Ultra Wideband Wireless and Coax Home Networking Platform Gains Traction

Hung Nguyen, GM & VP, wireless products division, Sigma Designs

Hung Nguyen, GM & VP, wireless products division, Sigma Designs

January 16, 2009 – Chip maker Sigma Designs may be about to crack through what has been a wall of manufacturing resistance to ultra wideband (UWB) home networking technology with a chipset that supports simultaneous distribution of content at very high speeds over wireless, coax and Ethernet.

Sigma is in serious negotiations with a broad range of original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and SPs, including a “really big” IPTV provider, for possible applications of its CoAir chipset, says Hung Nguyen, general manager and vice president of Sigma’s wireless products division. “There’s a lot of interest in our ability to do UWB over coax, because of the much greater throughput compared to MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance),” Nguyen says. “And MoCA can’t do wireless.”

The latest version of MoCA, with chips entering the market from supplier Entropic, delivers net throughput of 175 megabits-per-second over coax in the 860 to 2000 MHz spectrum tier above the spectrum reserved for cable channels. In contras,t Sigma leverages UWB in the 3 to 5 GHz region over coax, the same spectrum used for the UWB wireless distribution standard set by the WiMedia Alliance, to produce net throughput of 320 to 400 mbps.

UWB is a generic term applied to a multitude of mostly wireless technologies, including WiMedia, Blue Tooth and numerous proprietary systems. The WiMedia Alliance is working on a coax extension to its wireless standard, which Nguyen says Sigma will embrace once it’s complete. At this point, Sigma claims to have the only chipset in the market that can support UWB rates over wireless and coax and can deliver 1 gigabit Ethernet over CAT5 cable connections as well.

“Sigma’s CoAir chipset is the only technology available in the world today that can simultaneously deliver multiple independent streams of video and data over coax cable, Ethernet cable and wirelessly without compromising quality of service and throughput,” Nguyen says. CoAir is an all-CMOS (Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor) solution comprised of an RF radio chip supporting three antennas in accord with the WiMedia standard and a baseband chip that adheres to the WiMedia M-OFDM (Multiband Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) PHY (physical layer) and MAC (Media Access Control) specifications.

What this adds up to is a box, whether a set-top, gateway or standalone device, that can integrate all the home networking needs into one platform at very high data rates. For example, Nguyen says, the in-home coax could serve as the network backbone with wireless devices tapping off the coax to distribute signals to all devices in each room. Ethernet-to-coax bridgers allow extensions of signals from computers and other IP devices in one location to others in the house over the coax backbone.

The coax point-to-multipoint backbone transport distance from a single distribution point tops out at 100 meters, compared to 300 meters for MoCA, which would be a drawback in very large households. But, because the Sigma UWB-over-coax distance capability factors in attenuation from splitters, the distance limit applies across multiple coax runs, thereby serving distribution requirements for most homes.

In the wireless domain, WiMedia UWB employs TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) to support guaranteed quality-of-service over multiple point-to-point data and TV connections at distances up to 20 meters, allowing several users to share the same frequency channel. Throughput at that distance is about 53 mbps. At 10 meters it’s 110 mbps, and at three meters it hits 480 mbps. Thus, four users sharing the same frequency channel in a typical-sized room would be served over separate streams operating at about 27 mbps each.

A key step toward OEM support for the CoAir solution was taken in early January when Lung Hwa Electronics, an original design manufacturer for the CE community, announced availability of an Ethernet-to-coax bridge adapter for the CoAir chipset. Lung Hwa is the first such manufacturer to offer Sigma’s UWB-over-Coax technology to CE manufacturers.

“After evaluating other coax solutions, we chose Sigma’s CoAir solution because it proved to be the most reliable, trustworthy and cost efficient that can coexist with satellite, cable and broadcast TV,” says Philomena Pai, director of sales at Lung Hwa. He says the adapter is available now, priced at under $30 in high-volume orders.

