Denver -- It doesn't slice, dice or julienne, but a paper
prototype of ADC Broadband Communications' new RF amplifier claims to do just about
Last week, ADC detailed what has been a closely held
secret, called "Pathworx," which also marks its entry into what ADC
characterized as an $850 million-a-year market for network amplifiers.
Next month's Cable-Tec Expo will be the venue for ADC's
public debut for the new Pathworx line, which includes an 870 megahertz trunk-bridger and
high-gain bridger, executives said during a briefing here last week.
As recently as the National Show in Atlanta earlier this
month, though, word was slipping out about the new devices, which were designed from an
amplifier "wish list" elicited from all levels of cable's engineering ranks over
the last two years.
At the top of that wish list: a way to automatically and
remotely check amplifiers and line extenders, which typically hang on strand wires 18 feet
above ground or are placed in pedestals or underground vaults.
"Everybody wants a foolproof amp," said Hugh
McCarley, director of engineering for Cox Communications Inc. and one of the participants
in ADC's product planning focus groups. "One where you could know what's going on, or
set levels -- without ever having to go up and open the housings."
Bob Burkholder, vice president of ADC's RF business unit,
said that the addition of a microprocessor and a 2.4 gigahertz wireless transceiver to the
amplifiers means operators can interrogate the units or change levels from 400 feet away.
"MSOs told us to find a way to not have to open the
amplifier, because it was too expensive, too hands-on," and too much of a potential
moisture hazard, Burkholder said. With the new amplifiers, "they don't even have to
get out of the truck."
Plus, technicians could conduct 50 "drive-by
shootings" per day with the wireless technique, over eight or so per day with visual
inspections, he said.
"They can read input and output levels on all ports,
plus check or set pad and equalizer values," he said. "You just drive by, shoot,
and if you see green dots [on the palmtop display], you keep driving."
Still, McCarley and other MSO engineers familiar with ADC's
plans noted that most amplifier problems crop up when the power supply inside it fails. In
that case, popping the lid is often necessary.
Inside the housing, ADC is using a new Motorola Inc.
silicon hybrid for signal amplification, as well as a microprocessor to control levels and
communicate wirelessly to software loaded on a personal digital assistant.
The microprocessor is similar to those used in automobiles
for dashboard and other digital controls, Burkholder said, and operates in extreme
temperature ranges -- from 40 degrees Celsius up to 85 degrees Celsius. Because it
automatically configures the amplifier, operators can save time in the field, he said.
And, the microprocessor control replaces the need for
status-monitoring modules, which can cost as much as $200 each, inside each amplifier, ADC
Other wish-list items designed in the amps include a lid
that doubles as an optical tray and converts the RF amplifer into an optical node.
There's another promise: Operators with 450 MHz plant can
drop in the new ADC amplifiers, without the need for respacing, Burkholder said.
Pathworx, with seven patents pending, is at a "second
prototype" phase now, and will be displayed in a private area of ADC's Cable-Tec Expo
booth to prevent competitive spying, Burkholder said.
It will be priced on par with its main competitors --
General Instrument Corp., C-Cor Electronics, Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Philips Broadband
Networks, among others -- with commercial availability slated for October.
Harvey Morrison, senior analyst and program manager for
Ryan Hankin Kent, noted that ADC "is coming late to a U.S. rebuild market with
entrenched vendors and aggressive pricing." Still, he said, ADC's approach and
analysis of the amplifier segment "is sound, and the cost savings for cable operators
Most MSO engineers who are familiar with ADC's product
strategy said they've seen nothing yet except product blueprints, but are eager and
impressed to see the new line. Most also said they'd keep a careful eye on what they
called "option pricing."
"This is something I really want to see," said
one engineer, who said he didn't want to be quoted about a product he has yet to actually
review. "They haven't been through the school of hard knocks in making amplifiers,
but the initial plans still look awfully attractive."