SHANGHAI STMicroelectronics is stepping in to support China's domestic audio video codec, lending it more street credibility in a world dominated by MPEG-4 and H.264/AVC standards.
ST will initially take a software-based approach to decode China's Audio Video Coding Standard, using media processors in its existing STi520x and STi710x families that are used in IP set-top boxes. By the end of the year, or early next year, it will have a hardwired implementation in volume production, said Bob Krysiak, ST's general manager for Greater China.
ST is the leading set-top box supplier in China, so its support for AVS is a nice win for its backers, who have been cajoling the company to support the fledgling codec. Last month, ST hinted at its intentions by showing a demo of its standard definition AVS platform at the China Content Broadcasting Network conference in Beijing.
"The rules of the game have changed a bit," Krysiak said. "Originally, we weren't sure how much support this would get, but now some operators are insisting that if you don't have AVS on your roadmap then they won't talk to you."
Expect other multinationals, such as Broadcom Corp., to quickly tip plans of their support for AVS, too. The change in attitude is caused by two things. First, China Netcom has decided to use AVS in its IPTV rollout. Second, some vendors fear the government may increase its arm-twisting by telling companies they control to make AVS a required part of STB specs.
Netcom, which is controlled by the government, is China's second largest wired-line operator. Late last year, Netcom said positive results from testing AVS in the coastal city of Dalian persuaded it to fully implement the codec this year in 20 cities. It will also transfer current H.264-based IPTV trials in four cities to AVS. China Netcom is running IPTV trial in five cities, one of which uses AVS while the other four use the more popular H.264.
Netcom hopes for 2 million AVS-based IPTV users in two years and 6 million in five to seven years, or about 40 percent of its current broadband users. Market researcher iSuppli Corp. estimates that by 2008 there will be 3.6 million IPTV users in China and by 2010, the figure will be 17.4 million. Last year, there were 436,000 IPTV users.
Netcom's decision, now followed by ST, is a much-needed boost for AVS, which has lacked the commercial scale to compete with H.264. Till now, only a small number of local companies have signed onto AVS, including Celestial Semiconductor, Grandview Semiconductor, Longjing Microelectronics, Fudan Micro Nano and Beijing USC.
A recently released Chinese broadcast mobile TV specification, known as CMMB, also uses AVS as its codec. Still, China Telecom, the largest domestic telecom company, favors H.264 in its IPTV offering and it will likely dominate the market.
AVS backers say the codec is similar to H.264 in terms of technical performance. Unlike MPEG-4/H.264, however, the AVS group probably will not charge "participation fees" to use the codec for subscription-based services, over-the-air free broad- casts or duplication of content on a title-by-title basis.
The STB520x and STi710x are already in volume production, so STB makers should be able to add AVS support without the hassle of a major redesign. Krysiak said support for high definition AVS will come as soon as it finishes development and is "formally adopted."
The STB520x and STi710x, which are produced using 90-nanometer technology, also support MPEG 2, MPEG 4 and H.264/AVC standards.