Vendors Chip in To Advance DTV

FCC mandate spurs growth of DTV tuner market
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FCC mandate spurs growth of DTV tuner market

HAMILTON, N.J.

With the passing of the first deadline in the FCC's DTV tuner mandate schedule, the pace of development, production, and deployment of DTV tuner components--tuner, demodulator, and decoder--has intensified.

This induced demand has resulted in better economies of scale that could help lower prices for DTVs, as well as DTV digital-to-analog converter boxes for the nation's 70 million sets not hooked to cable or satellite.

The FCC DTV tuner mandate stipulates that all 36-inch or larger DTV sets entering the United States must have an integrated DTV tuner capable of receiving the ATSC signal over-the-air (OTA); with mid-sized 25- to 35-inch sets in full compliance by March 2006; and smaller 13- to 24-inch sets in full compliance by July 2007.

MEETING THE MANDATE

"As the FCC's DTV tuner mandate kicks in, volumes are building and prices are falling," said Michael Gittings, director of marketing for DTV products for Markham, Ontario-based ATI Technologies, Inc. "Our prices have had to fall as the market gets larger. Price pressures have been intense."

But sales have increased. "We went from selling an insignificant number of units in 2003 to selling 5 million units in 2004," he said. ATI currently has an 85-percent marketshare of the demodulator chip business and a 45-percent marketshare in the MPEG decoder business--for ATSC DTV sets. ATI just introduced the Xilleon 240, a single-chip solution that integrates 8-VSB (the ATSC reception standard), QAM demodulation and an HD/SD capable MPEG-2 video and audio decoder.

"For 35-inch and larger sets, everyone wants the best performance at any cost. This market is using our high-end NXT 2003 or Theater 314 chips," Gittings said. "For mid-sized DTVs, people still want high performance but they want cost savings since they have to build cheaper sets. That's where we're seeing a lot of interest in our Xilleon 240 because its integrated design eliminates the need for two separate chips, making it more cost effective."

ATI is also targeting the Xilleon 240 and Theater 311 VSB receiver for small-sized DTVs, D/A converter boxes and no-frills, NDCR (non-digital cable ready) applications. "Both chips have been included in our customers' proposals submitted in response to MSTV's RFQ for a terrestrial digital-to-analog set-top converter box," Gittings said. "MSTV sees the need for low-cost OTA receivers for analog sets and they are serving as a catalyst to get that market moving, and we are ready to supply chips for it."

PROMOTING ATSC

Korea-based LG Electronics, which acquired the patent on 8-VSB when it purchased Zenith in 1999, is another major player in the DTV chip market. John Taylor, vice president of public affairs for LG Electronics USA agrees with Gittings' assessment.

"The FCC DTV tuner mandate is driving down the cost of DTV tuners as the economies of scale take hold and as the volume ramps up in the industry," Taylor said. "Our company believes that by 2007, the cost of a DTV tuner will only be $40 more than an analog tuner, and by the end of this decade, costs will be comparable."

LG's fifth-generation DTV demodulator chip has been integrated into all LG and Zenith brand DTVs, including direct and rear-view integrated HDTVs manufactured this year. In fact, Taylor explained, all of LG's large-screen plasma, LCD, DLP, and CRT TV receivers sold in the United States are now built around this chipset. "'LG5' is widely regarded by broadcasters as a breakthrough single-chip demodulator that has been proven to eliminate multipath distortion that adversely affects reception with a simple indoor antenna," Taylor said.

As part of its development efforts on sixth-generation VSB chipsets, LG is working on new lower-cost DTV tuner approaches that can be used for DTV digital-to-analog converter boxes, as well as small screen DTVs.

"Existing analog sets will need converter boxes to receive those ATSC signals sent OTA when analog broadcasting ceases in the 2009 timeframe," said Taylor. "Regardless of the outcome of the debate on Capitol Hill about how best to subsidize low-income consumers that need these devices, there will be a sizeable market for D-to-A converters to help complete the DTV transition."

Currently, the ATSC broadcast standard is employed in the United States, Canada, Mexico and South Korea. However, Taylor said, "other countries in the Western Hemisphere are watching DTV developments here in the U.S. closely as they decide whether or not to adopt the ATSC standard. A drop in DTV prices, and the availability of low-cost converter boxes, will be of particular interest to poorer Latin American countries. So the increased performance of DTV tuner chips coupled with a drop in prices could favorably impact their decisions to choose ATSC."

TUNING IN TO DTV

There are three main components that comprise a DTV receiver: the tuner, which converts the off-air radio frequency signal to intermediate frequency; the demodulator, a chip-based processor that converts that IF signal to digital and outputs an MPEG transport stream; and the MPEG decoder, which translates that transport stream to outputs that will drive the display and sound cards.

In addition to ATI and LG, other DTV chip suppliers include Micronas, Zoran, Broadcom, and STMicro-electronics.

However, in the tuner IC (integrated circuit) category, Microtune is a leading supplier and pioneer of the single-chip tuner IC, which replaces "module" tuners. Module tuners, which have been used extensively for more than three decades, consist of hundreds of small components.

