Satellite vs. Cable: Which Does HD Better?

Once you have a high definition TV in the house, it’s hard to watch standard def content. Even an HD channel dedicated to fish swimming in a tank (Dish Network’s HD preview channel) can still draw a crowd. Clearly, we wants our HDTV, and in ever bigger and better amounts. That’s why so much is riding on the current pissing match between satellite and cable TV, as the rivals jockey to establish HD technical superiority and channel supremacy, in fact or at least in the minds of viewers.

At the moment, Echostar’s Dish Network actually offers the most national HD channels, 31, thanks in large measure to its deal with the Voom , the former HD-only satellite service. But as that “Back to the Future” styled TV commercial with Christopher Lloyd keeps reminding, satellite rival DirecTV will soon have “3 times more HD capacity than cable TV” and a future of “150 HD channels. “

Cable, in its public face, keeps trying to change the subject. Its advertising pushes the “triple play” packaging of cable, phone and internet at an attractive price , and the instant gratification of its video- on- demand services. The latter often do include a few HD options, adding to the baker’s dozen or so full time HD channels in a typical cable lineup.

But behind the scenes, in two court cases, cable giant Time Warner has been doing its damndest to stop DirecTV’s HD boasting. And has given away some hints of its future counterpunches.

On February 5th, Judge Laura Taylor granted Time Warner’s request for a preliminary injunction to belatedly squelch another DirecTV commercial – those spots with Jessica Simpson and William Shatner that claimed better picture quality : ”For an HD picture that can’t be beat, get DirecTV.”

The judge bought cable’s basic argument that the rivals are equally capable of delivering a 720-line or 1080-line picture, whichever the channel source supplies. So both are delivering comparable HD pictures, she concluded. Her Honor clearly wasn’t interested in weighing the fine tuning that both service providers undertake to save a little bandwidth here and there. Say, by reducing the number of individual pixels that are collectively lined up to make each of those 720 or 1080 lines. While the full HD specification calls for each image frame to contain 1080 lines X 1920 pixels, in fact what viewers are sometimes getting is “HD Lite” – with image resolution of 1080 horizontal lines by 1280 pixels. That’s a charge which has been leveled against DirecTV in a separate California class action case.

Another tweak, definitely practiced by both digital cable and satellite is “statistical multiplexing, “ a data compression technology that raises and lowers the bit rate of each channel’s signal, according to its momentary need, in order to cram more channels into the pipeline. But sometimes, especially on sports-packed weekends, the multiplexer is overwhelmed, the bit pool goes dry and some channels or busy scenes look awfully blurry.

Three days after its legal victory, Time Warner went back to court, this time to try and silence DirecTV’s current pitch promising “more HD channels.” But here, I think, the cable company is on shakier ground and won’t prevail.

In a submitted affidavit, Time Warner’s senior network engineer Ronald Boyer said the company will be able to offer more than 200 HD networks by applying a variety of technologies. These include reducing the number of analog channels, fine tuning the signal compression, switching from MPEG-2 to MPEG-4 encoding (as satellite has done), and deploying “switched digital video.” The latter – also recently hyped by Comcast as a potential advertising bonanza – essentially turns the whole service into video-on-demand. It then sends just one custom ordered channel (or targeted commercial) to your TV at a time, instead of a couple hundred.

Time Warner’s complaint also challenged DirecTV’s ability to launch a 150 channel HD service this year, pointing out that a rocket recently exploded on the Boeing Sea Launch platform in the Pacific Ocean where DirecTV’s two new HD satellites are supposed to go up.

On this latter point, DirecTV has already issued a statement that it will still be able to launch one of the two satellites – the one that’s to carry the national HD channels – but will have to delay the other bird, which is intended to expand delivery of local HD channels to specific markets.

As to all that other HD-channel expanding stuff that cable’s now promising, we’re sure it’s all on the drawing boards, in the works. But these upgrades will cost billions, requiring massive system overhauling and eventually digital set top boxes for all cable customers. And that’s not going to happen overnight. The switched digital technology, for example, may get some pilot testing this year, Comcast exec Stephen Burke recently told stock analysts, but won’t start to roll out to select markets until “2008 and beyond.”

So throw out this case, judge. It’s got more holes than the Albert Hall. And unless (God forbid) its’ rocket blows up, DirecTV’s HD service is going to soar. Now all the company has to do is find 150 worthy channels of HD content, to fill it up!

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