Posts Tagged ‘Cable TV’

FiOS is coming! (Yawn…)

They’re here!

The big orange spools of fiber optic jackets. The rows of white utility trucks. The polycarbonate junction boxes sitting every few feet along the curb. The spray-painted lines and alien glyphs all over my lawn, and my neighbor’s lawns.

Yes, FiOS has finally made it to our neighborhood. After nearly six years of waiting, Verizon has hired an army of subcontractors to run fiber optic cables under our lawns and breach the once-impenetrable Comcast wall.

This is FiOS! This is Big! (Well, the spools certainly are!)

Thing is, some of my neighbors are kinda blase about the whole thing. And I am, too.

Here’s why: Verizon first wired up nearby Doylestown Borough in 2003-2004, back when most people had separate telephone and cable TV hookups and broadband access was starting to pick up steam. Repeated calls to Verizon about the availability of FiOS in our township brought the same results – “We’re negotiating with your township over the franchise fees.” Seems that, unlike every other township around Doylestown, our supervisors insisted that Verizon pay the same franchise fees that Comcast had, back in the day.

This, even though Verizon had successfully negotiated discounted franchise deals with most other townships in central Bucks County.

Finally, after years of haggling, our supervisors reached an accommodation with Verizon, who had already announced they would not build out their national FiOS infrastructure any further, due to the high labor/materials costs and challenging ROI environment. Fortunately, we already had the required fiber optic ‘drops’ sitting in a Verizon service cabinet at the corner of our development from six years ago.

A few things have changed along the way since 2004. First off, Comcast’s broadband speeds have picked up considerably, and their service is quite reliable. Secondly, I, along with some of my neighbors, dropped Verizon landline telephone service and consolidated everything into the ‘triple play’ option (broadband, phone, and cable TV). And the quality of phone service is much, much better than what I had with Verizon. (Other neighbors opted to install DirecTV dishes and forego any kind of cable connection.)

I’ve also got a CableCARD-enabled TiVo HD that I use constantly to time-shift programs, and it works very well. Not only that, there are numerous ‘in the clear’ digital TV channels present on my system that can be accessed by conventional TV sets without extra set-top boxes.

I saved myself about $40 a month with the consolidation. And have gotten pretty used to the high level of service. So maybe it’s understandable that I’m not in any hurry to change over to a new provider, even if their Internet speeds are supposedly faster (something that was definitely true back in 2004, but maybe not now).

And it doesn’t help when a Verizon contractor shows up at my door, asking me if he can disconnect my cable TV wiring so he can trace the underground line back to the house. Hell, no! Not while I’m reviewing artwork for a client project!

The wires are definitely here…unless they’re somewhere else.

And that’s another thing to consider. When you call Comcast for a service problem (something I haven’t had to do in over a year), a Comcast-trained service person shows up in a Comcast truck.

When you call Verizon, you may get a Verizon tech. Or, you may get a subcontractor, particularly if you have wiring issues.  There are numerous ‘installation disaster’ stories of subcontractors puncturing gas lines and shorting out electrical lines while installing FiOS connections in the central Bucks County area. That alone gives me pause about the whole ‘switch to FiOS’ thing.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a particularly big fan of Comcast, who seems to raise their rates at the drop of a hat.  And I wonder what Comcast’s pending acquisition of NBC Universal will mean for future monthly rates and access to content.

The fact that I could switch to FiOS at any time may be useful to me to get a better rate from Comcast, or hold the line on future rate increases.

But to be honest, the service I get right right now is very good. And it’s reliable. And I can troubleshoot most of it myself with my own test equipment. And I know a lot of the service and engineering folks at Big C. So I guess I’ll stick with Comcast for a while longer, while those Verizon contractors continue to tear up everyone’s lawns and finish pulling fiber to all the houses in the ‘hood. Then we’ll see how it’s working out for any of my neighbors who decide to make the switch.

Maybe it’s simply a case of dealing with the devil you know, versus the one you don’t know?

The DTV Transition: One Year Later

Many HDTVexpert.com readers know I started this Web site back in 2004 as a way to provide useful information on HDTV – how to receive it, how to watch it, and how to get the most out of it.

As it turned out, the most popular articles were (and continue to be) “how to receive digital TV” tutorials. More specifically; how to select and use antennas for over-the-air DTV reception.

