FREE TO AIR Video and Audio
Reception and BEYOND
Basics and A Brief History of the American Market 2015 Update
Written By MIKE KOHL / GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS www.global-cm.net
|It is hard to believe that the consumer
Free-To-Air satellite receiver market is approaching 20 years old. It is
even more difficult to listen to the term "dinosaur" being given to
high-end set-top boxes designed only for satellite reception. During the
last couple of years some revolutionary changes have taken place, which involve
a convergence of media delivery systems. Satellite has been around for a
long time. Multichannel digital local TV reception has taken off since
full-power analog TV was discontinued in 2009. Now the Internet is about
to join and eclipse both in the delivery of communications signals.
Let's explore the Satellite side of the equation. Starting in the late 1970s, millions of people around North America installed full-sized (typically between 6 and 12 foot) satellite antennas to get access to brand new sports and entertainment options starting to be delivered by cable companies and other pay entities. HBO and other movie channels were not happy that several million mostly rural consumers outside of the reach of existing delivery systems had spent thousands of dollars apiece to get "Free" signals. The first wave of the market peaked in 1986, followed by the first encryption, or scrambling of Premium entertainment channels. HBO and Cinemax turned the switch on January 15th of that year, ending the free ride for many. Along the way, enterprising hotels, motels, and drinking establishments had also joined the stampede of those installing dishes for free reception of whatever was there, and they now faced the consequences of their actions. This began a long period of cat and mouse games between programmers that rightfully wanted to be paid for their product, and many individuals and businesses that felt entitled to do whatever was needed to "beat the system". Showtime and The Movie Channel scrambled in May 1986, with other important cable services following in their footsteps during the next couple of years. This was analog scrambling, and between tech-savvy tinkerers and some serious technical assistance by ambitious parties "inside" the "system", security was compromised rather quickly, and a full blown cottage industry of modifying Videocipher modules went mainstream. People spent huge amounts of money to dishonest companies and individuals for a "fix" to avoid paying monthly fees for programming, especially to avoid the stigma of being labeled as perverts for their appetite of adult channels.
This went on for years, back and forth, and repeated itself again in several waves, as small dish systems such as DirecTV and DISH Network were hacked in a similar fashion. Before the domination of the TV market by small dish systems, a legitimate market of subscription payment for consumers did exist in the form of the Videocipher 2 system with a big dish. During the late 1990s, it was replaced in stages by the digital "4DTV" subscription system developed by Motorola, with receivers that often retailed near a thousand dollars installed. The 4DTV system was in service for over a dozen years, until abandoned by programmers in face of shrinking C-band subscriber numbers, caused by competition from DirecTV and DISH Network. That plug was pulled in Jan 2011.
During the last decade, those with big dishes have been squeezed out of the ability to subscribe to an increasing number of channels, as they abandoned the C-band consumer market. This trend also follows the upsurge of prices and restrictions in having subscription programming from Cable companies, DISH Network and DirecTV. A serious backlash from the greed of these entities has caused some consumer revolt, in the form of cord-cutting, or disconnection from subscription services. This time it is NOT to the dark side, or theft of pay services, but instead to new free digital alternatives rapidly entering the marketplace.
Parallel to the 4DTV, and starting about 1996, a non-proprietary form of digital transmission via satellite started to take hold, starting with mostly foreign-language channels. MPEG-2 free-to-air became a sizeable business as many countries felt a need to serve their expatriate populations around the globe. The trend of government sponsorship of such channels started in the oil-rich Middle East, and caught fire worldwide as it was quickly discovered that six to ten or more channels of digital programming could exist in the same space that previously held only one single analog TV channel.
Global Communications was one of the first companies in North America to import consumer satellite receivers for Free-To-Air digital reception, beginning in August, 1997. We were privileged to have had a preview of this new satellite technology the previous January, at a satellite trade show in Auckland, New Zealand. Timing is important in many new ventures, and this was a textbook case of being in the right place at the right time. Asia and the Pacific Rim just happened to be among the first places in which MPEG-2 free-to-air technology was used on a large scale.
The difference between these markets and America was that in the Pacific Rim, prior to the mid 1990s, it literally took very huge antennas to receive even a few dozen channels; making the idea of getting MANY channels an impossible dream. MPEG-2 digital technology was a breakthrough that allowed great reductions in per-channel transmission costs. Mass-market consumers in this region never had a chance, much less a reason, to spend lots of money on costly analog equipment. Their first exposure to satellite TV was more often than not in a digital format. Unlike America, which had at least a 20-year learning curve of increasingly better analog receivers making previous equipment obsolete, and then a giant leap to digital! Whether or not the Asia Pacific market received a long term benefit by accidentally becoming the test bed on getting MPEG-2 right remains a matter of debate, but they were at least a year or two ahead of America in the development of MPEG-2 free-to-air consumer receivers. The pie in the sky that served as a catalyst for rapid development of digital receivers was the potentially huge market of mainland China.
