Digital-to-analog (DTA) converters have been big news this year, and will continue to be in the next. Over-the-air viewers will need the popularly known TV converter (or government coupon) boxes for their analog TV sets after broadcasters nationwide go digital on Feb. 19, 2009. Cable operators will need DTA technology for any conversions to all-digital that they are planning. Over the summer, Pace Micro and Thomson confirmed that they had contracted with Comcast for undisclosed numbers of DTA converters. This week, Broadcom announced that its BCM3545 DTA system on a chip (SoC) is being used by manufacturers building these boxes for Comcast. Large and small scale Thomson VP North American Cable Pascal Portelli said that the Thomson deal with Comcast should come as no surprise. "The relationship between the two companies has already greatly expanded since mid-2007, when we signed a major supply agreement for eMTAs," he said. At the other end of the scale, Massillon Cable and TV Max in Houston are two small operators that are opting for all-digital, and for DTA devices from Evolution Digital. Among smaller operators, all-digital has been a topic of conversation for much of this year. Evolution President Brent Smith said his company is focusing simplicity and standards, both to keep costs down and to reach as wide a market as possible. Smith is aiming at self-installs by the individual subscriber. "We don’t think the operator should have to touch the box," he said. "The only thing that they’re doing is wanding them into the billing system and wanding them out." Cost, or lack thereof, is one of the DTA adapter’s main selling points. They are far cheaper than full-featured set-top boxes, in some cases by an order of magnitude. Price, of course, depends on volume. Comcast was able to use its volume to secure pricepoints at less than $35 each from Pace and Thomson. Thomson’s Portelli said his company could "leverage our large volumes worldwide with our components vendors." Other than component and manufacturing costs, licensing is a significant chunk of each box’s cost, Smith said. If you look at the bill of materials for this thing, you can quite easily see where the costs are," he said. "Just in licensing alone—for MPEG, for Dolby … that in itself is probably $7 to $9." Other pieces Meanwhile, other parts of the DTA puzzle are dropping into place nicely. The Comcast Media Center is now supporting DTA signaling for its HITS Quantum affiliates. "DTA devices are an essential step in the industry’s move toward an all-digital platform," said Gary Traver, CMC senior vice president and chief operating officer, in a statement. "The CMC is dedicated to making the transition to digital as smooth as possible for cable systems serving smaller markets." Motorola also has upgraded its scalable Digital Headend Systems to manage DTA adapters alongside existing set-tops. On the customer premises front, both Fobis and Universal Electronics are offering remotes that are DTA-compatible.
– Ron Hendrickson