EchoStar: We're Cable's Answer

EchoStar Technologies LLC plans to turn up the heat on its MSO strategy next week at Cable Connection-Fall events in Denver, proclaiming that its "SlingLoaded" set-tops can give cable MSOs an unfettered "TV Everywhere" platform right out of the blocks. (See Down in Denver? and Cable-Tec Expo '09: The Hot List .)

In EchoStar's summation, that means giving customers remote, "place-shifted" access to live television, what's stored on the local DVR, and the operator's menu of video-on-demand (VoD) content via PCs, smartphones, and any other broadband-connected device fitted with Sling's software. The company plans to spell that out in a bit more detail using an open letter, a manifesto of sorts to the MSO community, which, under the headline: "Is your 'TV Everywhere' strategy up in the clouds?," holds that its approach provides "not just a... collection of clips and episodes on a Website."

EchoStar, a set-top and technology unit that spun off from Dish Network LLC (Nasdaq: DISH) in 2008, introduced its tru2way cable box strategy in March, but is now playing up its TV Everywhere capabilities as some of the nation's largest MSOs continue to test out "authentication" systems that offer access to some movies and shows to PCs over broadband by using special portals or accessing the content directly from the programmer's Websites. (See EchoStar Slings Its First Tru2way Set-Top.)

Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), for example, is getting ready for the national debut of On Demand Online, offering video subs complementary access to a library of premium shows and movies as part of their regular cable TV subscriptions via their home PCs. The MSO's expected to expand those features and capabilities later, but EchoStar thinks its SlingLoaded set-tops can fulfill the broader vision right away. (See Cable Catchup and Comcast Nears 'TV Everywhere' Launch.)

"TV Everywhere is not about getting some of my TV channels or some content on some of my devices some of the time," asserts Michael Hawkey, EchoStar's VP of sales and marketing. "You don't want to stumble out of the gate; give them the whole experience."

He also contends that EchoStar can help MSOs solve tricky security and authentication issues because the place-shifting tech is baked into the cable box, which already knows if the customer is authorized to view HBO or Starz, for example. "That's a huge portion of TV Everywhere and SlingLoading. We've worked through a lot of hurdles on that," Hawkey says.

Tru2way box coming in Q1 2010
The first to deploy EchoStar's SlingLoaded technology will be corporate cousin Dish Network, which could start to offer the ViP 922, its satellite set-top receiver with Sling inside, by the end of this year.

As U.S. cable goes, the biggest hurdle EchoStar faces in terms of scoring MSO business isn't considered to be things like the underlying technology, its ability to provide customer support, or even the price on the box. Rather, it's good old-fashioned trust, because EchoStar, despite its separation from Dish Network, still answers to long-time cable rival Charlie Ergen.

But EchoStar's making the U.S. MSO rounds, trying to drum up support for its tru2way offering. Hawkey says EchoStar anticipates that its first SlingLoaded tru2way cable box will be ready for production by the first quarter of 2010.

Boxing up 'TV Everywhere'

However, it's already made some progress across the pond with a SlingLoaded product tailored for the European cable market, where MSOs don't face off with Dish. Hawkey says EchoStar has a field trial and a lab trial underway with two undisclosed European cable operators. (See EchoStar Jumps the Pond .)

As for EchoStar's U.S. cable ambitions, Hawkey thinks his company still has plenty of time to break through, noting that wannabes like Pace Micro Technology took a handful of years to even make a dent in the domestic cable market. "If I can do it in two or three years, I'm going to declare massive victory," he says.

But he admits that EchoStar's place-shifting technology, gained through its purchase of Sling Media Inc. in 2007 for $380 million, has helped the company to get beyond the front door of some MSOs. (See EchoStar to Buy Sling Media.)

"Everyone is looking at our products," Hawkey says. "But if I didn't have the Sling [technology], I don't think I would be making any headway."

In the meantime, he says MSOs have already purchased "hundreds" of standalone Slingboxes to help with field and installation trials, and to test out some potential billing models. Those devices may also help MSOs offer Sling capabilities to their embedded base of digital set-tops, but there's nothing formal that EchoStar's announced.

License to Sling
And EchoStar has other outlets in mind for its Sling technology. Hawkey confirmed that EchoStar still intends to license the core SlingLoaded tech to other set-top makers and consumer electronics companies, something the company first revealed back in July at The Independent Show, a conference tailored to smaller cable operators. (See EchoStar Puts Sling Out to License .)

Hawkey says a couple of licensing partners may reveal themselves, not at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, but "shortly thereafter." He won't say if those will involve retail CE brands or something more along the direct-to-MSO product route.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

Interested in learning more on this topic? Then come to TelcoTV 2009, the telecom industry’s premier event for the exploration of a comprehensive entertainment convergence strategy, to be staged in Orlando, Fla., November 10-12. For more information, or to register, click here.

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