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Chip Wars

Wed, 07/31/2002 - 8:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner, Assistant Editor

Cable's new silicon battlefield is now packed with combatants attempting to win skirmishes with arsenals brimming with technology based on recognized specifications as well as powerful proprietary technology.

Pursued by this tenacious band of upstarts, the market leaders are honing new technical weapons designed to cut down their rivals and, likewise,
help them maintain their grip on the marketplace...


BROADCOM: DOCSIS KING

They say things are lonely at the top, but that may not apply to market leader Broadcom Corp., which has been busy fending off a phalanx of competition.

Broadcom hopes to stay on the offensive and maintain its lead by supporting and driving next-generation cable specifications. Last year, Broadcom, for example, introduced the BCM3351, a chip designed to support DOCSIS, EuroDOCSIS, CableHome and PacketCable.

"If we're aligned with the best interests of the cable industry with new innovative products that help them increase penetration levels or enter new markets for their customers, that puts us in a strong position," says Rich Nelson, Broadcom's director of marketing, broadband communications.

Broadcom is also trying to set itself apart with Propane, a DOCSIS-compatible software component designed to triple cable's upstream path–essentially building in some of DOCSIS 2.0's benefits without the additional cable modem and CMTS hardware requirements. Broadcom, which obtained the technology in 2000 when it bought Digital Furnace, has Propane implementation deals with ADC, Arris, Com21, Scientific-Atlanta, Thomson and Tellabs.

DON'T MESS WITH TEXAS INSTRUMENTS

Battling Broadcom tête-à-tête for DOCSIS silicon supremacy is Texas Instruments Inc., the No. 2 vendor in the sector. TI has notched design wins with Arris, Joohong, Tellabs, Toshiba and, most recently, with Motorola Broadband.

TI's win with Motorola is extremely significant as it gives the chipmaker a cable modem relationship with the No. 1 and No. 2 DOCSIS modem vendors in the market.

The first product from that relationship, the Surfboard SB4220, rolled out of CableLabs in June and was awarded a passing grade in DOCSIS 1.1 testing.

In Motorola's view, the deal with TI was about much more than playing one vendor off the other. "We were shipping enough volume to add a second source," says Don Hopp, vice president of engineering for Motorola Broadband's IP communications gateways division.

In addition to wins with key vendors, TI hopes to differentiate itself via its successful testing procedure, notes Dennis Rauschmayer, director of marketing for TI's cable modem division.

He says TI's DOCSIS silicon customers have a 100 percent certification pass rate at CableLabs after they initially test their products at the company's pre-certification laboratory in Israel.

At about $95,000 a pop, vendors "don't want to go through two or three [testing waves] at CableLabs before getting certified, or they could get their product to market too late," Raushmayer says. In an answer to Broadcom's proprietary Propane software, TI offers TurboDox, a software element that allows operators to expand, up to three times, the number of modems serviced on a single channel while simultaneously boosting upstream capacity. The difference, Raushmayer says, is that TurboDox software only needs to be present at the cable modem side of the network.

THE CONEXANT CONNECTION

Also in the thick of things is Conexant Systems Inc., the sector's third-largest supplier of DOCSIS chips.

Conexant's silicon is also among the ranks of those DOCSIS 1.1 certified via its InfoSurge CX24943 reference design and its partnership with Samsung. Conexant also has modem chipset deals with Com21 and DOCSIS retail players Best Data, D-Link and Zoom Telephonics.

Conexant's differentiator is that it was the first vendor to provide all the cable modem components in one package, including the integrated circuit, the hardware reference and the DOCSIS software, says Greg Fischer, Conexant's vice president of marketing, computer products.

However, Broadcom and TI have since followed in Conexant's footsteps with their own DOCSIS code, but there's more DOCSIS software from Conexant in the field today than there is from any other semiconductor company, Fischer says.

FORCES RISING

Despite those competitive waters, a growing number of start-ups and more established chipmakers are plotting powerful offensives or preparing for a long war of attrition.

Imedia Semiconductors, a chipmaker that Terayon Communications spun off in October 2001, is one of those on the offensive. However, because Terayon competes with Imedia's potential customers, the obvious challenge for the chipmaker is to convince potential customers that it's acting independently and without bias.

Although Terayon is the only vendor to publicly disclose the fact it's using Imedia's silicon, other customers will be announced later this year, says Imedia Vice President of Marketing Kishore Manghnani.