Competition for a share of the Chinese market has done a great deal to bring down prices worldwide on digital hardware. A history of pricing can illustrate this fierce competition, starting with the first Hyundai HSS-100 series receivers that we brought into the United States from South Korea. 1997 wholesale cost was around $700, the receiver had a memory which was limited to 99 "bouquets", or groups of channels, and the graphics only worked in the PAL video format. And there was a mysterious looking RS-232 connector in the back which was "for future use". Connections for HDMI and USB did not really exist at the time. Graphics only worked in the PAL video format, so to view using our NTSC formatted hardware required a direct RCA connection to a VCR or video monitor, as well as some receiver programming "tricks" to fool it into producing an NTSC picture.
We have traveled a long road since then, with many significant improvements in the design of receivers, and great increases in memory capacity as well as overall versatility. Most basic functions are now automatic, so we barely have to think when tuning channels. Global Communications even offers a preloaded memory service for our customers, so that they no longer have to spend days figuring out where every channel is in the sky, after manually scanning. Many hundreds of hours of our research that is updated monthly has given us the ability to logically set up satellites and channels in any way that we see fit, and clone information into receivers in seconds. The upper end of the market now has receivers capable of storing 10,000 channels into memory.
We have commonly been using High Definition technology for over ten years now, and recent breakthroughs in board design have shrunk the size of the set-top receivers, minimized cabinet heat buildup, and added MPEG-4 technology to provide quantum leaps of improvement in pricing and capabilities. We even have a USB computer connection that not only allows updates to be fed with a memory stick, but to also feed memory sticks as well as external hard drives with programming from the receiver via built-in DVR circuitry.
The period from 2004 to 2009 brought a shakeout in Free-To-Air receiver manufacturers. Many bad people entered the satellite market during this time, to profit from temporary abilities to modify receivers for illegal reception of subscription signals, including DISH Network, Bell ExpressVu, and Globecast World TV. Serious legal battles were waged by DISH Network, putting many of these freeloaders in jail, with huge penalties and fines. Laws have been tightened and security systems improved, to reduce the temptation for such future activity.
During this time period there was a rise in the number of receivers being manufactured in China. Some companies that formerly trusted South Korea as a place of high craftsmanship and competitive prices were tempted by improving quality by Chinese companies. This was not always a consistent situation, and it has sometimes been difficult to separate genuine high quality products with look-a-like knockoffs. At this writing, we are probably down to less than half a dozen serious receiver companies doing business in North America. Without exception, MPEG-4 is the order of the day, and MPEG-2 receivers are often available in the surplus as well as used market for pennies on the dollar. MPEG-4 offers features such as high definition, Dolby digital audio, and the ability to receive both MPEG-4 as well as MPEG-2 signals.
As of this writing, the author can access well over a thousand video and audio channels for free on his FTA satellite receivers that are connected to a broad array of satellite antennas. A single 30 to 36 inch Ku-band dish parked on the Telstar 19 satellite at 97 West now provides over 200 TV channels and almost a hundred audio channels, from around the world. Fans of educational TV will find at least 19 PBS services on a similar dish pointed at 125 West / AMC-21 satellite.
We also have all of our major TV networks in High Definition, for free, from local TV stations in southern Wisconsin. Stand-alone digital converters or digital TVs with built-in tuners are typically giving us two or more extra TV services in Standard definition, with an increasing number of ad-supported movie and classic TV channels. 17 channels at last count from Madison, Wisconsin's full-power TV stations, which is causing a sizeable number of people to question the wisdom of paying for any TV. And many are cutting the cord. Free Digital Satellite and Local Off-Air TV are quite adequate for those on a budget.
As high-speed Internet gets past 4 or 5 Mbps download speeds, the Internet as a sole source of entertainment programming is fast becoming a reality. While adding still another device for Internet delivery is a "bonus" for those already equipped for satellite and local off-air TV, a single device connecting to the Internet is rapidly becoming common. A set-top box with the name ROKU has sold over 2 million units in less than 3 years. Those with high speed Internet can easily get 2000 FREE channels using this box, or its many imitators. Or you can get a brand new SMART TV from Samsung, Sony, or other major manufacturers, and use the Smart TV itself as the tuner to get access to the Internet. Most new channels coming on the air will only use the Internet as a delivery system. You will likely see a slight reduction in the total number of satellite channels available, as some companies examine their budgets and find that they can do at least as good a job via Internet only delivery.
The incredible part of this
convergence in technology is that within the last few months it has literally
forced all major TV channel providers to seriously adopt an ala-carte system for
those that want to subscribe to Internet-delivered TV. While Roku set-top
boxes originally sold for over $100, a USB stick version of the same is half
that price, and connects directly to the HDMI inputs found in a high definition
monitor television. And new smart TVs that do NOT require ANY set-top box
are being sold at giveaway prices.
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