The adapter is as an affordable and easy-to-install home networking product for consumers, Pai adds. Once installed, it also makes wireless in-room video streaming possible and can be connected to home appliances and PCs with an Ethernet connection.

“By selling an Ethernet-to-coax adapter based on CoAir Lung Hwa Electronics is pushing the door wide open for UWB-over-coax solutions,” Nguyen says. Given its tie-in with the WiMedia Alliance standard and that group’s push toward setting specifications for UWB-over-coax, the high performance capabilities associated with Sigma’s solution give it the “potential to become a de facto standard for home networking,” he says.

That’s a heady claim in the context of how far MoCA has gone in penetrating the cable, telco and satellite TV service environments. But, given the emerging home networking bandwidth requirements and the cost effectiveness associated with collapsing wireless and wireline distribution onto one platform supporting TV, Ethernet and native IP transport, the new UWB solution is well positioned to catch on, suggests In-Stat principal analyst Brian O’Rourke.

“Service providers are moving toward networking their set-top boxes together, and in
addition to wireless solutions, they have also been looking for existing-wire networking
solutions for WAN access and in-home LAN nodes in order to keep costs down and
make home networking a reality for their customers,” O’Rourke says. “Sigma offers a potentially powerful solution that combines in-room wireless connectivity along with whole-home networking coverage via the coax cable that is in the vast majority of U.S. households.”

Service providers are clearly contemplating the need for very high levels of throughput for future home networking needs. In an appearance at the Connections conference last summer, Vince Groff, executive director of strategy and corporate development for Cox Communications, said his company was developing a digital home architecture that envisions operations in the 400-500 mbps range, with wireless support for HDTV distribution. “I want to support as many as five HD streams, plus one or more SD streams and VoIP,” Groff said, as quoted by IEEE Times.

He didn’t allude to multi-platform distribution over UWB as a possible solution, which Sigma was just making public at the time, indicating instead that the Cox solution might be some combination of Wi-Fi and MoCA. But there’s no doubt that, by now, Cox and all the other SPs in the cable and telco Tier 1 hierarchy are learning about the CoAir capability.

In discussing use of Sigma’s technology with the aforementioned major IPTV provider Nguyen is making the point that, where MoCA is already in use, SPs can implement the Sigma solution without disrupting the existing platform, given the two operate at different spectrum levels. “MoCA is running over their home networks at below 1.5 GHz, so we don’t overlap with MoCA,” he says. “We’re working with them to finalize a product.”

In this scenario SPs would be able to expand bandwidth for coax delivery of more content and also leverage the single-platform attributes for distributing content wirelessly and via gigabit Ethernet throughout the home. The Sigma solution could be layered in incrementally on the MoCA home networks as customers subscribe to higher tiers of service.

As Sigma evangelizes SPs and their set-top suppliers it is also pursuing a big retail play for its technology through direct discussions with CE manufacturers, Nguyen says. Sigma has produced a complete unit as a reference device to demonstrate how the technology could be offered as a consumer-friendly off-the-shelf product in retail outlets. “You can plug this into any set-top box or any router and enable coax, wirless and gigE outputs running simultaneously,” he says. “We’re working on retail deals now.”

With volume demand, the CoAir chips, now priced around $30, could easily drop to $20 or even $10, Nguyen says. And, he adds, Sigma is working on a single system-on-a-chip solution for the technology to drive costs down even farther.

WiMedia, along with development of a Wimedia-over-coax specification, is working on a next-generation output level for WiMedia UWB that tops out at 1 gbps. Meanwhile, with competing standards and proprietary systems serving to curtail implementation of next-generation platforms, the International Telecommunications Union is working on an all-encompassing standard, dubbed “G.hn,” which has backing from many top computer and consumer companies, including Sigma.
But completion of this unifying standard is a long way off, and, in any event, it is likely to include support for WiMedia. Nguyen believes the case for Sigma’s implementation with a roadmap that ties into existing standards and standards to come has finally put UWB on a track to commercialization in the year ahead.