Microtune, nCUBE Team on VOD Chip

Microtune Inc. and nCUBE Corp. have joined forces to offer a lower-cost silicon chip solution for cable upconverters that will help operators lower video-on-demand and network personal video recorder deployment costs.

Microtune's VideoCaster chipsets and VideoCaster MicroModules will reduce four upconverter racks into one unit, which will be integrated into nCUBE's VOD servers.

The new design reduces capital costs, conserves headend real estate and improves operators' fault tolerance, said Microtune chief strategy officer Jim Fontaine.

"This dramatically reduces power and costs," he said.

Added nCUBE senior vice president of broadband strategy and product management Jay Schiller, "This revolutionizes the ability for nCUBE to bring what is normally an external box into our VOD solution."

In a typical cable system, operators need one upconverter for each analog channel. That hardware costs from $1,500 to $2,000 per unit.

Once digital cable arrived, operators were able to place 10 digital streams through a single upconverter. A 30-channel premium multiplex suite from Home Box Office, Showtime and Starz Encore Group LLC could be processed through three upconverters, rather than 30.

But the arrival of large-scale VOD places increased pressure on current upconverter silicon designs.

In a typical 10,000-subscriber digital VOD system — which requires 1,000 simultaneous streams to cover consumer-usage patterns — an operator would need 100 upconverters, effectively doubling the system's upconverter cost from its typical analog-and-digital offering.

Microtune's new product would require an operator to buy only 25 server-integrated upconverters to handle 1,000 simultaneous VOD streams.

Microtune's VideoCaster is comprised of three silicon germanium chips, which pack more transistors onto a single chip, delivering improved linearity and clearer signals while optimizing power consumption and costs. They took two years for the company to integrate, according to Fontaine.

"It was a real difficult challenge," he said.

Four chipsets are combined into Microtune's MT5000 MicroModule. That module supports four frequency agile outputs, each of which can be independently programmed.

The MicroModule reduces space by 90 percent and power by 40 percent, Microtune said. Fontaine said the product integrates into existing networks and is scalable.

The end result is an upconverter that can take on 40 streams for the same $1,500 to $2,000 price that current 10 stream upconverters handle at present, Fontaine said.

"Our goal is to get a 10 times reduction in cost over time," to $15 to $20 per stream, he said.


That cost savings could be critical as operators roll out more content on VOD servers and toy with network PVRs. Today's general formula for VOD is 10 percent simultaneous usage.

But if VOD or network PVR content becomes more popular, cable operators may have to rethink both the 10 percent rate of simultaneous usage and the amount of content stored on servers.

Servers from nCUBE can hold 200,000 hours of rolling buffered content and serve 34,000 users at once, Schiller said. The inclusion of RF upconversion in server technology is critical to reducing headend costs and space, he added.

Integrated upconversion is also a function of the conditional access system deployed by the operator, Schiller said.

At present, Scientific-Atlanta employs internal critical access, while Motorola Inc. uses pre-encrypted technology, Schiller said.

Because the Microtune-nCUBE venture includes integrated upconversion, operators that use S-A equipment would need to employ another conditional-access system if they used the Microtune-nCUBE integrated upconversion system.

Separately, Microtune released a new, OpenCable-compliant tuner — the MT 2111 —for the cable-modem market.

The company said the tuner, which costs $9 in quantities of 10,000 or more, and operates at 1.5 watts, can handle both digital and analog transmission and addresses the particular noise and distortion issues faced by U.S. cable operators.

"We have 60-percent market share in cable modems," Fontaine said, but the company hopes to crack the tuner market inside set-tops .

Currently, Motorola makes its own tuners, while Scientific-Atlanta buys tuners from Panasonic, Fontaine said.

The MT2111 is a single-ship tuner "that exceeds OpenCable performance requirements and keeps the power below 1.5 watts," Fontaine said. "That enables more channels with better picture and sound, and faster data transfers."

Fontaine said Microtune achieves those performance levels by using silicon germanium technology.

"U.S. systems have more severe technical requirements across key parameters like linearity, distortion, dynamic range and noise figure-analog," Fontaine said, thanks to Federal Communications Commission must-carry requirements and configurations in which digital and analog signals are packed closely together.

By lowering the power consumption below 1.5 watts, set-top manufacturers can lower cooling requirements, which increases operating efficiency and reliability.

Operators could use a series of MT2111 tuners to offer PVR functionality, Fontaine said.