UPDATE 12:00 pm ET 31 May 2006
Cologne (Germany) – Western Europe and Asia fast becoming proving grounds for Internet-driven high-speed digital video. There was no clearer indication of this fact than Tuesday morning, at the opening of a major cable television technology trade fair in Cologne, where the California-based Airgo Networks dominated the news with a trio of announcements, indicating that future iterations of this trade fair may have very little to do with cables per se.
Tuesday’s announcements deal with simultaneous streaming multimedia channels over home wireless networks. With Airgo’s Gen3 chipset for its True MIMO standard becoming a leading contender for bringing this capability to fruition, at least in Europe, the IPTV and digital CATV industries, as well as the coalition supporting the European DV-B digital broadcast standard, appear to have begun adopting Gen3 as, at a minimum, the prototype for digital wireless home cable. To spur on the industry, the company announced the launch of its so-called True MIMO Media technology, obviously as a candidate for a digital video industry standard.
But video is not where Airgo intends to stop. “Those that can deliver a converged network of entertainment and services to all parts of the home wirelessly,” Airgo Networks’ statement reads, “will remove for themselves the cost and complexity of cabling and thus enjoy a marketplace advantage. Until now, service providers looking to provide expanded services to residential customers through low-cost, high-value wireless home networks through set-top boxes (STBs) have been stymied by the limitations of wireless technologies.” In other words, as long as True MIMO Gen3 can deliver on its promise of 100 – 120 Mbps throughput, and perhaps better as time goes on, digital audio and voice-over-IP services may as well ride side-saddle. Airgo is trying to reserve a permanent place for itself at the digital table – the same place that Lucent tried to wrest for itself, and failed.
To that end, however, Airgo moves ahead with its plans to provide its own flavor of WiFi technology – what Airgo is calling the “third generation” of wireless components – well ahead of the formal adoption of the 802.11n standard by the IEEE. Early this month, the IEEE failed to ratify a draft 11n 1.0 document by a significant margin.
Airgo’s leading chipset customers are Linksys, D-Link, and Netgear. All are currently offering wireless networking components using Airgo’s Gen3 chipset, while at the same time offering components using “draft 11n” chipsets from competing manufacturers. Draft 11n components follow the proposed standard that the IEEE declined to ratify, though their manufacturers continue to produce them in lieu of a formalized alternative. Airgo’s argument is that, unlike the case with draft 11n components, it has scored more design-ins – implementations of Gen3 technology from vendors likely to bring it to prominence in the market.
Two of these design-ins were announced on Tuesday: Set-top box IC manufacturer STMicroelectronics and IPTV IC manufacturer Caton Overseas may be the first to produce wireless home satellite and CATV components anywhere in the world. Leading draft 11n manufacturers such as Marvell and Broadcom also have their sights set on the IPTV market, and early reviews show their components are also capable of squeaking past the 100 Mbps throughput mark. But Airgo boasts the lead in implementation, as its competition continues to wait for what could be further months of debating and negotiations among IEEE members toward a draft 2.0 document for 802.11n.
STMicroelectronics builds decoder chips for MPEG2 video streams, used in a multitude of set-top boxes. Today, STM announced it’s developing a reference design for STB manufacturers, in co-operation with Airgo, based on the Gen3 chipset. Meanwhile, Caton Overseas is a relatively young manufacturer based in Beijing and Shanghai, producing IPTV components for the emerging China market. Tuesday, Caton said it will be releasing wireless home media components under the V2O brand, for implementation by Chinese satellite TV providers within the next two months, and by CATV providers in China early next year.
“Wireless offers consumers much greater convenience,” said STMicroelectronics corporate vice president Christos Lagomichos in a statement, “and eliminates expensive support and installation costs that are currently preventing service providers from fully distributing video content around the home.”
Both STM and Caton are members of a powerful industry group formed in January 2005 around the standardization of a secure video processor, called the SVP Alliance. Other members of this group include graphics chip leader ATI, satellite TV provider DirecTV, CPU manufacturer AMD, and content protection advocate 20th Century-Fox. If the Gen3 chipset continues to make early inroads among this group, and if the IEEE can’t come to a decision soon regarding 11n technology, Airgo could very well find itself the early leader in its bid to dominate one of digital media’s core industries.
According to Airgo’s lead-off announcement, True MIMO Media “optimizes performance for multimedia over Wi-Fi by dramatically increasing range and virtually eliminating packet errors even in the presence of interference.” This is where Airgo’s efforts may meet its first true hurdle. As Tom’s Networking’s Tim Higgins believes, if Airgo has come up with some “secret sauce” that truly accomplishes this, then it will be a significant industry event. But it will take some serious testing to verify such an accomplishment.
The problem, Higgins points out, is that one of the two frequency bands on which pre-11n equipment currently operates – the 2.4 GHz band – is more than a little busy. “The 2.4 GHz band is very crowded and generally considered too noisy for reliable video streaming,” said Higgins, although consumer networking companies have no problem pushing both Gen3 and draft 11n products for home networking.
If there is any challenge to Airgo in this new arena, it may come from a Mountain View-based company called Ruckus Networks, which just last week announced it had won a contract with Paris-based electronics retailer Darty, to sell its MediaFlex wireless IPTV system to French customers through Darty stores. But Ruckus’ value proposition is based on customer convenience, not speed, and thus may not carry the weight among SVP Alliance members as a hard-wired set of performance numbers. On the other hand, if early adopters of wireless IPTV suddenly find their signals colliding with one another at not-so-close range, customers may just appreciate the convenience of a handy retail outlet where they might find an alternative.
At this early stage of the race, however, Airgo has put considerable distance between itself and its closest competitors, if it truly has any. The real wild card could come when Airgo makes a play for the “third world” of digital media: America, its home turf.