"Initially, we knew there'd be concern with potential customers," Manghnani says of Imedia's relationship with Terayon. He adds that Imedia contracts specifically note that customers won't be at a price disadvantage with Terayon.

Juniper's BCP
Juniper’s BCP
LSI Logic Corp., meanwhile, has revved up its cable efforts following last year's acquisition of C-Cube Microsystems Inc.

Although LSI has had success in the DOCSIS 1.0 sphere with cable modem OEM Correlant, the chipmaker reached a more significant milestone in June when CableLabs awarded DOCSIS 1.1 certification to Correlant's EC270, home to LSI's CL2161 semiconductor.

LSI is also collaborating with Correlant on the integration of LSI's next-generation silicon, the CL2162, which will support USB and Ethernet peripherals and PacketCable services and applications.

Philips Semiconductors, unlike the other players, plans to target Asia and Europe with its cable modem and set-top silicon before staking a claim on North America.

On the cable modem front, Philips Semiconductors makes the PTD 1100 chip, available now in Philips Digital Networks modems, and is presently developing a second-generation chip dubbed the PTD 1101.

Unlike Philips' first-generation modem semiconductor, PTD 1101 will support wireless networking protocols such as 802.11x and mesh support for advanced cable services such as VoIP, says Peter Brown, product line general manager for the company's cable networking group.

The PTD 1101 is expected to be available in samples by this October or November.

Even with all of these vendors attempting to plant their flag on cable, it still leaves on the table the biggest silicon giant of them all: Intel Corp. Intel's involvement with cable has reached the flirtation level on more than one occasion, but just when you think it's going to propose its everlasting love, it gets cold feet.

Intel last batted its eyes at cable in mid-2001, when the company announced a home networking lab trial with Comcast Cable Communications involving Intel-powered residential broadband gateways, wireless-network adapters and computer-controlled cable modems (CCCMs).

Company spokesman Tom Potts says Intel has since backed off on most of its cable silicon plans, but will continue to support CableLabs' CCCM effort. Some chipmakers, however, are questioning the virtues of that project (see sidebar, pg. 30).

DOCSIS 2.0: DIFFERENTIATE OR WAIT?

While some are happy to wait before they jump in to support DOCSIS 2.0, others, especially Imedia, are counting on it.

Silicon Wave's flagship tuner
Silicon Wave’s flagship tuner
Manghnani says Imedia will get design wins and sell reference designs because of its experience with DOCSIS 2.0 technology, but also because the company can sell those chips at 1.1 prices.

Conexant's Fischer argues, however, that a 2.0 modem will always cost more than a 1.1 modem, thanks to the additional gates and overall complexity. Still, Conexant plans to bow a DOCSIS 2.0 chip by the end of 2002, complete with a programmable MAC that handles the spec's extensions. TI and Broadcom also plan to introduce DOCSIS 2.0 silicon before the end of this year.

LSI, meanwhile, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"We're being careful not to introduce a technology before its time, but our technology will support it," says Wilkie Lau, LSI's director of marketing for broadband gateway products. "DOCSIS 2.0 is more of a business issue than a technology issue right now."

CMTS CHIP RACE COULD TIGHTEN

Broadcom owns most of the 1.1-qualified cable modem termination system chip market, touting customers such as ADC, Arris, Cisco Systems, Motorola Broadband and Riverstone Networks.

The other CMTS gear to get the 1.1 nod contains silicon from Juniper Networks, which jumped into the game last November when it bought Pacific Broadband Communications for $200 million.

Juniper's home-grown CMTS ASIC, the Broadband Cable Processor (BCP), is housed in the company's G10 CMTS. Juniper's silicon is also featured in the Prisma G10, a CMTS that Scientific-Atlanta markets through a reseller deal.

Despite the temptation, Juniper won't shop its silicon to other CMTS vendors, says Juniper Director of Product Marketing Mike Capuano. "CMTS vendors have come to us to ask if they can source silicon from us," he says. "But we made the decision to retain that competitive advantage to help us sell our system effectively."

Capuano claims those advantages are tied to the chip's return path digitization, high density and magnitude of integration, as one BCP is designed to support four downstream channels and 16 upstream channels.

Imedia also builds CMTS silicon, but has yet to get product qualified for DOCSIS 1.1. To date, Imedia's CMTS chipset is available in Terayon's "pizza-box" BW 3200 and full-chassis BW 3500.

