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AFN’s HD transition still not in focus amid budget constraints

WIESBADEN, Germany — When AFN launched its sports channel in high definition last year, earlier than anticipated, many viewers expected an array of HD channels to follow.

But budget constraints could delay introduction of additional HD channels for at least two years. AFN’s parent organization, Defense Media Activity, says the current target date for full HD rollout is 2015-2017.

But even that date is uncertain.

“(T)his project could easily be required to slip,” said AFN Broadcast Center spokesman Larry Sichter.

Cal Miller, DMA’s chief of broadcast operations, said his department has lost 25 percent of its budget in recent years.

“That’s the kind of thing that we’re looking at, the uncertainty of where we live in the fiscal world today,” he said.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of a larger HD menu, more than 8,400 AFN viewers worldwide have bought HD-ready decoders over the past two fiscal years.

“So we spend 400 bucks on a box that won’t benefit us anymore than the older, cheaper boxes that were offered?” one commenter on AFN’s Facebook page asked.

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“Beginning to feel a little ripped off spending almost $400.00 for a decoder for only one channel of HD and SD channels with Sub VHS quality,” another person wrote.

Although the newest decoder models will be required at some point before the HD transformation is complete, DMA officials said they’re not necessary to enjoy AFN programming now.

However, there may be few alternatives: Cisco, the only company contracted to make the decoders for AFN, discontinued the old models three years ago and now only makes the HD model, which at $369 costs $90 more than the old one.

“AAFES will not return to selling old technology, but our resourceful servicemembers may find older SD receivers by canvassing the classifieds or via for sale ads,” said Col. Robyn Chumley, director of DMA’s broadcasting component.

TKS Cable provides AFN TV services at no cost to government housing, billets and dorms in Germany, according to AFN-Europe operations manager George Smith. However, “no one from on-base housing (in Germany) can currently get AFN Sports HD, just standard AFN Sports,” Smith said.

That’s because upgrades such as special decoders, greater bandwidth and an HD set top box at each user’s TV are required, Miller said. Until TKS determines how to recover those costs, determine the process, install necessary infrastructure and deliver the set top boxes to the customers, HD will not be available at on-base housing, Miller said.

Another challenge is that, while AFN’s HD channel are free, commercially operated cable systems charge subscription fees to access HD. For example, Allied Telesis customers at Yokota Air Base in Japan were sent an email in October offering them a chance to view the Sports HD channel at no cost for two months. Those who wanted to continue watching HD sports, would be billed $4.95 monthly starting in December, the email read. DMA officials say they are working with cable operators to resolve that issue.

Several cable operators in the Pacific, as well as TKS in Europe, deliver AFN TV in standard definition to military installations at no cost or for the basic cable subscription fee, Miller said.

“Cable operators normally charge additional subscription fees for their commercial channels in the HD tier (premium services), but DMA is asking them to deliver AFN HD for no more than the price of the HD set top box which they would likely lease to the customer,” Miller wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. He said that although it’s not final, it is the process DMA is requesting and expecting the cable operators to adopt.

“We have yet to crack that code, but we continue to work it,” Chumley said.

Off-base residents who have the HD decoder and their own satellites are able to receive AFN Sports HD.

According to Chris Hopwood, director of engineering at DMA, more than $10 million has already been spent on converting AFN television to HD. The cost of conversion is expected to reach about $80 million.

AFN’s entire infrastructure needs to be upgraded to be able to support HD channels, DMA officials said, adding that they were able to start with the AFN Sports HD channel because it was initially a secondary stream attached to AFN’s transmission line, meaning that the signal goes in and out without touching AFN’s infrastructure.

“There’s absolutely no way, without changing infrastructure, at this point that we can add additional capacity to the HD lineup,” Hopwood said.

Miller joked that in the worst-case scenario, watching HD programming might not be the biggest worry.

“If sequestration hits, then they’ll be listening to radio,” said Miller.

pattonm@estripes.osd.mil

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