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Cable/Video

Broadcom, Conexant Intro Dueling Chips

Call it a tale of two cable chips.

Both Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) and Conexant Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CNXT) have come out with new integrated chipsets for digital cable set-top boxes. The competing chips, announced on consecutive days by the two rival companies, are both designed to support both standard digital and high-definition (HD) set-tops.

Rolled out for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, both new chip models also support advanced video coding and compression formats, including MPEG-4 and VC-1. In addition, both support the cable industry's widely deployed MPEG-2 platform.

The new semiconductor solutions diverge from there. Broadcom's set-top silicon focuses on enabling such new cable applications as downstream channel bonding and downloadable security while the Conexant chip focuses on supporting HD and digital video recording (DVR) on multiple TV sets.

Nevertheless, each company freely took pot shots at the other while discussing its new product.

Broadcom officials claim that Conexant's new chip lags behind their earlier digital-HD model, introduced about a year ago. "Their announcement is in line with our [BCM] 4700 last year," says John Gleiter, senior director of marketing for Broadcom. "They made no mention of channel-bonding."

In turn, Conexant executives retort that they've left Broadcom in the dust with their new chip's dual-decoding feature. "We think we've leapfrogged them," says Alan Smith, senior product manager for Conexant. "We certainly don't see them as having a dual-decoder situation right now."

Broadcom executives acknowledge their chip doesn't have two decoders -- and thus can't support two TVs -- but they say that the new BCM7118 chip is the first digital cable chipset to support Docsis 2.0 and EuroDocsis 2.0 specifications for cable modems, as well as downstream channel bonding designed to meet the recently released Docsis 3.0 spec. As a result, they say, it can easily power cable operator deployment of IP video services, among other things.

"The MSOs like that feature, particularly Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)," Gleiter says. "With it, they can do switched IP video if they want."

In other notable moves, Broadcom crafted its new chip to support Cable Television Laboratories Inc. (CableLabs) ' Docsis Set-top Gateway (DSG) signaling platform and the Downloadable Conditional Access System (DCAS) software that the cable industry is now developing. The company says each chip contains an integrated secure processor, along with a permanent, unique identification and configuration.

But the BCM7118 does not support upstream channel bonding, which is also part of the new Docsis spec. Broadcom officials say cable operators, more concerned with expanding their downstream bandwidth, are not demanding that feature quite yet.

"The MSOs want it because they don't see the need for bonding on the upstream," Gleiter says. "They don't want to pay the extra cost."

For their part, Conexant executives are touting their new chipset's ability to decode two HD programs simultaneously. Known as the CX2427X, the dual-channel video encoder can also support PVR applications on two sets at the same time.

Thanks to these properties, cable operators using the chip will not need to install dedicated set-top boxes for each TV in the home. Viewers will be able to watch or record up to four different shows on sets scattered throughout the house.

"We had a two-chip solution," Smith says. "We've integrated all the features into a single chip."

Conexant also unveiled a second less advanced chip, the CX24500, which shares a common core architecture with the high-end CX2427X. Featuring a single-channel video decoder, the CX24500 is targeted at lower-end set-tops with PVR capabilities.

But neither Conexant chip provides the same kind of support for Docsis specs that the new Broadcom chip offers. Conexant still relies on a separate chip to enable Docsis functions.

Broadcom is now offering its new chipset in sample numbers to "early access customers." The company didn't disclose unit pricing.

Likewise, Conexant is offering both of its new chips in sample quantities to select customers. With the chips costing $40 and $30 apiece, respectively, the company plans to gear up for volume production sometime this summer.

— Alan Breznick, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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