Cable Tech

MaxLinear Tunes Up Cable Power Play

MaxLinear Corp. is pursuing a portion of Microtune Inc. (Nasdaq: TUNE)'s cable business with the debut of a line of low-power, silicon tuners for cable set-tops and more advanced video "gateway" devices.

If MaxLinear's successful, cable will mark the third market for the Carlsbad, Calif.-based, privately held firm. Six-year-old MaxLinear cut its teeth producing CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) tuners for mobile video handsets, and began selling tuners for terrestrial TV converter boxes last year. It claims to have shipped more than 50 million total units so far and, according to company VP of marketing John Graham, has turned a profit for six consecutive quarters.

With cable viewed as its next growth opportunity, MaxLinear is entering that market with two products: a standalone tuner called the MxL201RF and the MxL241SF, a version that adds in a QAM demodulator. (See MaxLinear Tunes Up Cable Strategy.)

MaxLinear hopes the 201, already in production, will resonate with makers of digital set-tops as well as simpler Digital Terminal Adapter (DTA) devices that are proving popular at Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) and other MSOs that are chasing analog reclamation strategies. (See Comcast's $1B Bandwidth Plan .)

The 241, meanwhile, looks to find a home inside more advanced cable hybrid gateways that support cable's typical QAM-based video, as well as the delivery of IP video, and can shuttle content to a variety of TVs and displays on the home network using Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) and other high-speed home networking schemes.

MaxLinear and Microtune look to compete head-on in the DTA and traditional digital set-top markets, but their product portfolios may also complement each other in hybrid QAM/IP gateways if OEM (original equipment manufacturing) partners opt to mix and match at the component level.

Whatever scenario plays out, MaxLinear is hanging its hopes on tuners with low power consumption, claiming its products for the cable sector eat about 450mW of power, nearly half what Microtune claims for its current generation of data-only tuners.

MaxLinear's focus on video signals and low-power "makes them stand out a bit from the crowd," says Michael Palma, senior research analyst for consumer semiconductors at IDC .

The 201 is in production but not deployed yet. Graham expects the latter to start by the first quarter of 2010, noting that the company has already won "validation" with Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Arris Group Inc. (Nasdaq: ARRS), and Comcast. "These [products] are absolutely North America-ready," he claims. [Ed note: MaxLinear later clarified that the vendors and MSO noted above are examples of the who they'd try to score business with, though the company still claims it has won validation with "several major cable equipment OEMs."]

On the DTA front, MaxLinear hopes to win some business with smaller, next-generation versions that are more like out-of-sight dongles, in contrast to the brick-like fixtures that are in the field today. Graham thinks those new DTAs could start appearing by 2010, with North American MSOs starting to get more aggressive with advanced gateway deployments in 2011 and 2012. Cable operators in Europe and Asia, however, are expected to put gateways in the field before then, he says.

Although MaxLinear is just getting its cable entry ramped up, the company expects to have it represent as much as one third of its business by 2011.

That could produce some new competition for Microtune, which has shipped more than 137 million silicon tuners so far. Microtune, founded in 1996, is also focused on the DTA and gateway product categories. As far as gateways go, "our silicon's being used for prototypes of that now," says Carey Ritchey, general manager of Microtune's cable business.

Microtune's lowest-power tuners currently run in the 800mW range, but the company does expect performance to improve with a new class of "MicroReceiver" products.

Ritchey declined to discuss any coming power-consumption benchmarks, but Microtune president and CEO Jim Fontaine noted during the company's second-quarter earnings call in July that the first two MicroReceiver products will target the digital TV and cable markets. Microtune expects to release "early samples" of those products before the end of this year, Fontaine said.

Although MaxLinear and Microtune will end up competing in the silicon tuner market for cable, they probably won't match up head-to-head in every instance.

As a recent example, In-Stat principal analyst Mike Paxton points out that Texas Instruments Inc. (NYSE: TXN)'s recently introduced Docsis 3.0-powered video/data gateway "hardware development kit" will comprise products from both silicon tuner firms. The HDK will use MaxLinear's 241 video tuners as well as Microtune's MT2170 wideband tuners and MT1570 programmable gain amplifiers. (See TI Debuts Docsis 3.0 Video Gateway Kit.)

If that trend continues in the still-developing gateway product market, don't expect MaxLinear to contend for Microtune's sizeable cable market share lead anytime soon.

"The way the market is changing, there will be room for both MaxLinear and Microtune," Paxton predicts, referring to the expected emergence of multi-function gateways.

Microtune, meanwhile, is downplaying the threat posed by MaxLinear. "I've seen an awful lot of silicon vendors try to enter [the cable sector]… and very few of them are shipping product today," Ritchey says. "Announcing a product and getting it field-worthy are sometimes very different."

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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