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Set-top tuner on a chip does digital and analog

Nov 5, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Radio-frequency silicon and systems company Microtune plans to make a gutsy move in an uncertain market when it makes available early next year a new silicon chip designed for high-performance set-top boxes. The MT2111 will be marketed to manufacturers that are developing interactive next-generation set-top boxes.
That may be a tough sell, considering the current sentiment in the cable industry regarding next-generation boxes. With nearly 20 million legacy boxes in the field, according to Phoenix research firm Kinetic Strategies, cable operators have been focused on maximizing the potential of those boxes rather than rolling out new ones.
However, Microtune is optimistic that the acquisition of DirecTV by EchoStar as well as the current economic slowdown will drive cable operators forward in deploying advanced set-tops. The market for such boxes has stalled over the past year, but the combined satellite company could be a stronger competitor, prompting the cable industry to introduce applications that run on advanced boxes, said Jim Fontaine, chief strategy officer for Microtune.
In addition, home entertainment and television are usually the last items people cut from their budgets during a recession, indicating that spending on such products could remain strong despite the current downturn, Mr. Fontaine said.
When advanced set-top boxes do finally arrive en masse in the marketplace, it will be nice to have tuners designed specifically for them, said Michael Harris, analyst with Kinetic Strategies. However, the issue is when that will happen, since most multiple system operators have scaled back their plans to roll out those boxes. “The big question is what services from MSOs will justify investing in a new box. It could be [personal video recorder] functionality [or] home networking,” he said.
The market for advanced set-top boxes is moving faster internationally than in the United States, and it makes sense to target that market with such a specialized tuner, said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Bethesda, Md., research firm. “If it does bring the price down and add capability to the box, I think the [U.S.] cable operator will look at it and consider it,” he said.
Tuners are used in a wide array of consumer electronics devices, and their function is to select the desired channel from the whole spectrum of available channels, essentially tuning in what you want and tuning out what you don’t want. The new Microtune tuner is optimized for high-performance set-tops that need a chip that can handle a combined digital and analog cable system and that is more compact than most tuners on the market today.
“The main issue is to support analog and digital, because many cable systems are both analog and digital,” Mr. Fontaine said. The tuners currently used in boxes serving those systems are usually “discreet tuners,” made with hundreds of small chips but not entirely out of silicon.
The all-silicon technology permits a smaller size and necessitates only one chip. Since today’s set-tops require multiple tuners to handle different functions-modems, video and PVR functionality, for instance-space becomes an issue. “Silicon puts all the parts into a single chip,” Mr. Fontaine said. “Size, cost come down. Power comes down.
“Rather than having all the little components on a board, we put that into a chip. Fewer components translate into greater reliability, since there are fewer parts that could fail.
Most set-top box tuners today are about the size of a dollar bill and half an inch thick, Mr. Fontaine said. The MT2111 is a half-inch by a half-inch when connected in a set-top box. It operates on 1.5 watts of power, compared with about 2 watts for most current tuners. The cost for the MT2111 is $9 per unit for 10,000 units, which compares with about $15 per unit for 10,000 units from the competitors, Mr. Fontaine said.
The product will be available for “sampling” in the first quarter of 2002 and should take about nine to 12 months to integrate into deployed boxes. As cable operators began to expand the capabilities of the current boxes, demand will increase for the next-generation boxes within the next year or so, predicted Jim Stroud, analyst at The Carmel Group in Carmel, Calif.