Bird watch: EchoStar's been busy

Satellite TV sister firms EchoStar Satellite Services and Dish Network have had a busy couple of weeks. ESS, which provides wholesale TV and video transport and gear to telcos to support their IPTV services, headed to TelcoTV 2009 last week, just as Dish reported progress gaining TV subscribers. It announced new telco customers, as well as a partnership with Latens. Dish also reportedly dropped hints that it is developing a TV app store.

The companies just announced that long-time leader Charlie Ergen, whose name ranks in the same company as media industry titans like John Malone, Brian Roberts and Rupert Murdoch, has handed off president and CEO responsibilities to veteran EchoStar executive Michael Dugan. Ergen will remain chairman of both Dish Network and ESS.

Around this time last year, Dish was perceived to have taken a major blow when AT&T chose DirecTV over Dish as its exclusive satellite TV resale partner. That decision left Dish out of the resale action of the nation's three largest telcos, though Dish continued to hold resale deals with several smaller telcos.

Last week, Dish showed more signs that it is leaving those perceptions behind, posting customer additions of 241,000, plus a profit for the third quarter. Those new customer additions were much higher than those posted by DirecTV for the same quarter (136,000).

Meanwhile, at TelcoTV 2009, ESS announced that its ViP-TV wholesale platform had been chosen by three more rural telcos: North Penn Telephone Company of Prattsburgh, N.Y.; CT Communications Network of Urbana, Ohio; and TCT West of Basin, Wyo.

"We move their headend costs into our platform, and make it an operational expense for them, rather than a capital expense," said Vern Smith, senior vice president of satellite services for EchoStar. "This gives them a lot more flexibility, and we think it makes IPTV a slam dunk for these guys. Otherwise, they spend all this money to buy stuff and then have nightmares about what works and what doesn't work."

Smith added that EchoStar has seen greater success for its ViP offering since creating an equipment exchange program for telcos that had been customers of the similar SES Americom satellite-based wholesale offering called IP-Prime. SES Americom announced its exit from the market last fall, which re-stocked the market pond with more small carrier customers for competitors like EchoStar who could provide jilted IP-Prime customers with a smooth exit path.

"What happened with IP-Prime was actually a good thing for the industry because it made companies look at their options, and if anything, it scared them and convinced them that they needed to get going on figuring out how to provide TV services and who they should partner with to do that," Smith said.

As for the partnership with Latens, a middleware and conditional access system vendor, the move was led by EchoStar's European unit, and the benefits in increased market reach are mutual.

Jeff Hale, national accounts manager for EchoStar, said the partnership helps EchoStar adapt its set-top box offerings to the different challenges of a European IPTV market that is far more mature than the U.S. market. EchoStar Europe has been targeting IPTV providers in Europe for only a short time, since announcing an initial product foray last spring at the IPTV World Forum event.

Hale said that EchoStar's HDX-600 STB, a hybrid DVR unit, is being integrated with Latens' card-less conditional access system and ECO middleware to support authorization-based TV and video-on-demand services. "Eventually, we hope to bring this box to the U.S. as a home receiver," he said. EchoStar and Latens showed off the integrated approach at TelcoTV 2009.

Latens, for its part, gains an important U.S. partner in EchoStar, said Phil Cardy, director of product marketing at Latens, which is based in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and already has a U.S. office in Atlanta. "EchoStar has been very keen about getting into Europe, and we can leverage them as we get more into North American markets," Cardy said. He added that the integration with the HDX-600 addresses the market evolution of telco and cable TV companies chasing the same goal-hybrid content strategies. The hybridization trend heightens the need for effective conditional access.

The concept of the app store for Dish, first reported by Light Reading's Cable Digital News last week, is intriguing. Telcos and other service providers have debated the benefits of setting up application storefronts to support multiple services since Apple's iTunes and iPhone app store efforts met with such huge success. To some degree, major wireless carriers have already pursued the concept, but the burgeoning TV app environment would seem to offer another opportunity to build on that concept. If Dish moves ahead on the idea, it would offer an early testing ground for whether or not the idea is viable in the U.S. TV services market.

For more:
- Reuters has this story on Ergen
- LR CDN has this post on the app store
- Here's the EchoStar-Latens press release (pdf)

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