When it comes to DIRECTV’s move away from its original broadcast technology, I’m reminded of a well-known phrase made popular by The Grateful Dead: what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Many of DIRECTV’s local standard definition channels are gone now. As well they should be, I’ll say. We first heard in early 2016 that the MPEG-2 technology used on those channels would be taken offline by 2019. Obviously that didn’t happen. But will it, ever?
Understanding DIRECTV broadcast technology
When DIRECTV’s first satellites started broadcasting to the public in 1994, their technology was totally cutting edge. DIRECTV’s channels used the MPEG-2 standard for video compression, which meant that standard definition could fit into a 1Mbps connection. At the time this was amazing. It was the same technology used in DVDs a few years later. For the ’90s this was as good as it gets. This is the technology that DIRECTV is trying hard to get rid of now.
Why? Because in the 2000s, they moved to what was internally called “A3,” DIRECTV’s implementation of the then-new MPEG-4 compression scheme. This is the same system that was used for Blu-ray discs, back when people cared about those.
To be honest, most other digital video, like what you get from YouTube and Netflix, uses much more advanced methods than A3. Google’s VP9 compression scheme allows for passable 4K in as little as 20Mbps. In contrast, high-quality HD using DIRECTV’s system requires almost 12Mbps. So you can see that compression technology has come a long way. To do something similar in 4K with DIRECTV’s original technology would require 120Mbps or more.
Why the push to change?
The encoding equipment used for DIRECTV’s standard definition channels is harder to find now, and getting more expensive. For the most part, customers aren’t interested in standard definition, and using more efficient schemes like A3 can help make better use of satellite capacity.
What’s holding them back is the technology used by some prominent companies like airlines. Companies like JetBlue have long-term contracts to keep DIRECTV on their planes. In order to get stable signals, they rely on DIRECTV’s 101 satellite and the relatively low bitrate of standard definition signals. This, combined with the lower frequencies used for broadcasting from the 101 satellite, make for more reliability when you’re talking about a plane going 500 miles an hour.
How could we get more HD on 101?
As time goes on, DIRECTV will either transition their SD programming to A3 compression or turn it off completely. Either of those steps would require them to make sure that all customers — on land, sea, and in the air — have HD-capable receivers. Since DIRECTV sold the last SD receiver about 4 years ago that’s not a big burden. At least it isn’t, now.
With more space on the 101 satellite, more HD programming could be added. This would benefit customers everywhere since signals from that satellite are more resistant to rain fade. It would also mean that customers with RV and marine systems would get more HD.
It’s hard to know at this point what the company’s plans are, but I can tell you that if nothing else, it’s technically possible. And that’s a good first step.