Over this past Memorial Day weekend, I had a chance to visit the site of one of my more interesting DTV reception challenges. The house, located high in a steep valley in southern Vermont, is completely blocked-in by a ring of hills and sits 50+ miles from the Albany, NY TV transmitters atop Helderberg Mountain. (Well, most of ‘em are up there.)

The occasion was to install a new flat screen TV and tap my ground-level UHF/VHF antenna system one more time to provide free HDTV to that screen. (The other two taps drive Zenith converter boxes.)

Sure enough, after a few hours of stringing cable and drilling holes, my brother and his wife were able to watch the French Open in HD via NBC affiliate WNYT and the Indianapolis 500 in HD from ABC affiliate WTEN. I also tossed in an upscaling DVD player so that they could enjoy their sizable collection of DVDs in widescreen ‘near’ 1080p quality.

That RF system is done – there’s nothing I can do to improve it, other than periodic maintenance and repairs. And other DTV antenna systems I’ve installed in upstate New York, on a Canadian island, in Maine, at the Jersey shore, and on the roofs of a few locals are perking along happily, with their owners enjoying one of the few great deals left in this world…free television, and in high-definition, too.

It’s a work of art, and a thing of beauty.

My own system is doing a bang-up job hauling in DTV signals from New York City (65 miles), Scranton (70 miles), Philadelphia (22 miles) and Allentown (25 miles). If I get tired of all the ‘hometown cheering’ for the Phillies and Flyers on local DTV stations, I can always switch back to New York DTVs WCBS, WNBC, WABC, and WWOR and get the scoop on the Yankees, Giants, and Knicks. (And if WMCN-DT wasn’t spewing out their inane infomercials on channel 44, I could watch WTXF as well!)

The future of over-the-air DTV isn’t very clear at the moment. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has called for re-allocating much of the UHF TV spectrum, to be used instead for wireless broadband to solve an Internet ‘connectivity crisis.’ (Verizon chairman Ivan Seidenberg has gone on record as saying that this ‘crisis’ is largely non-existent, and that Verizon isn’t even using all of the recycled TV spectrum it bought for such an application.)

Even so, we might as well enjoy OTA DTV while it lasts, which I hope will be a long time. So that brings me to the point of this essay, which is to ask readers this: How is the DTV transition working out for you? Are you connected? Everything running hunky-dory?

Or, are you still having problems with antennas, or older set-top boxes? Still trying to pull in DTV signals in a tough location? Got noise or co-channel interference issues?

Tell me about them. I’d like to hear your stories, and will publish as many as I can.Maybe I can even solve a reception problem for you, if I get lucky.

Drop me an email at pete@hdtvexpert.com with particulars (and photos as well, if you have them). I’d like to get a sense of how many readers are still watching free over-the-air DTV. And how many have opted to drop cable, or cut back on it in favor of broadband video services like Netflix or Hulu.

It’s a very different world we’re living in than ten years ago. Back then, we got excited when a temporary antenna, braced out on our decks or stuck in a low-hanging tree, intermittently pulled in HD broadcasts of Monday Night Football. Remember how revved up you felt back then when the signal finally locked up?

Somehow, Peter Griffin and Saturday Night Live streaming to my laptop doesn’t hold quite the same thrill…

HDTV Tech Talk Tutorial: 3D Program Formats

Here’s a quick tutorial on 3D program and transport formats, all coming to a TV near you.

Have you heard enough about 3D yet?

Probably not. Samsung and Panasonic are long out of the gate, while LG just started its advertising campaign for INFINIA LCD TVs during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.  And there will be more companies following with 3D TVs, Blu-ray players, and a host of accessories.

One question I’ve gotten repeatedly is this: “How do they pack a 3D signal into a conventional cable TV channel?” Another one: “How can DirecTV send out 3D, which is progressive scan? They’re not broadcasting in 1080p!”

Time to wheel out the whiteboard! In a nutshell, here’s how the different 3D transmission formats work.

THE DETAILS

Earlier this month, the 3D amendments for the HDMI 1.4 standard were released. These standards include a host of broadcast 3D formats, along with the Blu-ray top/bottom packed 1080p frame format. (I’ll touch on that, too.) These mandatory 3D formats must be supported if the HDMI interface is a ‘true’ 3D connection.

That’s not to say that a TV manufacturer won’t support other formats: They can, and they are! Examples of ‘other formats’ include checkerboard, interlaced 3D, line-by-line, and alternate frame. There are even 2D+ depth and other ‘overlay’ formats (think of the FM subcarrier for stereo from the 1950s) that are backwards-compatible with older TVs.

