New C-Cube Chip Aims at Digital Boxes

With eyes on the potential of the advanced set-top box market, C-Cube Microsystems Inc. has launched the "AViA-9600," a fourth-generation "system on a chip" that can support cable, digital-terrestrial or satellite-based broadband infrastructures.

According to C-Cube, its new silicon-which will be available in sample quantities in October-will help set-top-box vendors to develop common platforms that are not dependent on specific broadband networks.

C-Cube believes supporting a number of platforms will help it to carve out a piece of a booming digital set-top business. According to C-Cube research, that market will grow from 20 million units worldwide this year to about 60 million in 2003, with direct-broadcast satellite and cable getting the lion's share.

"We're excited about the growth of the market," said Edward Silva, senior manager of product marketing for C-Cube's broadband-networks division.

C-Cube's manufacturing partners include Sony Corp., Pace Micro Technology plc, Philips Consumer Electronics Co. and Motorola Broadband Communications Sector.

Meanwhile, a number of top-tier service providers-including BellSouth Corp., Telewest Communications plc, NTL Inc., United Pan-Europe Communications N.V. (UPC) and SkyPerfecTV-also employ C-Cube technology.

The company sees an opportunity to have its silicon support a number of nascent but burgeoning set-top-box applications that will potentially catch the attention of consumers who troll retail stores for the latest consumer-electronics devices.

"The AViA-9600 will address a number of key trends that we believe will drive the volume of the digital set-top market and will make that equipment more appealing to the consumer," Silva said.

He added that those trends include time shifting-which allows users to control live video with pause, fast-forward and rewind functions-as well as home-networking and advanced graphics capabilities.

"Our chip supports all three of those main market trends," he said.

To support those features, the AViA-9600 houses five processing units embedded in the chip: a host central-processing unit, an audio and video decoder, an audio digital-signal processor and a graphics processor for MPEG (Moving Picture Expert Group) decoding.

Those elements are critical because the silicon must be able to handle a number of different functions on the fly, Silva said, adding, "In our case, the AViA-9600 contains separate processing units that take care of those housekeeping functions" on the set-top.

The chip also contains an integrated 150-megahertz RISC (reduced-instruction-set computer) CPU to host and support applications such as time-shifting and advanced graphics.

While 150 MHz might not seem that fast, it's quick enough to address a large segment of the set-top box market, Silva said.

"We are working in applications that are very high-end that require 300-MHz CPUs," he added, noting that the AViA-9600 is flexible enough to work in master and slave modes if a broadband architecture requires internal or external CPUs.

Set-tops "only need one bank of memory for this chip. At 150 MHz, you're talking 20-gigabit-per-second bandwidth to enable the graphics-intensive applications that the set-top has to handle," he said.

On the networking front, C-Cube's new chip provides both Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 1394 "fire wire" and USB (universal-serial-bus) controllers to connect to digital devices such as camcorders, external hard drives, digital televisions and printers.

To handle electronic-commerce applications, the AViA-9600 also supports up to two TV smart cards-one for conditional access, the other for bankcards-which are growing in popularity in Europe.

Following sample production in October, C-Cube said, the AViA-9600 will hit volume production in the first quarter of 2001. Each chip will cost less than $22 in large quantities, the company added.

C-Cube's new chip is already gaining some international ground. Sichuan Changhong Electronics Group Corp., China's largest producer of televisions, has signed on to use the AViA-9600 and invested $500 million to develop and deploy set-tops for China-based cable operators.