BroadLogic offers keys to cable's all-digital transition
BroadLogic Network Technologies  has unveiled a new "headend on a chip" that is designed to help operators make the migration to an all-digital environment and, in turn, recapture gobs of valuable analog spectrum for high-definition television (HDTV) and other bandwidth-eating services.
The company's BL8000 TeraPIX video processor, when housed in a residential gateway or some other form of home-side device, will take incoming digital signals from the cable plant and convert them into analog as they enter the customer's home.
This means that the cable outlets in the home will not require a separate digital set-top just to decode the signal. It also means the operator will be able to cut everything into the digital domain, rather than setting aside valuable spectrum to handle analog services for basic customers.
"I think that there is a tremendous future for this product simply because it brings a whole house solution," said Wayne Davis, the former chief technology officer of Charter Communications . "We're going digital," he said, referring to the cable industry at large. "We have to."
The new chip is capable of decoding more than 80 analog channels, according to BroadLogic, a company that also makes wideband receiver chips for modems that use DOCSIS channel bonding.
And it's not just about taking in MPEG-2 streams and decoding the video and audio in analog format. The device must also pass through and supports the cable requirements of the analog video world, including the closed captioning and V-Chip data, emergency alert information, and the operator's conditional access system.
"All of that must be done simultaneously and continuously," said BroadLogic VP of Marketing Jeff Huppertz. "It's not a small undertaking."
BroadLogic, however, does not view itself as an outright replacement for digital set-top boxes. Consumers, as one example, will continue to want to use boxes for digital video recording.
Instead, BroadLogic believes its technology will play a role in the other outlets in the house that don't have digital set-tops hanging off of them.
Also, history has shown that some basic cable customers will churn if operators try to foist a set-top on them.
In fact, some cable operators with un-upgraded plant (i.e. 550 MHz or lower) in some rural areas have tried to avoid an upgrade by cutting everything to digital and offering all customers low- and high-end set-tops, but have seen churn skyrocket as a result.
The BroadLogic approach "is to address a migration to all-digital networks in a user-friendly way," said Huppertz.
"The question is how to do this in a cost-effective way [that] has the least impact to the consumer," Davis added. "I think this addresses both of those."
Although BroadLogic's product is a first, the concept is not exactly new. The idea started to gain some notice in 2004, and was referenced in an RFI (request for information) from Next Generation Network Architecture LLC  (NGNA), a project originally helmed by Comcast Cable, Cox Communications and Time Warner Cable. At the time, the RFI had a passage dedicated to an outdoor digital-to-analog conversion device called the Video Network Interface Unit (VNIU). The NGNA RFI originally forecast a cost target of less than $150 per VNIU, in high volume.
BroadLogic said the TeraPIX chips, in sample quantities up to 1,000 units, cost about $300 each. The company is not forecasting specific prices on resulting gateway devices that use the BroadLogic silicon, but suggests that such a device could be built for less than the cost of two digital set-tops.
Although the original concept in the NGNA RFI called for an environmentally-hardened, outdoor, attached-to-the-house model, BroadLogic believes gateways could be designed for inside the home, as well.
San Jose-based BroadLogic has not yet announced any partners that will take on the task of developing residential gateways, set-tops or other devices that will employ the TeraPIX silicon, other than to say that several "leading manufacturers" are already involved.
Cisco Systems Corp. , however, is a likely candidate. In addition to being a BroadLogic investor, its Linksys  division is already making pre-DOCSIS 3.0 channel bonding cable modems that use BroadLogic's BL12000 silicon.
In addition to freeing up spectrum for other services and helping cable operators stay technologically competitive with fiber-to-the-home deployments, BroadLogic believes its technology has other benefits as well.
Because services are delivered in all-digital format, it would reduce, if not eliminate, service theft, BroadLogic believes. Such a centralized gateway would also remove the onerous operational task MSOs would be faced with if they instead decided to go all-digital by deploying and managing a digital set-top for every cable outlet in customer homes.
Putting a set-top at every outlet not only drives up costs for the equipment itself, but also elevates the operational complexities faced by cable operators, Davis explained, noting that there is a real cost involved every time an operator installs, replaces or repairs a set-top.
The BroadLogic approach "virtually removes those costs on the third to fifth outlet" in the home, he said. "That's one of the reasons why the business case for this is compelling."
Today, BroadLogic is sampling its chipsets with companies that are developing products based on the technology. Expectations are field trials by the first half of 2007, followed by commercial deployments in 2008.
"The first silicon was out in June, and has been functioning really, really well," claimed BroadLogic CEO Danial Faizullabhoy.