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A Few Bits

February 26, 2007

The Weather Channel has announced a timetable for moving to high-definition (1080i). This will be phased in starting this fall and finishing up in mid-2008.

Initially DirecTV will carry the Weather Channel HD programming. New high-capacity satellites are being launched this year capable of carrying over 100 high-definition national channels.

Cable companies will pick up the HD version as they are capable (the HD version will be simulcast with a standard definition version). New "Weather STAR" (Satellite Transponder Addressable Receiver) equipment must be installed at cable head-ends for this to work (it matches the right radar and data to the local market).

One of the challenges is switching all the graphics over to HD. SD field reporting cameras will eventually all be switched over to HD. Last August I reported that the Weather Channel had started using Panasonic AG-HVX200 HD cameras for general coverage and for its shows Evening Edition, Storm Stories, and Forecast Earth. This was in anticipation of the switch-over to HD, so that reruns and file footage can be used to good advantage in the future.

The future is now soon.

Sony has announced more details of a new BDP-S300 Blu-ray Disc player set for release early this summer. The price will be $599, $400 less than the initial price for Sony's BDP-S1.

The new smaller player will have the same capabilities as that first player, including 1080p output, but will also be able to play CDs (a no-brainer).

Sony showed two new "future" Blu-ray players at CES 2007 last month without releasing any specifications. One presumes the other new player will be HDMI 1.3 equipped, and a little pricier.

We're still waiting for the NTIA to publish final rules for the government's digital-to-analog converter box subsidy program. This will cover eligibility rules as well as technical specifications for the boxes. They first said the rules would be out by the end of 2006 (which even then would have been very late).

They're far behind the 8-ball on this. The final rules need to be published before they can issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) from companies seeking to establish and run the coupon program.

NTIA said the RFP would be out by January 26. Didn't happen.

Once the RFP is finally released, interested companies then need time to prepare their proposals, after which NTIA will evaluate the bids and award a contract. Summer by then?

The winning contractor(s) then needs to set up the coupon distribution and redemption system, and bring all participating retailers' systems up to speed by January 1, 2008.

Manufacturers of the boxes need time to finish designs which comply with the specifications and then ramp up production. Adequate supplies of boxes need to be on retailers shelves by the end of this year.

It is important to remember that the end-of year holiday shopping season is extremely hectic for retailers, and something that they start planning for at least six months in advance. It will be difficult to incorporate new computer tracking and reporting systems during that period.

One might guess that the NTIA officials in charge of this program are unaware of this, except that these concerns were expressed during the proposed rule comment period.

When I first discovered that Congress had decided to give responsibility for this program to NTIA instead of the FCC, I noted that NTIA had neither the expertise nor the resources to implement something like this. Apparently neither do they have high regard for the end-of-the-year deadline Congress imposed.

It's interesting that they have handed off the contracting duties to an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, also part of the Department of Commerce).

So will any of us be able to obtain a subsidy coupon during the opening days of 2008, then run down to our local Best Buy or Radio Shack and pick up a converter box?

We shall see.