Skip to main content

Tuning Up the Converter-Box Market

A small Carlsbad, Calif.-based company is seeking to capitalize on the digital television (DTV) transition by marketing low-cost tuner chips for the digital-to-analog converter boxes that will allow old analog TVs to keep working after analog broadcasts cease on Feb. 17, 2009.

Some 35 million converter boxes will be shipped this year and in 2009 to help consumers use their old analog sets to receive the downconverted digital signal.

MaxLinear, a venture-backed chip development firm with some 70 employees, is using this week's huge Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to unveil its new MxL5007T, a TV tuner chip.

Tuner cost is all-important for the digital converter boxes, says MaxLinear Director of Marketing Patrick Tierney. The $40 coupons that the government is issuing to subsidize the cost of the boxes won't cover their full retail price, but Tierney thinks the manufacturer with a reliable product that comes closest to that price will get the lion's share of the market.

The federal government has allocated $1.5 billion to the project, enough for 33.5 million coupons, but some consumers might buy the boxes without a subsidy to extend the life of spare TV sets.

The MaxLinear chip is designed to exceed A/74 receiver performance guidelines standards set by the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). It also adheres to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) receiver specifications while keeping its external bill of materials (BOM) cost to a minimum.

The company already provides ISDB-T tuner chips to cellphones in Japan to enable mobile TV reception.

“We view this as very price-sensitive market, so we decided to optimize it in terms of cost,” says Tierney. “But there is no compromise in terms of meeting the NTIA requirements.”

Meeting the A/74 guidelines is not easy, and MaxLinear didn't meet the grade with its first-generation tuner. “The hardest thing in A/74 is the taboo channel requirements, which is pulling out a weak desired signal from strong interferers [from adjacent channels to up to 15 channels away],” says Tierney.

MaxLinear won't unveil exact chip pricing but Tierney says the chip's design saves at least 40 cents per chip in BOM costs by eliminating external filters and amplifiers.

MaxLinear will have MxL5007T engineering samples and evaluation kits available in February 2008, and production quantities are expected in the second quarter.

With NTIA converter boxes scheduled to hit store shelves later this year, it would appear that MaxLinear may be a bit late to the game, ceding the early advantage to so-called “can-type” tuners and existing chip tuners from Microtune.

But Tierney says that a few customers have already expressed interest in the new chip, and that the biggest hurdle to commercial implementation will be getting the chip re-certified by the NTIA once it's been implemented in a converter box, a process that takes two or three months. He expects to see products using the MxL5007T chip by the second half of 2008.