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Microtune/nCUBE: VOD silicon can replace 'bulky' upconverters

Sun, 12/09/2001 - 7:00pm
Jeff Baumgartner

Aiming to slash space, cost and power requirements for on-demand cable services and network-based personal video recording systems, Microtune Inc. and nCUBE Corp. Monday introduced a new set of silicon designed to replace today's "bulky" upconverters.

While a typical upconverter is roughly the size of a VCR unit, the Microtune-nCUBE offering reduces all of those components into three "Videocaster" silicon-germanium chips, which are then housed inside the companies' 3.5-inch-by-4-inch "MT500 MicroModule."

Microtune and nCUBE claim the combination reduces upconverter space by 90 percent, power by 40 percent and costs by 80 percent. While legacy upconverters can go for about $1,500 per unit per channel, the chip-based Microtune-nCUBE version is priced at about $1,500 per unit for four channels.

On size and power, each MicroModule replaces four rack-mounted upconverters, and each MicroModule consumes just a smidge north of 6 watts, the companies said.

In today's cable networks, at least one upconverter is required for every channel on the system, and even more are required in a digital environment in which one analog channel can contain 10 "virtual" channels. The act of upconverting essentially "converts" a video signal from a lower frequency to a higher frequency.

"The bottom line is that it takes a heck of a lot of upconverters for VOD," Microtune Chief Strategy Officer Jim Fontaine said during a conference call with analysts and reporters.

nCUBE President Michael Pohl predicted the new product will "address scalability and cost efficiencies" for cable operators that offer on-demand services, including network-based PVR applications.

Saving headend space will be paramount as VOD proliferates, the companies said, noting that a cable system with 200,000 homes passed could require 2,000 typical upconverters. Only 500 MicroModules, which would take up about one-tenth of the space, would essentially do the same job, the companies claimed.

The VideoCaster MT500 MicroModule, including the VideoCaster chipsets, is sampling today with nCUBE, and slated for production next year. Each MicroModule holds 12 VideoCaster chips, enough to support as many as 40 video streams.

nCUBE, whose VOD customers include Time Warner Cable and U.K.-based Kingston Communications, said it will house the upconverters within its "N4" video servers via a PCI card.

Microtune's Fontaine said nCUBE will have a set period of exclusivity before Microtune can market the silicon and upconverter modules to other vendors. Fontaine said that "lead time" is confidential.

Considering the money and time nCUBE has invested in the technology, "We want [nCUBE] to be able to ship it first," Fontaine said.

In addition to other server manufacturers, other potential customers of the new upconverter silicon could include video upconverter makers such as Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Motorola Broadband, as well as Cisco Systems, which makes upconverters for cable modem termination systems.

In addition to this new product, Microtune also makes silicon-based tuners for set-tops, cable modems and other broadband devices.

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