Will DIRECTV upgrade to the next video compression standard?

The world’s changed a lot since 2006. The RAZR phone was king of the hill, the top song of the year was Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day,” and you definitely knew some guy with hair over his face who called himself “emo.” Luckily (at least for two of those facts) the world has moved on.

In 2006 DIRECTV introduced MPEG-4 video capability into its receivers and DVRs. At the time this was very advanced technology and was part of the then-new Blu-ray Disc standard. MPEG-4 meant better quality and lower bandwidth for the HD signals that were promised for later that year and beyond.

In 2017, DIRECTV still uses MPEG-4. In fact even their 4K broadcasts use it. In the years since, a number of more modern technologies have come out and they’re being used right now for Netflix 4K, YouTube 4K, and other providers as well. These new “codecs” (the term for the compression and decompression software) don’t necessarily promise better quality, but they can give you the same quality and take up less space. That’s really what it’s all about.

And yet, DIRECTV sticks to that MPEG-4 standard. Why?

First of all, millions and millions of receivers.
Netflix and YouTube don’t have to upgrade every single computer or device when they change their codecs. They can just upgrade their apps. There are going to be older devices that eventually get left out, but these tend to get turned off anyway due to people trading in their phones or getting new streaming boxes. DIRECTV, on the other hand, has tons of receivers out in the field and they would need to be changed out. DIRECTV, like other makers of cable and satellite boxes, uses chips that do all the work rather than software. This makes the boxes more reliable and cheaper at the same time, but it limits the ability to upgrade. Some of DIRECTV’s newest boxes can actually handle modern codecs, but that still leaves the matter of, well, pretty much every box made since 2006. Put it this way, DIRECTV is just now starting to aggressively phase out MPEG-2 technology, the previous generation, and they won’t even be done with that until 2019. So, you know, it’s going to take a while.

They don’t need to, not yet
I’m sure that there exists somewhere a document detailing DIRECTV’s plans to deal with the hundreds or thousands of 4K channels that could be coming. For now, though, DIRECTV has tons of satellite capacity. Literally tons. As in, they launched two of the heaviest satellites ever and they aren’t even using all of the capacity they have. There are whole sections of those birds that aren’t even lit up. And of course, there are only three live 4K channels in the world and DIRECTV already broadcasts all of them. So while it might be good futureproofing to look at improving compression, it’s not needed today like it is for streaming.

I do think that DIRECTV will move to something more modern when they have to. As I said the current generation boxes are very powerful and very capable, and in several years, there will be a lot more of them. Maybe at that time DIRECTV will look at doing some more advanced compression, but for now, it’s not needed.