Thanks to more efficient manufacturing, cutthroat retail competition, and predatory market-share grabs by a few manufacturers, HDTVs are now readily affordable. But the one thing that hasn't changed is the refrain heard from many people when they get their new sets home: "Hey, where's all the high-definition programming?"
Thankfully, that situation is going to change for the better in the fall - and this time, the content and service providers really mean it. Not only are content providers ready to offer significantly more programs in high-def, but service providers - cable, satellite, and the telephone companies (telcos) - are working to make sure their respective networks have the capacity to handle all that HD content, which requires three to four times the bandwidth of standard-def fare.
With 50 new HD channels expected to launch by the end of the year, the content guys are living up to their part of the bargain. Meanwhile, the telcos are building high-capacity fiber-optic networks, and the satellite companies are launching new satellites and acquiring more space on existing ones at regular intervals. That makes cable, with the oldest infrastructure, the dark horse in the equation.
While many cable companies are saddled with old copper networks that don't have the capacity, the reliability, or even the sex appeal of newer fiber-optic ones, that doesn't mean the cable guys are willing to concede the growing business in trafficking HD content. They've been working feverishly to employ bandwidth-reducing strategies and technologies that will let their systems handle the impending HD crunch. And apparently, heightened competition can be a powerful motivator: You don't think it's a coincidence that Cablevision operates in regions where both Verizon and AT&T have rolled out broadband HD services, do you?
Cable: We're Not Dead Yet
For years, cable has been the service its customers love to hate, regularly trailing, well, almost everyone in customer-satisfaction studies. But for many people, it's been the only way to get TV service. While satellite has made steady inroads, cable is still, by far, the largest supplier of TV content. With the launch of telco TV, though, cable might be feeling the heat for the first time.
Cable has enjoyed several advantages over its competition, ranging from no up-front costs to its ability to aggressively market discounted "triple-play" deals that combine TV, Internet access, and digital phone service on a single monthly bill. And cable is also more locally attuned, offering community-interest programming such as local news, weather, and high-school sports. Where DirecTV provides local HD broadcasts in about 75 markets, cable carries local HD broadcasts in 206 of the 210 U.S. media markets. And, until the recent launch of telco TV, cable companies had an exclusive on offering video on demand (VOD), where movies or special-event programs can be ordered whenever you want to watch them.
Still, cable companies have been concerned whether their copper-based networks can handle the growing amounts of high-bandwidth content that customers demand. Many cable systems are at or near their bandwidth capacity, which limits their ability to add new HD channels or services, such as HD movies on demand. Limited capacity can also affect picture quality, as some operators - despite carriage agreements that stipulate minimum bandwidth requirements - reduce the quality of some HD programs as a way to conserve bandwidth for additional channels.
But cable's future isn't as dire as it might seem. Many companies have been replacing older copper networks with higher-capacity hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC) networks that typically use fiber from head-end distribution centers to local residential nodes and then existing coaxial runs into the home. These HFC networks can be further optimized by employing "spectrum overlays" that take advantage of unused or underused higher frequencies, above 1 gigahertz (GHz), on existing coax cables to create more bandwidth.
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