Forget about the TV set: Chip-makers expect the
digital-broadcasting migration to hit the personal computer first and fastest.
In recent weeks, silicon vendors have detailed a variety of
new products and development plans aimed at creating low-cost, mass-market solutions for
making digital-TV broadcasts and datacasts accessible by PC.
At the Comdex convention in Las Vegas earlier this month,
Conexant Systems Inc. demonstrated its "DStreamATSC" single-card reference
platform, which it said supports a high-definition TV tuner/decoder PC card at the $150
retail price point considered key to mass-market acceptance.
Also, digital-TV semiconductor and software producer
SkyTune Corp. announced a strategic alliance with Sarnoff Corp. to develop products aimed
at integrating low-cost digital-TV and datacasting-reception capabilities into PCs and
At Comdex, SkyTune also demonstrated its
"SKYDTV99" PCI (peripheral component interconnect) reference design, which it
called its first sub-$100 reference design for PC digital-TV receivers.
"This takes advantage of the impending ubiquity of the
PC architecture," SkyTune vice president of sales and marketing Mike Noonen said.
"That's not the same as saying the PC is going to be everywhere. But PC pieces
are finding their way into virtually everyplace where digital programming finds its
The digital-television market has been slow to emerge,
partly because of the chicken-and-egg hurdles of high digital-capable TV-set prices in the
$5,000 range that have hampered mass-market penetration. Plus, there has been a relative
lack of digital-TV programming, which analysts said will remain the case until the
installed base grows.
But chip developers are buoyed by market projections that
the huge existing base of PCs will translate into big demand for add-in cards that will
tune and receive digital-TV programming or datacasting, either through PCI or 1394
Cahners In-Stat, a sister company to Multichannel News,
forecast that digital-TV tuner/demodulator cards for PCs will account for 27.5 percent of
all digital-TV tuners sold in the United States next year, versus the 18.9 percent share
expected for TV sets. The PC figure rises to a peak of 32.4 percent in 2002.
The market could grow to 3 million digital-TV tuner cards
sold in 2002, jumping to 20 million two years later, Cahners forecast.
By 2005, an estimated 80 percent of all multimedia personal
computers sold to the consumer market will contain an Advanced Television Standards
Committee-based tuner/demodulator capable of receiving digital-TV signals using the U.S.
industry standard 8-vestigial-sideband modulation scheme, Cahners reported.
A key driver will be the availability of low-cost tuner
cards, which will be added to the "bullet list" of available PC features by
original-equipment manufacturers such as Dell Computer Corp. and Compaq Computer Corp. The
cards will join internal modems and sound cards as standard PC elements.
"We believe that this bullet-list phenomenon is likely
to occur with 8-VSB tuners for the U.S. market, especially since Microsoft [Corp.] and
Intel [Corp.] are 'force-feeding' data capabilities to the terrestrial-broadcast
industry," Cahners forecast.
"This market will experience the highest early unit
shipments, because the price point of an ATSC 8-VSB tuner/demod as an add-in card for a
personal computer will be below $300 at retail in 2000 and below $199 at retail in
2001," Cahners added.
Silicon developers such as Conexant and SkyTune believe
they can already reach that price point, and they said computer makers believe the market
"There are several PC OEMs already shipping analog-TV
cards as part of their build to order," said Eileen Carlson, Conexant's
product-line manager for broadcast products. "Time and time again, they're
asking for the ability to offer digital."
Conexant's reference design is for a PCI card with a
bill of material for hardware of about $70, meaning a PC OEM could retail the device for
$149 and capture a large profit margin in the process.
The design -- intended for computers using Pentium
III-class microprocessors -- incorporates Conexant's "Fusion 878A" PCI
decoder with the "CineMaster" HDTV-software MPEG-2 all-format decoder by
Ravisent Technologies Inc., which enables decoding and playback of all digital-TV formats
specified by the ATSC, including high-definition TV.
Carlson said this includes the 720-progressive format
delivering 60 frames per second and the 1080-interlaced format at 30 frames per second.
The digital-TV signal received by the TV tuner is
demodulated and sent to the Fusion decoder at 2 megabits per second. Then it is processed
and sent via the PCI bus, where it is decoded by the CineMaster software into respective
audio and video streams that can be handled by standard VGA and sound cards.
"Now we've hit processor speeds that are
sufficient," Carlson said, noting the proliferation of midrange PCs sporting CPU
speeds in the 500-megahertz to 600-MHz range. "And if people are buying a midrange
machine, they're getting a 17-inch monitor."
Reflecting the popularity of the PC card as a digital-TV
vehicle, Ravisent said it is also working with Intel, Philips Consumer Electronics Co.,
NVIDIA Corp., ATI Technologies Inc. and SkyTune on products incorporating its decoder.
Conexant expects retail products using its design to hit
the market in the first half of next year.
SkyTune expects the initial device from its collaboration
with Sarnoff -- the "SKY 5201" digital-TV receivers for PCs -- to be available
as engineering samples by mid-2000.
Noonen said that by targeting the PC architecture, SkyTune
wanted to help foster the development of datacasting that adds value for terrestrial
digital-TV broadcasters by giving viewers access to data that can be scaled significantly
higher than the streaming audio and video not available on the Internet.
The PC is a better platform than the TV, he added, because
it has greater processing power and memory than digital-TV set-top boxes and the added
functionality of a huge disk drive, creating the platform for additional future features
such as personal video recording -- the so-called digital VCR features.
"The potential high-definition-receiver customers are
already being served by cable and DBS [direct-broadcast satellite]," Noonen said.
"So from a broadcaster's viewpoint, the best way to make use of terrestrial DTV
is to broadcast IP [Internet protocol] data on a much larger scale than the Internet
public is being served now."
SkyTune's reference design for a sub-$100 DTV receiver
card is based on its "SKY951VP" chip, introduced earlier this year, and Oren
Semiconductor Inc.'s "OR51210" VSB demodulator.