TUNER BRAWL

The battle underway today in the silicon tuner arena between Broadcom and Microtune Inc. almost makes the rest of the cable chip sector look like they're playing a friendly game of laser tag. Broadcom upped the ante this summer after it filed a counterclaim against its chief tuner rival, Microtune, which filed a patent infringement suit against Broadcom early last year.

LSI's modem Chip
LSI’s modem chip
Broadcom hopes to include in the case patent No. 6,377,315, which describes a "system and method for providing a low power receiver design." Broadcom filed for the patent on Nov. 12, 1999. It was awarded on April 23, 2002.

Broadcom's counterclaim stems from a lawsuit Microtune filed against its rival on Jan. 24, 2001, alleging that Broadcom's BCM 3415 microchip infringed on Microtune's "Highly integrated television tuner on a single microcircuit" patent (No. 5,737,035).

Microtune filed for the '035 patent on April 21, 1995, and it was awarded on April 7, 1998. The company introduced product based on the patent in the following year.

Microtune's case against Broadcom is expected to go to trial in early October.

ISG Broadband, a subsidiary of California Eastern Laboratories (CEL), has managed to steer clear of the courtroom, thanks in part to the company's different silicon tuner architecture, says company Vice President of Marketing Richard Bay-Ramyon.

ISG is presently shopping its new semiconductor line to digital set-top box vendors, but is also exploring potential agreements with MTA manufacturers.

ISG's initial cable modem foray involved proprietary equipment, but the company hopes to enter product for DOCSIS certification at CableLabs this October, Bay-Ramyon says.

Silicon Wave, a San Diego-based maker of silicon tuners for digital set-tops, DOCSIS cable modems and multimedia terminal adapters, has also managed to avoid the row between Broadcom and Microtune.

Silicon Wave's flagship SiW1000 silicon tuner line has undergone tests with a number of OEMs, but a company spokeswoman declined to name them.

DOCSIS NEEDS A BIGGER BATTLEFIELD

Though DOCSIS has been a success for MSOs and CableLabs, Kinetic Strategies President Michael Harris wrote in the July issue of CableDataComNews that DOCSIS "is turning into a bloodbath for vendors," creating an inevitable consolidation market. And that goes for silicon makers, too.

Harris estimates that the DOCSIS CPE silicon market is less than $200 million per year, leaving but a few scraps for a bunch of hungry mouths to fight over.

"If I wasn't one of the top three [DOCSIS silicon] players, I wouldn't compete in the market," Harris argues. "And being number three is speculative."

Manghnani agrees that Imedia must grow its business quickly if it's to survive. "We need to be in the top two by this time next year," he says.

Although the DOCSIS silicon pie in its current form isn't big enough to fortify every player out there, it could expand several-fold when VoIP takes off and the demand for DOCSIS-enabled set-tops grows.

Some of that work is well under way in the U.S. Conexant, for example, provides the on-board cable modem for Cablevision Systems' Sony Corp. set-tops.

Conexant's Fischer also believes that forthcoming, lower priced tiers for cable-based high-speed data could also drive service penetrations and, therefore, expand the overall DOCSIS market.

 

Whither CCCM?

Despite some initially strong support by vendors, it appears that much of the luster has worn off the computer-controlled cable modem (CCCM), a host-based device that shares PC resources such as memory and processing.

A step ahead of earlier work involving the PCI-based cable modem, the initial aim of the CCCM was to drop unit prices below $50 and to weave cable modem technology inside personal computers.

However, the theoretical price delta between stand-alone cable modems and the CCCM have almost reached parity as DOCSIS volumes ramped up among the top vendors.

"We saw higher interest in [the CCCM] when standard Ethernet and USB modems were $150," Broadcom's Nelson says. Broadcom has created CCCM products and reference cards, but the market (and application) for them hasn't materialized, he adds.

CableLabs conducted its first official certification tests on CCCMs last fall, when Intel Corp. and Coresma Inc. submitted products.

Others note that the CCCM market, like the emerging "embedded" DOCSIS market, could be wrought with operational and economic certification quandaries.

Imedia's Manghnani argues that the amount of resources a vendor would have to put towards CCCM certification alone for a PC environment would be offset by the PC's continual cycle of software and processing changes. "By the time you do it on a host CPU and get it ready to ship, it's already obsolete."

Despite a stigma that now appears to be surrounding the CCCM, Intel, for one, "still sees [the CCCM] as a viable alternative to a stand-alone modem," says company spokesman Tom Potts. However, Intel won't discuss deals involving its CCCM products until after the company gets one certified. –JB

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