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EchoStar Slings Overseas

EchoStar Corp. LLC (Nasdaq: SATS)'s set-top box strategy continues to take flight overseas with word that Charlie Ergen's tech spinoff has landed a deal to develop a "SlingLoaded" DVR for Freesat, a digital satellite TV service owned by UK broadcasters BBC and ITV.

EchoStar spokesman Marc Lumpkin confirmed via email that Freesat referenced the vendor as "a future Freesat partner" at its awards event in London on June 30, and that EchoStar does plan to develop an integrated SlingLoaded box that will allow users to send their paid TV content to PCs and other mobile devices with the aid of a broadband connection.

Freesat reportedly plans to start selling the new EchoStar-made device by the end of 2010 as a "freesat+" box, but Lumpkin said neither company involved has disclosed a firm launch date or any expected product pricing.

Freesat doesn't charge a monthly subscription for a lineup of about 140 digital channels, but customers do pay up front for the box, the satellite dish, and the installation. Some Freesat receivers also have access to the BBC iPlayer, a service that allows viewers to catch up on a week's worth of radio and TV shows.

Humax Co. Ltd. , Sony Corp. (NYSE: SNE), LG Electronics Inc. (London: LGLD; Korea: 6657.KS) , and Panasonic Corp. (NYSE: PC) are among Freesat's listed manufacturing partners, but the added option of EchoStar and its Sling technology could help it differentiate from competitors such as Freeview, which uses digital terrestrial television signals and also counts the BBC and ITV among its backers. Freesat is also bringing in EchoStar as Virgin Media Inc. (Nasdaq: VMED), the UK's largest cable MSO, pursues a next-gen video platform powered by TiVo Inc. (Nasdaq: TIVO) services and software. (See Virgin Presses 'Play' on TiVo.)

The Freesat deal is the first for EchoStar since the company started going after the European market with vigor in March 2009. (See EchoStar Jumps the Pond .)

Light Reading Cable reported in May that Unitymedia GmbH , Germany's second-largest cable operator, had inked a deal to deploy EchoStar boxes. The MSO and EchoStar have yet to confirm it, but sources have said the operator intends to start off with an HD-DVR from EchoStar that isn't pre-loaded with Sling. (See EchoStar Gains Foothold at Unitymedia.)

However, EchoStar's long-term involvement with Unitymedia is questionable after the MSO was snapped up by John Malone's Liberty Media Corp. (NYSE: LMC), which may have different ideas when it comes to set-top strategies for its Liberty Global Inc. (Nasdaq: LBTY) cable unit. In May, Liberty Global announced a handful of vendor partners for an ambitious IP multimedia gateway project. (See Liberty Global Reveals IP Gateway Partners.)

Still, the deal with Freesat and the purported one with Unitymedia shows that EchoStar's international strategy is starting to gain traction.

EchoStar's off to a slower start in the US, where its corporate cousin, Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH), competes with the same cable operators that EchoStar's trying to sell to. However, EchoStar is believed to be in the running at CableOne as the MSO develops an advanced set-top platform. (See Cable ONE Sizes Up EchoStar, TiVo Set-Tops.)

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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