Silicon developers are looking at beefing up Wi-Fi capabilities and making networking more intelligent.

Many of the most important features of any electronics product are implemented directly in the silicon processors that orchestrate everything those products do. To get a glimpse of what set-tops, gateways and other customer premises equipment might be like in six to 24 months, it’s instructive to look at what’s being designed and fabbed into chips right now.

The CPE coming out of the chute now addresses two major concerns. One is being able to support both broadcast and over-the-top (OTT) content, and the other is supporting home networking – integrating various combinations of MoCA, Ethernet, Wi-Fi and/or one of the powerline options.

ABI Research chartJudging by what the semiconductor companies are doing now with their planning for future products, OTT and home networking will continue to be the primary areas of concern in CPE. On the OTT side, the emphasis will be on enabling tighter integration of Web and broadcast content, while on the home networking side, the emphasis appears to be shifting to new implementations of Wi-Fi ruggedized for distributing HD video.

In the past couple of years, the trends that have prevailed in the home haven’t changed much, other than intensifying and compounding each other:

  • Consumers want to distribute their media to a variety of consumer electronics devices in their homes.
  • Consumers have rapidly adopted a range of new mobile devices, most capable of playing all types of media, including video.
  • The convergence of media on IP continues to accelerate, which in turn is leading to convergence media products (broadcast and Web) on converged CE devices (wireless routers combined with modems, modems with TVs, cable tuners in game consoles, etc.).

Broadcom makes chips for both DOCSIS and DSL-based CPE but has dominated the market for chips on the DOCSIS side.

Earlier this year, the company licensed EchoStar’s Sling technology and built it into a gateway chip, the BCM7425. It also gained access to Myriad’s Alien Vue, which will allow products to run apps designed for Google TV and HTML5 without the need for extra dedicated hardware.

More recently, Broadcom introduced the BCM7435, a dual-core gateway system-on-a-chip (SoC) with transcoding, built-in MoCA 2.0 support and new Web domain security. The intent is to enable operators to securely deliver premium broadcast content converged with Web-based content and services to multiple screens.

Chipping away at Broadcom’s dominance
Entropic is in the process of buying set-top silicon supplier Trident Microsystems out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Because the acquisition is still pending, the company declined to comment for this article.

In announcing the acquisition, Entropic said it intends to leverage its position as a key supplier of MoCA chips to revive Trident's lagging SoC business. The acquisition will enable it to combine its MoCA solutions with set-top chips “to deliver a complete system solution to the world's premier cable, telco and satellite service providers, while expanding our total addressable market over the next several years," said Patrick Henry, president and CEO of Entropic.

A much larger and more formidable competitor is Intel. Intel started with a retail strategy for set-top chips, backing the Google TV concept with silicon. Early in 2011, Logitech began marketing an OTT set-top based on Intel’s processors, but the product failed to sell, and Logitech famously repudiated the box at the end of the year. At approximately the same time, Intel wound down its Retail Digital TV business and established a Service Provider Division, with a mission to sell to OEMs that cater to the service provider market.

Here Intel has had some success. Its processors have been designed into set-tops by Pace (being used for Comcast’s X1 service), Samsung (the UPC Horizon box used by Liberty Global) and DVN (supplying multiple cable companies in China), among others.

At the beginning of this year, Amino announced a gateway based on the latest version of Intel’s set-top silicon, the Atom CE5300 Media Processor, which features a dual-core processor, transcoding capabilities and support for 3-D gaming, among other features.

We want Wi-Fi
Not that long ago, a common conception in the electronics industry was that the TV experience and the PC experience were fundamentally different, but that was before millions of people started watching Netflix and Hulu on their computers and decided they wanted OTT video on their TVs. It was a short leap to demanding their broadcast video on their tablets and smartphones, too. Thus the issue of OTT is conflated with the home networking phenomenon.

Service providers have tried to accommodate consumer desire to move video around by introducing multi-room schemes, which typically involve some combination of a DVR and peripheral boxes designed to couple with the DVR.

But multi-room DVR rarely addresses consumer desire for OTT content. So consumers have been enthusiastically adopting Wi-Fi as a means to get OTT video to their TVs, tablets and smartphones.

Service providers responded by developing the TV Everywhere notion – enabling their broadcast video to be distributed to mobile devices via Wi-Fi. That’s an advance, but it still doesn’t address consumer demand for consumer OTT.

Consumers have embraced Wi-Fi, and while service providers had been resisting the fact, the proliferation of mobile devices has forced them to relent – getting broadcast video to those devices simply demands Wi-Fi.

On the positive side, Wi-Fi technology is becoming robust enough to embrace with some enthusiasm. On the down side, there’s a huge installed base of Wi-Fi routers that are questionable for reliable delivery of SD video, let alone HD.

