US pay TV set-top box (STB) manufacturer, Echostar is to launch its first STB for the free-to-air (FTA) DTH retail market. Echostar will utilise place-shifting technology from 2007 acquisition Sling Media to differentiate its digital video recorder (DVR) STB from others available for use with the UK's Freesat FTA DTH platform.
Since its spin-off from Dish Network in December 2007 Echostar has still been dependent on the US pay DTH TV operator, with 85% of its $6.1b revenue accrued over 2007 to 2009 attributed to Dish. Echostar remains Dish's exclusive STB supplier but this sizable revenue comes at the cost of a fixed margin, leaving Echostar dependent on deals with other operators for profitability.
Echostar has had mixed fortunes in expanding its pay TV customer base. US operators, other than Dish, have been cautious of working with a technology vendor so closely linked with a competitor but Echostar has found some success in South America and Europe. Echostar supplies STBs to Dish Mexico, which it part owns, and to Telefonica's pan-South American DTH operation. Germany's Unity Media recently announced a deal to deploy non-DVR HD STBs from Echostar across its cable network.
Despite first launching a Sling enabled STB in January 2009, this deal with Freesat will be the first deployment of the device outside of Dish, as well as Echostar's first STB for the FTA DTH retail market. Not having to deal with operator concern over working with a competitor may make entry into the retail market easier for Echostar than winning new pay TV clients. Sling Media provides Echostar with a genuine differentiator in the retail STB space, giving viewers the ability to stream live and recorded content to any connected device, although the major advantage is likely to show in iPhone, Android and Blackberry (among others) mobile phones. Given that many FTA broadcasters' online catch-up services are not yet widely available on mobile platforms Sling technology could prove a compelling proposition. If Sling-enabled STBs were to take off in the FTA space, it may also encourage pay TV operators to deploy the technology.