Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Other ways to get HDTV

While the traditional over-the-air, cable, and satellite providers are busy battling it out for the HDTV dollars, new ways to get HDTV appear every day. Here's a look at some alternatives to the big three.


IPTV basically means television delivered via a broadband connection. Strictly speaking, it's different from TV delivered over the Internet because the network itself is private as opposed to the Internet at large, although in everyday use, the term is often used to cover any TV content that's delivered online. IPTV is usually seen as a move by phone companies to compete against cable TV operators for television business, and IPTV service is often bundled with a broadband Internet connection and VoIP telephone service. Aside from Verizon and AT&T (below), numerous companies are developing IPTV technology, including Microsoft, Cisco, Siemena, Samsung, Motorola, Scientific Atlanta, and others. In short, IPTV is big business.

HDTV programming is just one of the possible components of an IPTV solution. The technology also promises much more robust VOD (video on demand) options, including HD on demand and movies on demand. The VOD concept can be expanded to essentially take the place of live television. In some VOD concepts, for example, the customer can freely choose which television shows to watch whenever he or she wants.

Fios and U-verse

Over the last couple of years, Verizon Wireless--yes, the phone company--has been rolling out a new service called Fios TV in select areas of the country. Using a new fiber-optic network that runs straight into subscribers' houses, Fios TV offers more than 300 standard-definition channels and around 25 HD channels. Since those channels are delivered via traditional cable TV technology--albeit over an optical connection--users can elect to skip the set-top box and connect their CableCard HDTVs or DVRs (like TiVo HD) directly to the Fios optical-network terminal installed in their homes. Fios also employs IPTV technology to deliver video on demand, pay-per-view, and programming-guide data, but these services require the set-top box. Prices are competitive with cable TV offerings, and include the same kind of "triple-play" service, combining phone, Internet, and TV.

Meanwhile, AT&T offers U-verse, its own fiber-optic TV service that is almost entirely IP-based. Currently the nation's largest implementation of IPTV, U-verse differs from Fios and cable in that only the channels the user wants to watch or record are delivered at any one time. This allows some interesting features, including the ability of a U-verse DVR to record up to four live channels at once (most cable and satellite DVRs are restricted to two), although currently only one can be high-def. The service also offers picture-in-picture and remote DVR programming over the internet or compatible mobile devices, and AT&T promises more future services such as a "whole-home DVR." One downside is that you'll definitely need to use the service's set-top box; CableCard devices aren't compatible. U-verse offers more than 300 standard-definition channels and around 25 HD channels, and pricing is competitive with cable. Access to the HD channels costs an extra $10 per month.

Other companies--including Microsoft--are making headway with Internet-based video delivery systems that boast multiple feeds on a single screen and a wealth of interactivity options.

Wondering where you can sign up? Well, don't crack your wallet just yet. Verizon's Fios TV is only available in select areas of the country, and the rollout is on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. U-verse is adding also cities all the time, but currently availability is even more restricted than Fios. The rollout of other large-scale IPTV services will also be local rather than national.

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