Chinook Promises to Boost Bandwidth

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Chinook Communications Inc., a Lexington, Mass.-based startup, had its coming-out party last week, and made a promise that the technology it is developing will boost bandwidth for cable operators.

Billing itself as "The Bandwidth Creation Company," Chinook claims its silicon is being designed to cram another 6 megabits of bandwidth per 6-megahertz channel.

The extra bandwidth would be cumulative, meaning an 80-analog channel system would have access to an extra 480 megabits per second of bandwidth, said company president and CEO Andrew Audet, the former general manager of Motorola Broadband Communications Sector's cable-data products division.

To do that, Chinook's encoding silicon must be imbedded within existing cable-modem-termination-systems on the network, and its decoding chips must rest inside set-tops, residential gateways or cable-modems on the consumer end. On the network side, the company also is looking into a stand-alone device, but has no plans to make its own consumer-based equipment.

That means Chinook will need to craft partnerships with some big name vendors. Motorola Broadband, Scientific-Atlanta Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. "certainly will help determine our success," Audet acknowledged.

He said initial talks with equipment players, MSOs and overbuilders have been well received. "When you talk about fairly inexpensive and easy ways to improve bandwidth, you get everybody's attention," Audet said, noting the price target the company is trying to hit is $10 and below per unit.

When asked if Motorola Broadband was in discussions with Chinook, a company spokeswoman would only say the company is in constant discussions with budding technology companies, but wouldn't be more specific.

Of the applications that could benefit from Chinook's technology, "it's pretty clear that video-on-demand will have an impact over the next couple of years," Audet said. "There is also some potential out there that cable-modem services could face some limiting issues on the bandwidth side."

At first glance, Chinook's bandwidth play "makes more sense for video than data," said Kinetic Strategies president Michael Harris. "It'll be interesting to see what kind of uptake they get for data."

Chinook said a $17-million round of Series A funding led by OneLiberty Ventures, WaldenVC, BancBoston Ventures, Highland Capital Partners and YankeeTek Ventures will push it through early next year, about the time it plans to ship its first products. Before that, Chinook expects to launch some trials with vendor and cable partners as early as this fall, Audet said.

Today, Chinook has 30 employees, about 26 of them engineers, including founder and Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor Gregory W. Wornell.

Though Chinook is entering a relatively new sector, the usual suspects in the cable silicon arena — Broadcom Corp., Texas Instruments Inc. and Conexant Systems Inc. — likely will provide all the competition it will need to keep it on its toes.

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