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Cable/Video

Matching Up With Mediaroom

DENVER -- Cable doesn't offer all the fancy bells and whistles that Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Mediaroom IPTV platform provides, but some new set-top technology from Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM) does give MSOs a way to bridge at least one feature gap -- fast channel changes.

Broadcom says it has figured out how to eliminate annoying one-to-two-second channel delays typically associated with cable digital video using a patented technology it calls "FastRTV." Broadcom, which offered live demos of the technology here at The Inverness Hotel and Conference Center on Thursday, has added that capability to an array of its latest set-top-box designs, claiming it improves channel-changing times by up to five times. (See Broadcom Speeds Up Channel Changes.)

However, the first real-world deployment is in a new class of "universal" Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) boxes that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) is starting to deploy in big numbers in support of its "Project Cavalry" analog-reclamation initiative. (See Comcast IDs Next WiMax Markets .)

Those uDTAs, as they're often called, can run with the embedded security enabled on Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT)- or Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)-based cable networks. The initial crop of DTAs, able to run only on Motorola networks, don't support Broadcom's new channel changing accelerator.

Brett Tischler, the senior marketing manager for Broadcom's broadband communications division, said the chipmaker started up the FastRTV project a couple of years ago, noting that implementing channel changes is of special importance in DTAs because the one-way digital channel zappers, which don't use interactive program guides (IPGs), are designed to replicate the old analog cable TV experience. Adding quick channel changes in Broadcom's BCM7002 DTA chip "eliminates that consumer push-back" MSOs might get with the earlier-generation versions of those boxes, he said.

Here's a brief video that shows the difference in that channel-changing experience:



Broadcom execs declined to go into all of the technical detail on how FastRTV works, but did note that it involves some specialized hardware and software modifications that allow the device to buffer and rapidly decode the channels above and below the channel that a DTA is tuned to.

Fast channel change is a feature that Microsoft has long touted for Mediaroom, but that process requires a bunch of servers -- something Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) is getting a firsthand look at in Los Angeles as it gets ready to conduct an IP video trial. Broadcom's approach weaves that capability into the DTA's memory and decoding fabric. (See TWC Taps Microsoft Mediaroom for IPTV Test .)

Broadcom thinks FastRTV will give it an advantage in the set-top-chip arena, and particularly in the highly commoditized DTA chip market, which includes competitors such as Zoran Corp. (Nasdaq: ZRAN) and Trident Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: TRID). (See Trident Pokes at Broadcom's DTA Chip Lead .)

"We always have to have a little advantage, and ours is fast channel change," said John Gleiter, Broadcom's senior direct of marketing for cable set-top products.

That technology will come in handy as the cable industry starts to deploy HD-capable DTAs. Most Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -integrated security waivers involve standard-definition set-tops. Cable One Inc. is the only MSO with a waiver to use an HD-DTA, and that is for just one system. The floodgates could open, however, if the FCC ends up approving an industry-wide exemption for HD-DTAs with embedded security. (See Broadcom Breaks Out HD-DTA Chipset and Scoop! Cable ONE Makes HD-DTA Picks .)

Video gateway update
Broadcom also offered updates on its work with much more advanced Docsis 3.0-powered video gateways, showing off two reference designs.

Broadcom's Secure Media Server (SMS) is a transport gateway that can ingest up to six streams of traditional digital cable video, convert them to IP format, and shuttle those off to a set-top or another video display hanging off the home network that speaks IP. Because there's no video rendering functions inherent in the device, the SMS is considered a "headless" gateway.

Broadcom's second design, the Video Media Server (VMS), is "headed," meaning it has all of the capabilities of the SMS, plus video rendering, so it can be connected directly to a TV. Both designs run on Linux using Broadcom's Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) stack.

Broadcom senior director of marketing Jay Kirchoff allowed that the video gateways won't be flying out the door in big volumes for a while, since they're considered a long-term play for the cable industry.

But there are limited examples in which operators want to pull the video gateway trigger fairly soon. Kirchoff says Broadcom expects to start shipping production units based on SMS design numbering in the "tens of thousands" in the fourth quarter of 2010.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Light Reading Cable

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