Cable’s retail strategy, which promises reduced capital outflows (less inventory) and increased revenue (another sales channel and added services on advanced gear), stands on a foundation of silicon. It’s easy to take efficiency gains at the chip level for granted. After all, the number of transistors per integrated circuit (IC) is supposed to double every couple of years, right? Moore’s Law notwithstanding, it takes live RF engineers with special design skills to pull off the kind of integration and enhancements that are appearing on chips destined for both OpenCable set-tops and cable-ready digital TV sets. “It’s 90 percent intuition,” says Jay Kirchoff, director of marketing for cable modems at Broadcom. “You can’t read a textbook and learn how to do it.” “Not trivial” is how Jon Koval, vice president and general manager of broadband communications at Microtune, describes engineering that lies behind the dual-conversion, single-chip MicroTuner MT2111. New opportunities Chip vendors are a fast-paced crowd. They run with technology curves, against stiff competition and toward fresh opportunities. Less than a week after the FCC approved the famous accord between the cable and consumer electronics industries, for instance, Microtune announced a silicon-based, ‘Plug and Play’ tuner-receiver reference design, the MT2111-PNP-RD. Microtune said the design would give not only TV manufacturers, but also integrated tuner demodulator (ITD), plasma display panel (PDP) and liquid crystal display (LCD) suppliers a way to add cable compatibility to their digital TV products. A month later, Microtune announced that Samsung Electro-Mechanics had deployed the MT2111 in Samsung’s ITD. At the same time, Broadcom announced a multituner solution involving the newly unveiled BCM3405, a single-chip, low noise amplifier that supports up to five RF signals (three in channel, one out-of-band, one bypass). Also new is the BCM3418, a silicon tuner that supports both analog NTSC/PAL and digital quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) signals. “The discrete solutions have been expensive, bulky and require a bit of magic to lay out to make the performance requirements,” Kirchoff says. “By putting it all on one single piece of silicon, we solve a lot of these issues for our customers.” More features, less cost This integration impacts such functionality as picture-in-picture (PIP), which currently entails two separate tuners. “This is going to cut the cost by—what one customer has told us—40 percent,” Kirchoff says. And demand may rise to meet this technology, as the desire for entertainment devices that can multitask grows. Some manufacturers agree. “We have been watching the progress in multituner silicon for a while and definitely think the timing is right,” David Novak, vice president of marketing for Pace Micro Systems, says. As for Broadcom’s dual-chip solution, Kirchoff says products with both components could appear mid-next year. Keep an eye on Motorola, which has affirmed Broadcom’s role as primary supplier of chips to its standard and high-definition video set-tops through 2004. While pre-integrated solutions could help accelerate manufacturing cycles—an imperative in the consumer electronics arena—cost savings and added features are the lead talking points. “We’re always seeking…where it makes sense, heightened levels of integration and functionality,” Microtune’s Koval says, citing first or second level intermediate
frequency (IF) filters, balun filters, out-of-band tuners or active splitters, as examples. The point is not so much to reduce the bill of materials for silicon, he says, “as it is to achieve reduced solution costs for the customer.” Real estate Another implication of ongoing integration is what InStat/MDR Senior Analyst Mike Paxton calls the “decreasing need for real estate on the mother board.” That trend dovetails with Paxton’s analysis of the set-top market as diverging along two paths: toward basic processing and tuning, on the one hand; and interactive, multifunctionality, on the other. Space matters in both the $35 all-digital “set-top” and the high-end media router or gateway. It’s also a factor when you’re looking, as is Microtune, at flat panel displays, an “exciting market” where “silicon adds measurably to value, in terms of form, fit and function,” Koval says. —Jonathan Tombes Video phones make periodic visits to public consciousness, only to be relegated to the forgotten bin because of high cost and laughable quality. Viseon and WorldGate Communications say that things will change this time around.
Though plans are being kept relatively quiet, the two companies are busily preparing their gear and courting operators. WorldGate has changed its main offering from its interactive system to Ojo, a personal video phone. Chairman and CEO Hal Krisbergh says that steep declines in processing and memory costs and a powerful new video compression algorithm, H.264, is making high-quality video at radically lower costs possible. The key is that more powerful computing enables the creation of smaller pixels, which can be compressed more efficiently. This allows images approaching the broadcast level of 30 frames per second to be compressed into the 256 kbps upstream bandwidth operators allot to users. Krisbergh expects prototype units soon and volume production next summer. Trials will be held by the end of the year. If necessary, WorldGate will help operators secure the managed WAN bandwidth services, Krisbergh says. Migrating to SIP The other player, Viseon, has its VisiFone in lab or regional tests with the top ten MSOs, says CEO John Harris. The company’s roots are in video conferencing, so its products have so far used H.323, the multimedia conferencing standard. The world is moving to a newer standard—the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP)—and Viseon is following suit. SIP-based products are expected in the next several weeks, Harris says. The new products will operate with as little as 128 kbps of upstream bandwidth, though 256 kbps is recommended. Harris, who says VisiFone likely will enter a PacketCable test wave toward the middle of next year, perceives videophones as a glue for other services. “A video-enabled SIP telephone just opens up reasons for people to buy VoIP,” he says. —Carl Weinschenk