Microtune Expands Into NIU Tuning Arena

Expanding beyond cable-modem tuning products, Microtune Inc. is expected today (July 9) to introduce a new tuning module for network-interface units (NIUs), home-based conduits that resemble a utility box and can channel voice, data and video services over cable networks.

The tuner, dubbed the MT4950, is part of a new class of RF (radio-frequency) subsystems that can handle both circuit-switched and voice-over-Internet protocol telephony traffic. The MT4950 comes integrated with the MicroStreamer MT1540, Microtune's latest amplifier.

The MT4950 will serve as the NIU's RF communications hub and spawn links from the cable drop to broadband-access equipment in the home such as cable-modems, set-tops and telephones. Microtune's new gear is also crafted to take in the entire cable signal, strip off the telephony portion and pass that signal to a home's existing phone network.

The MT4950 will lower the costs of home gateways, Microtune CTO John Norsworthy said.

Microtune will sell the MT4950 for $35 per unit in quantities of 10,000, although unit costs will drop for larger orders, he added. The equipment is expected to start production in the third quarter of 2001.

In the short term, the tuners will find their biggest opportunity in the circuit-switched realm, said Norsworthy. MSOs such as AT&T Broadband and Cox Communications Inc. have been aggressively exploring that area.

"The action today is in circuit-switched, but VoIP is flexible in nature and it's the future," he said.

Microtune doesn't manufacture NIUs, but will market the MT4950 to companies that do.

One "traditional NIU" manufacturer has already put in an order for the MT4950, said Norsworthy, but he wouldn't elaborate.

NIU vendors such as Tellabs Inc., Arris Interactive LLC and Com21 Inc. are among the most likely purchasers.

For its CABLESPAN line of cable-voice equipment, Tellabs develops its own NIU tuners and purchases them from a number of outside sources, a spokeswoman noted. She declined to be more specific, citing competitive concerns.

Tellabs entered the NIU market back in early February, when it inked a $181 million deal to acquire Future Networks Inc. Tellabs also offers a cable-modem-termination-system via a partnership with Riverstone Networks Inc.

Though some vendors make their own internal tuning units for NIUs, it can be an expensive proposition. Manufacturers must amortize the tuners' high engineering costs over the NIUs that they ship, Norsworthy said.

Microtune's ready-made NIU tuner will give original-equipment manufacturers a better return on investment than they'd see if they opted to customize their own tuners, he said.

"They don't have the same experience in RF engineering. That's our specialty," said Norsworthy.