"Our tuners require only a relatively small number of external components, and while discrete modules may require 15-20 minutes of manual test and alignment, designs based on our ICs require no alignment whatsoever. As a result, our module partners are able to achieve much higher factory throughput using a much simpler supply chain and fewer manual operations," said Greg Zancewicz, director of broadband marketing for Microtune, in Plano, Texas.

"To date, we've shipped over 20 million silicon tuners, serving many markets, including DTV in the U.S., DVB-T [Europe and Asia], cable modems, and cable set-top boxes. We have seen a modest increase in demand due to the DTV tuner mandate, but our customers are benefiting from the scale of our participation in these other markets."

In a very competitive marketplace, Microtune has struck partnerships with Toshiba and Samsung, which have integrated Microtune tuners in their DTV sets. Samsung's point of deployment (POD) network interface module (NIM) now contains the Microtune MicroTuner MT2121 single-chip tuner and MT1110 broadband amplifier.

"By adopting Microtune's silicon tuning technology as our core RF components, we are providing a very small, highly integrated, and low-power POD NIM that can streamline high-volume DTV production," said Chang Kap Nam, research and development group leader, Samsung Electro-Mechanics. "As the migration to DTV accelerates in the U.S., we expect a surge in demand for POD NIM integrated modules that meet FCC regulatory requirements and that deliver exceptional off-air and cable TV performance."

Microtune is also planning to enter the U.S. market for DTV converter boxes, and is developing specialized tuner chips specifically for this pure 8-VSB application.

DTV SEES NO GHOSTS

Zurich, Switzerland-based Micronas just announced DRX-H, its family of next-generation multistandard 8-VSB/QAM/QPSK/NTSC demodulator products targeting DTVs, set-top boxes, multimedia PCs, DVD recorders, PVRs, and more. DRX-H is based on proprietary PrimeD technology (developed by LINX Electronics which was acquired by Micronas in May 2004) that combines multiple echoes to create a single, stronger signal, resulting in enhanced overall reception quality.

"When the transmitter signal is blocked, chances are there'll be one or more ghosts that can be equal in strength to the main signal," said Richard Citta, chief scientist at Micronas in Chicago. "We've done testing in places like downtown Chicago where it's like a billiard game, and we have found situations where there's 100-percent ghosting [delays of the main signal]. If you filtered that out, you'd have no picture at all," said Citta. "Our technology is designed to handle full 100 percent or 0 dB [dynamic ghosts] signal conditions. It can discern the ghost from the main signal, process it, and combine them so that you end up with one good signal."

The Micronas DRX-H demodulator technology was tested by Communications Research Center (CRC), in Ottawa, Canada. When asked why chip vendors take their technology to Canada, Citta explained that CRC is a very high-quality laboratory, funded by the Canadian government, which can test products with total objectivity. "Since the ATTC in Washington, D.C. closed, there is no longer a testing center here in the U.S.," Citta said. "Maintaining a highly accurate test bed is very expensive and CRC is set up to handle it, so vendors from the U.S. and Europe take their systems to be tested there."

PASSING THE TEST

Over the last 12 months, CRC has tested most of the next-generation demodulation chips from a variety of vendors and has found significant improvement in multipath performance compared to previous generations according to said Yiyan Wu, principal research scientist for CRC.

"We test the chips to determine if they meet the specifications on DTV receiver guidelines set forth in ATSC document A74. We also perform other tests to stress out the receivers to determine to what extent they exceed the A74 guidelines and what their upward limit is for performance," he said.

Testing is made more challenging by the fact that most vendors have adopted a "3-in-1" design that integrates VSB, QAM, and analog on a single chip, to ensure cable plug-and-play capability.

"While the demodulation chips we tested were magnitudes better than their predecessors, there is still room for further improvement with respect to multipath distortion," Wu said. "And there is room for improvement in tuners with respect to adjacent channel rejection capability. The tuner and demodulation chip play a significant role in determining how well any DTV will work."

According to Wu, there is considerable confusion in the marketplace. First, he said, "while the FCC has mandated that DTV tuners be integrated into DTV sets, there is confusion over the definition of DTV tuner. It's not one thing. It's two components: the RF tuner, which is an analog process; and the 8-VSB demodulation chip, which is digital.

"While many of the DTV makers have their own DTV tuner factories, their own tuner components are not necessarily being built into their brand of DTVs. DTV receivers often consist of components from several third-party vendors, and once the DTV is assembled, it's difficult to know which components are actually in it. Tuner chip makers themselves can't necessarily tell you which generation technology was used to make a particular chip even if you have the serial numbers and manufacture dates for the parts.

"And despite the great strides in DTV chip performance, the consumer rarely gets to compare the off-air picture quality on competing brand DTVs since consumer electronics stores feed the DTVs signals from DVD, cable, or satellite," Wu said. "DTV retailers and consumers have virtually no way to know which generation DTV tuner chips were 'stuffed in the box' and which ones would give them the best off-air reception."