific Atlanta has developed a satellite receiver that lets programmers distribute high-definition content in MPEG-4 format, and then allows operators to convert that for their existing MPEG-2-based set-top boxes.

SA’s D9858 advanced receiver transcoder, currently available for testing, aims to bridge the gap between the newer video-encoding technology--which cuts bandwidth needs roughly in half--and the vast installed base of digital cable set-top boxes. Several programmers, including HBO and Starz Entertainment, have indicated they plan to distribute their HD content in the future using MPEG-4.

Brian Morris, vice president of Scientific Atlanta’s Digital Media Networks for the Americas, said the product has been in the works for about a year. Customers kicking the tires on the D9858 include Turner Broadcasting System, Discovery Communications, Scripps Networks and Fox Broadcast, he said.

“The utopia for content providers is to put a signal up once in MPEG-4 HD and have it converted at the headend,” Morris said.

As usual, Scientific Atlanta will go head-to-head with Motorola in this area. Motorola announced a similar product line, the DSR-6000 series, to convert MPEG-4 to MPEG-2.

One difference between the two vendors’ approach: SA’s D9858 can output video in MPEG-2 HD, MPEG-2 standard definition, MPEG-4 HD or SD, or analog--all in a single one-rack-unit-high system. For its part, Motorola’s DSR-6050 handles only HD, while a second product, the DSR-6010, will convert MPEG-4 HD into MPEG-2 SD format.

 Morris also contended that SA’s transcoding process is better. “The means of doing that conversion is very important,” he said. “There are a ton of variables -- MPEG-4 and MPEG-2 streams are very different.”

SA has filed for patents on three MPEG-4-to-MPEG-2 transcoding processes: a preprocessing element that identifies picture complexity prior to encoding; dynamic I-frame alignment to reduce loss of information; and a proprietary statistical multiplexing technique that provides a pool of video streams to fit into a predetermined bandwidth at the downlink site.

The D9858 provides four satellite L-Band inputs, and supports the DVB-S2 modulation specification for more efficient satellite transport.

Morris declined to provide pricing for the D9858, but said, “We’ll be competitive.” He said deployment scenarios will vary, with some content providers likely to pay for all or part of the boxes and others requiring cable operators to buy them.

The D9858 is scheduled to enter field trials by end of 2007, with the product available for commercial deployments in the first quarter next year. Motorola is targeting the DSR-6050s to ship in the same time frame.