BEIJING A Chinese company will start field trials of a software-defined set-top box in December, underscoring the country's move upstream into new technologies for broadband networking.
Cathay Roxus Information Technology Co., based here, says the tests will begin Dec. 15 on Chinese cable TV networks in the city of Mawei, in Fujian Province, using about 100 boxes. The planned trials follow announcements by China Netcom and China Telecom of plans for a high-capacity Internet Protocol network that will be used for field trials of a software-defined broadband access platform.
With bandwidth capacity growing fatter and cheaper, a new generation of set-top boxes with broadband access capabilities is emerging here, built by local vendors. Leading the push is Roxus, which said it will focus on service integration during the first month of trials, starting with one-way broadcasts.
DVB-C digital-TV programming will be offered in time for the Chinese New Year at the end of January. In the second phase of trials, Roxus and a cable operator will turn their attention to value-added services and up the number of trial set-tops to 1,000.
Interactive services will be based on one-way-cable data downloading. Telephone lines will be used for uploading instructions. The system will become a pure two-way cable network with digital-over-cable features by next March, the company said. Unlike a set-top box built around an ASIC, the Roxus box will serve as a set-top, cable modem, DSL modem and video phone by running different software for each feature.
In March, at the conclusion of the trials, Roxus will help operators in Fujian run the systems. The company plans at that point to open the platform interface to an industrial alliance that will serve as team operator, content provider and application provider.
To attract partners for the planned alliance, Roxus will bring its head-end system and client-end boxes to the Western Cable Show in Anaheim, Calif., in early December and to the January Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas.
Other Chinese operators, in Shandong Province and Shenzhen, are keeping a close watch on events in Fujian as they decide whether to also adopt the software-defined system. So is China's State Administration of Radio, Film and TV, which is hoping Roxus' decision to release its technology will enhance China's position as the founder of the world's first software-defined broadband industrial association.
"We focus on generating a new industry, not a single product," said Julong Du, chief executive officer of Roxus.
During the trial process, operators won't have to rebuild their cable networks, and customers will not need to buy new hardware as the system is upgraded step by step. New features including a cable modem will be downloaded from the head-end server, Roxus said. Such advanced capability has prompted some to call the new box a "set-top computer," said Du.
Relying on high-computation-density very long instruction word (VLIW) processors made by the Philips Trimedia operation, the Roxus box will implement features and applications like asymmetric digital subscriber lines, electronic program guides, conditional-access schemes, audio and video codecs and game software, as well as the cable modem.
Less than set-tops
Roxus prices its boxes between $150 and $300, much less expensive than set-tops that pack ASICs or MPEG-2 decoders. New software features will cost several to tens of dollars each. Cable modem or ADSL software will be priced between $20 and $30, the company said.
The high-end Roxus box will offer computation as high as 7,000 Mips with a 32-Mbit dynamic memory. The SBA2000 family will also offer physical-layer programmability for network and application functions, the company said.
Unlike a fixed, thin-client design, the Roxus design allows trial customers to remotely upgrade new communication and application functions from a server. "We believe personalized and flexible service is becoming more and more important in broadband service," said CEO Du. "Our set-top box is a very thick-client design [based] on a VLIW DSP, for these services require really high programmability."
More affordable VLIW processors have made high-computation devices affordable for the Chinese industry and its customers. Du predicted the computation of the Roxus set-top's VLIW DSP will be up to 10 times that of today's processors at the same price.
Greater programmability is expected to benefit OEMs, system operators and customers by offering greater flexibility in a transparent system. Hence, broadband set-top boxes are expected to soon become a commodity here.
Roxus will not produce the boxes itself. Instead, it will supply a software platform to third-party OEMs at least three large Chinese suppliers have been lined up and application software vendors.
OEMs including Star Group (Fuzhou), Legend Group (Beijing) and XCECO (Xiamen) are working closely with Roxus on box manufacturing. Both Star and Legend are experienced set-top box makers, having worked with National Semiconductor Corp. and Microsoft Corp. in China.
Meanwhile, nearly 70 Roxus engineers are writing software nonstop for the new system. Software for communication and networking functions, Digital Video Broadcasting, base-level security, middleware, network management and applications is also being readied. Roxus said it will complete most of them in the first half of 2001.
Royalties for platform and communication software like ADSL modems, cable modems and Ethernet media-access controllers could become a huge source of revenue for Roxus, observers said.