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Programmable broadband heightens PC TV hype

Posted: 21 Jan 2009 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:PC TV? broadband programmable? mobile TV? digital TV?

Do you really need your notebook PC to be capable of receiving live free-to-air TV broadcast?

When a generation of young people is more inclined to watch only what they want to watch over the Internet at any time and any place of their choosing, integrating in a portable gadget a broadcast TV receiver seems almost superfluous.

And yet, upon the survival of mobile TV chip vendors hinges on this application. After searching many years for the yet-to-blossom mobile TV handset market, vendors are increasingly shifting their focus to the PC-TV market.

Add to this phenomenon the fact that a universal radio receiver has long been a Holy Grail for many in the mobile engineering community. Its absence has prevented consumers from enjoying a truly global mobile handset or global TV on the go.

As mobile TV chip companies such as Siano Mobile, Telegent Systems and CrestaTech all acknowledge, netbook and notebook PCs capable of broadcast TV reception are already within their reach.

Siano Mobile, for one, worked with Hauppauge Computer Works to design Dell's USB digital TV tuner, which was unveiled earlier this month at the Consumer Electronics Show. The USB digital TV tuner will receive live and free over-the-air local digital and high-definition (HD) TV broadcasts where available.

Telegent Systems also announced last week a single-chip CMOS hybrid TV receiver, designed to allow the integration of live analog TV (PAL/SECAM/NTSC) and Europe's DVB-T digital TV in laptops, netbooks and mobile Internet devices. Telegent, by adding DTV reception capability to its claim-to-fame analog TV receiver, hopes to muscle its way into the PC TV market.

And then, there is CrestaTech, a California-based start-up focused on the development of a "universal broadband receiver."

Programmable broadband
The company, founded by Silicon Valley's serial entrepreneur George Haber, took its wraps off at the CES. Using a core technology called "programmable broadband receiver," CrestaTech demonstrated a "region-free TV," capable of receiving analog or digital TV broadcast, radio and GPS signals.

CrestaTech's universal broadband receiver, called CrestaTV, consists of "extremely programmable RF and interface IC and multithreaded signal processing software," according to Haber.

The initial CrestaTV, scheduled for sampling in the second quarter of this year, is capable of tuning, demodulating and decoding TV signals ranging from analog TV, U.S. digital TV (based on 8-VSB modulation) to cable (based on QAM) and European digital TV system called DVB-T (based on OFDM), with the horsepower available in a PC or embedded system.

Signal interpretation
Asked how CrestaTech's "programmable broadband" differs from "software-defined radio (SDR)," Haber explained that SDR often refers to "interpretation of signals" once those signalsoften in narrowbandare captured.

In contrast, his company is focused on making "the transmission and reception of a very broad range of RF signals" programmable. Frequencies supported in CrestaTV include 42- to 864MHz and L1 band.

The total solution of CrestaTV dissipates only 500mW of power under maximum load, the company claimed. In sum, OEMs can implement CrestaTV on PCIe cards for desktops and PCI mini-express cards or USB TV sticks for laptops.

CrestaTV's programmable tuner is unique. Competing TV receiver vendors have developed a separate tuner for the United States and European digital TV each, because every TV broadcast standard tends to impose on it different receiver characteristics requirements. The U.S. ATSC system, for example, demands a very precise linearity in the 6MHz spectrum, while phase distortion becomes an important element in OFDM-based DVB-T, explained Ramon Cazares, VP, business development at CrestaTech.

CrestaTech's genius may lie in what Haber ostentatiously calls "Haber's Law," which says that "if it can be done in software, it will."

In early 90's, when every multimedia chip company was working on a dedicated MPEG-2 video decoder IC, Haber, who founded CompCore Multimedia, was the first to develop and license an IP core capable of decoding MPEG-2 video decoding in software by using processing power available in hardware.

Multicore era
With CrestaTech, Haber is applying that proven theory to its universal, programmable receiver. And this time around, "We are riding on the waves of a growing number of more powerful multicore processors," said Cazares.

"Look at x86, Cell, MIPS and ARM today. They are all offering multiple cores combined with special instruction sets for media accelerators," he explained.

CrestaTech's engineering team, headed up by Mihai Murgulescu, founder and chief technology officer, has worked on algorithms designed for software multithreading, has developed a new software framework for parallel processing and has done extensive optimization for SIMD accelerators.

Unlike many chip vendors' programmable demodulators which are often married to their specific DSP, Murgulescu claimed that they wrote software that is portable across different CPU platforms.

Speaking of CrestaTech, Gerry Kaufhold, principal analyst responsible for converging markets and technologies at In-Stat, said "These guys may be on to something important."

Kaufhold noted, "Right now, most PC TV tuners are used in non-mobile, desktop or stationary laptop PCs." Indeed, thus far, so-called "on-the-go TV viewing" has been limited.

Fast scanning
Signal reception is often poor, but moreover, it takes a long timeas much as 30 minutesto scan broadcast channels, and another 30 minutes to rescan. Even if a PC-TV tuner finally tunes in, all bets are off, "once you move the PC to another location," said Kaufhold.

In contrast, CrestaTech's software can quickly check the GPS, coordinate and map it against the FCC's data base of available over-the-air radio, analog TV, and DTV transmitters. That, Kaufhold said, "could be a breakthrough."

But CrestaTech still has work to do. The company won't be able to offer production samples of its universal broadband receiver until the second quarter. Meanwhile, some competitors believe they can beat CrestaTech to the punch.

Sanjay Noronha, product manager at Telegent, says his company is a step closer to the universal mobile TV receiver nirvana. "We developed a single receiver hybrid IC architecture which receives analog and digital DVB-T TV signals," he said.

This single IC solution enables users to watch digital TV anywhere in Europe and the many countries around the world that have adopted DVB-T as their digital standard.

He explained, "In areas where DVB-T is not yet strongly deployed (and so the digital signal may be weak), consumers will still get access to analog TV signals thanks to our chip's hybrid tuning capabilities."

Power consumption issues
Noronha remains skeptical of CrestaTech's programmable approach.

He said that Telegent integrates a hardware demodulator as opposed to the "programmable model." Noronha suspects that "up to 70 percent of the host CPU can be consumed by the software demodulation scheme."

In contrast, with Telegent's hardware demodulator, handling the intensive demodulation task completely independent of the CPU, he claims significantly lower total feature power consumption.

In netbooks, where the battery is often a 2-cell battery, battery life is a key concern, Noronha explained.

Software-based demodulation schemes "will require a portable device to be frequently recharged," he added.

According to In-Stat, in the United States, overall annual digital PC-TV Tuner shipments were 1.8 million units in 2007. The market research firm forecasts growth to 8.1 million units in 2012, creating a compound annual growth rate for the five-year 2007 to 2012 period of 35.6 percent.

Meanwhile, revenue for digital tuners is forecast to grow from $278.5 million in 2007 to $470.9 million in 2012.

In 2009 alone, digital PC-TV tuners in North America are expected to grow about 57 percent, said Kaufhold. "This is because we expect that several million US TV households will opt to use a digital PC-TV tuner as one more way to keep their over-the-air TV service available."

- Junko Yoshida
EE Times

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