What we’re interested in is what DirecTV, Dish, Comcast, Cox, Discovery, and possibly major TV networks like CBS, NBC, and Fox are doing, and might do. Here’s the short list:

Side by side: This is the format that DirecTV will launch in June. It’s also likely to be used by Comcast, Dish, Cox, and any other multi-channel video system. In the side-by-side system, the left eye and right eye images are anamorphically squeezed to fit into a single 1920x1080i/30 frame. (Figure 1)

Figure 1. The side-by-side (2x 960×1080) 3D format. Image copyright ©2010 DirecTV. All rights reserved.

That means that each image has half the horizontal resolution, or 960×1080 pixels, when expanded back to its normal shape and presented sequentially. Does this look bad? Not really, considering there’s still over 1 million pixels in each eye. As it turns out, HDMI 1.4a calls for side-by-side exclusively with 1920x1080i video content.

Top + Bottom: This format is more likely to be used by stations transmitting progressive scan signals. Once again, the left and right eye images are anamorphically squeezed and packed into a single frame, except they are aligned one atop the other. This is the standard for 1280x720p/60 and 1920x1080p/24 transmissions. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. The top + bottom 3D transport format. Image copyright ©2010 DreamWorks Animation. All rights reserved.

In this case, each image has half the vertical resolution of a full HD video frame. For a 1080p program, that’s no big deal – each eye works out to 1920×540 pixels. But 720p comes up short, with an effective resolution of 1280×360 pixels in each eye.

The thinking here is that it’s better to sacrifice vertical resolution in a progressive scan TV system than horizontal resolution. I don’t think it makes much of a difference with 1080p content, but 720p? It may not look as good as it should.

What about the alternative? Using a side-by-side format, this would reduce the resolution of each left and right eye image to 640×720 pixels – not much more than a regular DVD. As a result, adopting 720p as an HD format may leave something to be desired with respect to 3D.

HDMI 1.4a: There are two formats here. One uses a top/bottom dual-frame structure (Figure 3) with a total of 1920×2205 pixels. (45 pixels are a blanking or metadata interval.) This retains full 1080p resolution and the frame rate is 24 (23.98) Hz. The other format is for video games, and oddly enough, it’s at a lower resolution – 1280×720 pixels, with either a 50Hz or 60 (59.94) Hz refresh. (Figure 3)

Figure 3. The HDMI 1.4 Blu-ray frame packing structure.

To summarize, these are the ‘mandatory’ HDMI 1.4a 3D formats. A compatible 3D TV will support all of them. On the other hand, set-top boxes and media players only have to provide one of these signals (for Blu-ray players, it’s the full 1080p top + bottom format exclusively), based on the content being served up.

It’s important to remember that, not matter what delivery (transport) format is used, the 3D TV will present ALL of these as sequential left eye/right eye images, using the same active shutter glasses. Only the physical resolution of the images will vary, along with frame rates.

And now you know the rest of the story…to quote the late, great Paul Harvey.

Samsung, Panasonic Get a Flying Start on 3D

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, Samsung and Panasonic showed they’re serious about marketing and selling 3D TVs in the United States with some significant product announcements.

Samsung’s press event, held at the Samsung Experience in the Time Warner Center, showcased numerous demos of 3D plasma and LCD TVs.  Content from 3D Blu-ray discs and DirecTV was featured, and DreamWorks Animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg even stopped by to add his two cents to the proceedings, attracting a crowd of paparazzi along the way.

In the LCD line, the LN46C750 (CCFL) will be first out of the gate with 3D support and 240Hz image processing. It is expected to retail for $1q,700 and will be in stores in May. Over in the LED BL LCD line, eight models ranging in size from 40 to 55 inches will handle 3D playback, starting with the $1,999 UN40C7000 and topping out with the 55-inch UN55C9000.  Look for shipments to start in March with selected models.

Here’s the UN46C9000 in action, showing 3D content from DirecTV.

Plasma is still part of the 3D equation at Samsung, and six new PDP TVs are ready to deliver 3D. The 63-inch PN63C8000 sits at the top of the line and will set you back $3,800 (May 2010), while the 50-inch PN-50C7000 can be yours fro just $1,800 (also May 2010).

Got Blu-ray? The BD-C6900 is BD3D compatible and ready to deliver the goods (which is a neat trick, considering that Silicon Image just finalized the HDMI 1.4 delivery formats last week!) for $399. It should show up later this month. Each 3DTV and the Blu-ray player will  come with one pair of active shutter glasses. (Samsung is also running a limited-time promotion with two pairs of glasses and a 3D BD copy of Monsters Vs. Aliens with each new TV.)

