At the high end is the multiscreen hybrid service domain where home media gateways seem destined to replace today’s digital set-tops, provided the right functionalities at the right cost points can be brought to market. At the other end is a new one-way service employing very low cost next-generation Digital Transport Adaptors that can accommodate demand for HD as well as traditional services to all generations of TV sets, including old analog TVs that are still widely used as second and third sets in U.S. households.
The set-top chip supplier, always a bellwether to emerging cable TV service paradigms, is now supplying OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) samples of two new types of chipsets for use in designing devices that should be ready for mass deployments within the next 12 months. In both cases, the chipsets rely on 40 nanometer circuitry to expand the processing power required to support functionalities that are essential to more aggressive pursuit of these service strategies than has been possible up to now.
At the low end, what was once a DTA strategy aimed strictly at using digital distribution to serve analog-only subscribers, thereby reclaiming hundreds of megahertz of analog channel bandwidth, has morphed into a means of serving customers who only want a one-way broadcast pay TV service no matter what mix of TV sets they have on premises. Broadcom, which ADI Research says is the dominant supplier of DTA chipsets in North America, is supplying about six different DTA set-top vendors who together have about 40 million boxes now deployed in the field, according to Brett Tischler, senior marketing manager at Broadcom.
“That’s a big share of the analog-only subscriber base,” Tischler says. “But there are still about 45 million analog TVs hooked up to basic cable.” With an average of about two such TVs per household, that means about 22.5 million households are consuming analog bandwidth, even though many of them also have newer digital TVs that are taking digital channels, including HD for flat-panel screens.
Consequently it makes a lot of sense for operators to provide a one-way service that serves all those generations of TVs without using up analog bandwidth, which is where the HD-compatible DTA comes into play. Such one-way service, avoiding costly cable-card security requirements, gives operators an opportunity to deliver HD as part of a low-cost limited-feature service package without requiring high-end boxes.
Broadcom’s new EZ-HD DTA cable system on a chip (SoC), which was demonstrated at CableLabs’ Winter Conference in March, will help to accelerate the HDTV transition of the remaining analog TVs in North America by making basic HD service much less costly, predicts Dan Marotta, executive vice president and general manager of broadband communications at Broadcom. “The migration to HDTV not only will provide much higher quality TV programming and services, but also reclaim precious bandwidth to make way for additional HD channels with higher speed Internet services,” Marotta says.
“The definition of DTA has really expanded over the past year,” Tischler adds. “The HD DTA takes SD or HD content in, does the decoding, handles the security requirements, implements the user interface and supports output over an RF modulator for traditional TV sets while delivering the digital HD signal over an HDMI output to flat-panel TVs.”
But to meet the full requirements of this version of DTA required key improvements over the HD DTA chipset Broadcom launched in January 2010. “Our new EZ-HD DTA platform helps accelerate deployments with more integration in the chipset to reduce the overall cost of boxes,” Tischler says.
Most importantly, he notes, the new chipset introduces ultra-low power performance and fast-channel change technology into the DTA space. In addition, it delivers a 2x improvement in processing performance on graphics, video and audio with more advanced DTA user interfaces.
Where the power improvements are concerned, this is really crucial to all set-top platforms in an era when public sensitivity to the high wattage consumption of terminals in standby mode demands attention. Now available with all 40 nm. set-top platforms introduced in the past 18 months, the ultra-low power capability in the case of the EZ-HD DTA means the smartphone-size box is consuming just 100 milliwatts of power instead of up to 5 watts when it’s in standby mode.
Enabling this capability requires high levels of processing to ensure that when the user wants to start watching TV the box responds in less time than it takes for the TV to boot up, Tischler says. “This is a very complicated device with a lot of security and other components that must be activated in a matter of seconds,” he notes. Yet the costs of the chipsets will allow OEMs to keep prices for the boxes in the traditional DTA price range, typically quoted at $50 or less per box.
Similarly, the higher processing power of the new DTA allows Broadcom to bring its fast-channel change technology to the low-end HD set-top, completing the transition to fast-channel change in all its HD set-top chipsets. “We’ve hyper accelerated the channel changing time from one or two seconds to just 100 milliseconds,” Tischler says.
Broadcom has also brought processing to the DTA that supports Commercial Advertisement Level Mitigation (CALM), he notes. This allows operators to maintain constant volume across commercial, program and channel changes in conformance with regulations.
At the high end of the service migration spectrum Broadcom’s latest chipset release is of equal significance to making a major strategic initiative feasible, in this case involving the ability to bring premium and over-the-top content to end user devices of every description through a hybrid media gateway in a way the prevents high-value TV content from exposure to the threats intrinsic to the Internet. To accomplish this Broadcom has developed a chipset, the BCM7435, which at 7000 DMIPS (Drystone million instructions per second – a mathematically complex variation on MIPS) more than doubles the 3000 DMIPS processing power of the BCM7425 gateway chipset the company released in January 2011.
While both chipsets have in common the footprint associated with how the device fits into the media gateway hardware stack as well as the new low-power capabilities and basic hybrid gateway functionalities such as transcoding and support for MoCA 2.0 connectivity, the new version addresses major issues that would otherwise impede rollout of gateway-based services.
“The challenge operators have is there are four or five people in the home with TVs, iPads, iPhones, consoles and what have you who want access to content at the same time anywhere in the home,” Tischler says. “And operators want to be able to provide those people access to cable broadcast, on-demand and Web-based premium content as well as third-party over-the-top content in a nicely integrated way. That’s very hard for them to do.”
The new Broadcom chipset is the industry’s first 40 nm. dual-core hybrid gateway SoC with Web domain security, which means operators can securely deliver premium broadcast content converged with Web-based content and services to multiple screens in the connected home. “We’ve built in a lot of new hardware security mechanisms that allow us to very securely isolate the open-execution environment for OTT content and applications,” Tischler explains. “You can mix and match Internet sourced content without disrupting the broadcast content.”
These security mechanisms go well beyond supporting the co-existence of conditional access and digital rights management security for traditional and IP-based content, respectively, he adds. “Security on a cable card or smart card is a small piece of the overall security and isn’t nearly sufficient to what’s required,” he says. “We’re providing every aspect of the security support you need.”
The new chipset features many other advances as well, including a 300 percent increase in 3D graphics performance, expanded video capacity supporting security for up to 22 simultaneous video streams and real-time transcoding across four simultaneous HD streams. “This is an extremely powerful platform that makes video media servers and hybrid platforms viable,” Tischler says.
While operators have begun deploying commercially available hybrid gateways that operate on the BMS7425, the pace of multiscreen service rollouts as gateways built on the BMS7435 emerge will accelerate, he adds. “Operators in North America and Europe are embracing this architecture,” he says. “We’ll see a lot more activity over the next year as these new platforms come to market.”