Consumers “tend to buy the cheapest router available,” which means it’s probably going to be 1 x 1 operating at 2.4 GHz, “and all kinds of things that cause it to be not a great way to deliver video to devices,” said Steve Palm, senior technical director in Broadcom's Broadband Communications Group.

Wireline connections therefore continue to be preferred for their greater throughput, security and reliability.

Palm said a combination of home networking options provides the flexibility service providers desire.

“Everyone is looking for the Holy Grail of easy installation, and once installed, it stays installed nicely and keeps working.

“Years ago, people were sort of hoping that there would be one technology that would win,” Palm continued. “Certainly, some are more popular … some that have bubbled to the top, but no one technology solves all problems.”

“Neither wireline nor wireless will win,” said Imran Hajimusa, president of Lantiq North America. “They are not competing with each other – they should not be competing with each other. They should be complementing each other.”

Lantiq, which caters to the DSL market and also has a PON product, is a direct descendent of Siemens through Infineon. The company’s most recently announced product was an ADSL SoC that integrates support for Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet.

For the near term, having a combination of home networking technologies is essential.

“That’s led us down the path of not only having these four technologies – Ethernet, Wi-Fi, MoCA and HomePlug – but actually combining them in our reference designs, so you have parallel redundant paths. Instead of install one thing and later when you find out it was noisy you want some other technology, if you’ve put them there from the get-go, have the technologies themselves sort out which is the best to use at any given time,” Palm said.

For today’s gateways, North American MSOs tend to favor the superset of Ethernet and MoCA for connecting to their set-tops and Wi-Fi for connecting to mobile devices, Palm noted. Powerline might be included in North American CPE; that option is more popular in European and other markets.

In set-tops, North American MSOs tend to rely largely on MoCA, though there’s growing interest in Wi-Fi for set-tops too, he said.

Having multiple technologies available in every installation raises an issue of its own: which one to use?

“The network you have in your home has to become intelligent,” Hajimusa said. “It should look at traffic in your home – like a mini-Internet – and decide whether it’s better, for example, to go with powerline or with coax.”

That’s not available today, but Lantiq and other chip companies are working on that now.

Ruggedized Wi-Fi
There are several innovations that are making Wi-Fi more tolerable for service providers. The single antenna and receiver combination (1 x 1) typical of most installed Wi-Fi routers is considered by service providers to be inadequate. Better is a 2 x 2 or 3 x 3 MIMO configuration, now becoming increasingly common, and many companies are now designing 4 x 4 implementations. Routers have also been shifting from the 2.4 GHz spectrum to the 5 GHz spectrum, where signals tend to be more reliable.

One Wi-Fi chip company, Quantenna, has developed a technology called beamforming that focuses the Wi-Fi signal.

Finally, a new version of Wi-Fi, designated IEEE 802.11ac, is being developed. It features more bandwidth (50 to 80 MHz), channels that are twice as wide and higher throughputs that might eventually reach 1 Gbps.

“Operators are stepping up, saying if you want to send video to consumer devices, do it well, and that implies going to 5 GHz, 2 x 2, or better 3 x 3 to help with delivery. Really making sure it’s done right is the motivation, rather than using the Wi-Fi router that’s there already. They want it to be like wired equipment. We’ve got some very specific requests and some very specific things we’ve delivered to folks in order to enable that,” Palm said.

Hajimusa agreed, adding, “There’s also a lot of hope for 11ac, but 11n will not go away – it’s backwards-compatible and widely installed in legacy devices.”

The 802.11ac standards have not yet even been ratified, though that may happen before the end of the year.

Quantenna chart

Quantenna makes Wi-Fi chips, including a 4 x 4 version that combines the company’s 4 x 4 beamforming technology. The company’s products are found in products from Cisco, Motorola, Netgear and others.

Understandably, Quantenna may have a more sanguine view about Wi-Fi than others, but senior director of marketing David Cohen insists it has service provider customers that are finding the most advanced versions of Wi-Fi now extant are more than sufficient for every situation short of reaching the farthest corners of the largest mansions.

Hajimusa noted that there might be a point of diminishing returns that will dim enthusiasm for a technological migration to 4 x 4 configurations. Smartphones, he noted, are not compatible with configurations above 1 x 1.

Wi-Fi simply has momentum, in much the same way that Ethernet gained momentum on the wireline side more than a decade ago. Tablets, of course, work with Wi-Fi, but virtually every smartphone comes with Wi-Fi, too.

A few years back, carriers looked at Wi-Fi as competitive, but when they discovered that even going to 4G wasn’t going to help much with bandwidth constraints, they came to embrace Wi-Fi as an important means for offloading traffic in homes and, increasingly, public spaces with hotspots, Hajimusa explained.

Cohen agreed that offload is becoming very important to carriers.

“Now there’s an issue of automating that,” he said.

The issue is another form of intelligent networking – getting the device to recognize when Wi-Fi is available and automatically switching to it.