On Wednesday, Panasonic unveiled its first 3D TV entry, the 50-inch TC-V50PT20 ($2,499). This set will come with one pair of active shutter glasses.  Larger models will be rolled out as the year progresses, and there aren’t any plans currently for 42-inch or 46-inch 3D models. (No surprise, considering how inexpensive 50-inch glass has become!)

There’s also a new Blu-ray player, the BDT-300. It will retail for $399 at Best Buy. Want the TV, player, and glasses? You can have the lot for $2,900.

It should be noted that plasma TVs have always had the ability to switch at the high speeds required for 3D (120 Hz)..they just haven’t had the correct interface and HDMI 1.4 support. LCD TVs that process at 240Hz can also juggle a 3D signal nicely. (For that matter, so can 120 Hz sets, but the faster refresh rate does a cleaner job with motion detail.)

It’s possible that many of these sets will be purchased and not used for 3D viewing right away, as consumers want to “future-proof” themselves. Considering how few Blu-ray players are on the market, it’s probably not a bad idea to wait a few months until more product is on the shelves and the market figures out pricing.

Here’s an actual side-by-side 1080i video frame from DirecTV.

As for DBS and cable-delivered 3D, you’ll need an upgraded set-top box with HDMI 1.4 support to view the side-by-side 3D content that most networks are likely to use. DirecTV has already stated its intention to use side-by-side, while ESPN is still in the planning stages.

Keep in mind that both side-by-side and top/bottom 3D delivery formats cut resolution in half. Side by side slices horizontal resolution, while top/bottom pares vertical resolution. For a 1080i image, that means 960×1080 pixels in each eye, while the 720p format gets whacked down to 640×720 pixels per eye…not much better than a DVD.

In contrast, the Blu-ray format delivers two complete 1920×1080 progressive frames (left eye on top, and right eye below) with a blanking interval of about 40 – 45 pixels. So you can expect 3D content from Blu-ray to look much better than network content.

Wal-Mart Buys VuDu. What does it mean?

On Monday, February 22, Wal-Mart announced it was buying the movie download service VUDU.

The announcement, which was a bit of a surprise, nevertheless makes sense in light of Wal-Mart’s 2009 decision to downplay in-store sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs. Now, Wal-Mart can deliver HD-quality movies directly to a variety of compatible TVs and media players, including LG’s new BD590 player/DVR.

According to a Business Week story, a VUDU executive said he expects the VUDU platform to be integrated into more than 150 TVs and related AV products in 2010. This is significant because VUDU picture quality tends to be higher than iTunes and Netflix streaming video. In fact, many VUDU movies can be downloaded in the 1080p/24 format for true HD playback.

VUDU’s original set-top box

This move also pits Wal-Mart directly against Apple, Amazon, and Netflix as demand for digital downloads of TV shows and movies heats up.

So – what does that mean for packaged media sales? DVD sales continued their slide last year, falling off 13% from 2008, according to Adams Media Research. Even the Blu-ray format hasn’t proven compelling enough to reverse this trend, which many analysts still blame on the economy.

I’ve got three more sensible explanations. First off, DVD rentals are still hanging in there, which means more consumers have decided they really don’t need to buy every movie or TV show boxed set out there. Renting once is just fine, particularly if you have a $1-per-night Redbox DVD kiosk in your local grocery store.

Second, there just aren’t that many memorable movies out there from recent years that are worth owning. And if you’ve already accumulated RL or BD copies of the ‘classics’ plus some boxed sets here and there, why continue to fill up your shelves with more DVDs that will likely still be sitting in their original shrink wrap a year later?

Third, it’s pretty clear that the public is captivated by broadband video. That includes video-on-demand over cable, Hulu, Netflix streaming, Amazon digital downloads, and YouTube.  Granted, mailing Netflix and Blockbuster movies back and forth is pretty convenient (although Netflix spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to make that happen!).

But pointing your remote at the TV and downloading a movie or TV show is even more convenient (and cheaper for Netflix). And if you have access to thousands of movie titles and TV shows at the click of a button, why do you need to fill up your shelves at home with DVDs you might watch one time, then consign to a garage sale or your local library?

Wal-Mart is betting that you don’t, and that direct downloads are what you crave. And they want a piece of that action.