ESPN, Motorola Lay Groundwork for 1080p/60 and Full-Res 3D Services

Earlier this year, ESPN completed a test during a Los Angeles Lakers home game to find out whether the future of 2D sports coverage is 1080p/60 instead of 720p/60. And now we know why. Last summer, ESPN began a transition to a Motorola video-distribution system that will move all ESPN and ESPN2 programming to MPEG-4 delivery to cable and satellite distributors. And, while there is still plenty of work to be done to make 1080p/60 a reality, the groundwork has been laid.

“Motorola’s MPEG-4 HD distribution system will allow us to consolidate our distribution while efficiently delivering the highest-quality 1080p/60 HD sports programming,” says Chuck Pagano, EVP, technology, for ESPN. “This enables us to future-proof for delivery of services as well as providing our affiliates the option of lower-resolution services to support existing video-infrastructure systems.”

The importance of MPEG-4 as a backbone compression format for delivery of next-generation TV services cannot be overstated. MPEG-4 can deliver twice the amount of video and audio content as an MPEG-2 signal using the same amount of bandwidth. So, whereas MPEG-2 delivery is limited to 720p or 1080i, MPEG-4 can deliver 1080p or full-resolution 3D content.

The challenge, however, is that existing cable set-top boxes and over-the-air DTV receivers are based on MPEG-2. So the transition to MPEG-4–based services will be very similar to the transition to HD. In that transition, cable operators stopped purchasing SD-only set-top boxes, added HD boxes, and charged an additional subscription and set-top–box fee. As consumers transitioned to HD, their previous SD box would find its way into a home that had made the leap from analog cable to digital services. That handoff allowed the cable operator to maximize the return on its investment in set-top boxes.

The system ESPN is using features the SE-6601A MPEG-4 encoder on the frontend. The cable operator or satellite provider uses the Motorola DSR-6100 integrated receiver/decoder (IRD), which can turn MPEG-4 HD signals into MPEG-2 HD signals for delivery to legacy set-top boxes.

Mark Schaffer, director of business management for the Networked Video Solutions Group, Motorola Mobility, says one of the strengths of the system is that the DSR-6100 IRD can serve the needs of every ESPN affiliate.

“Besides providing high-quality MPEG-4 encodes,” he says, “the DSR-6100 can transcode to MPEG-2–based HD and SD as well as composite video.”

Although adding 1080p/60 and 3D to the mix might seem to make the transmission paths more complicated, the Motorola IRD actually makes things easier. When 1080p services arrive, it offers the potential to deliver a single 3D signal that is 1080p/60 in both the left and right eye and then rely on the IRD to take, for example, the left eye for the 2D 1080p/60 feed. That signal can also be converted to 720p/60, SD, and other formats that may be in consumer homes, because the DSR-6100 uses the in-band active-format descriptor (AFD) to translate input HD services to an appropriate SD service with proper aspect ratio. This also allows migration to HD-only distribution strategies.

“ESPN’s early commitment to all MPEG-4 HD distribution is a pioneering step toward the realization of a full-resolution 2D- or 3D-video delivery ecosystem,” says Joe Cozzolino, SVP/GM, network infrastructure, Motorola Mobility. “This is a revolutionary yet practical approach for ESPN to maintain support for existing cable delivery systems while enabling premium 1080p/60 HD or 3D TV consumer experiences in the home.”

Whether consumers will embrace 1080p/60 or full-resolution 3D remains to be seen, but the vast majority of consumer HD sets sold today are 1080p-capable, and it is expected that 30 million 3D-capable sets will be in the marketplace by 2014. That creates not only a market opportunity but, in an age when HD content can be delivered to HDTV sets via Internet-enabled TVs, an important differentiation factor for cable networks battling for eyeballs.

“There used to be a race among operators to see who could have the most HD, and things are a bit saturated in HD,” says Schaffer. “The next step is, how do programmers provision their [affiliate partners] to be competitive on the next level? They will need a higher-definition experience compared to the services that are on over-the-top devices. So the programmer needs to raise the bar and then leave it up to the affiliates to figure out the quality level.”