Saankhya announces SDR-based universal TV demodulation platform

TechOnline India - November 11, 2009

An Indian startup, Saankhya, has announced its SDR-based platform for universal TV demodulation; claims it is the world's first and says it will address plurality of TV standards, save on costs for TV set manufacturers

Saankhya Labs, a fabless chip startup based here, has announced its Universal TV demodulator IC based on Software Defined Radio (SDR) architecture, and targeted at World TV and PC-TV receiver markets.

Built on an ASSP (application specific signal processor) platform, the product named Pruthvi - is made up of programmable DSPs, and is the first demodulation IC to enable Global TV Chassis, the company claimed. The product prototype that supports all standards on a FPGA platform is ready and has been demonstrated to 6 major TV companies in Japan.

According to the company, the addressable market for universal TV demodulation is in excess of 500 million units in 2014, of which the DTV market is 82 million units, the hybrid set-top box is 83 MU, PC-TV is 20 MU, and mobile TV will move to 300 MU in 2013 from 20 MU this year.

"DTV broadcast standards vary across regions and with transmission medium. Terrestrial DTV in U.S. and Korea uses ATSC (8-VSB), Europe and India use DVB-T (COFDM), Japan and Brazil use ISDB-T (COFDM) and China uses DTMB (TDS-OFDM) standard. Europe recently released the next generation terrestrial standard DVB-T2. These are just the terrestrial variants," said Vishwa Kayargadde, CEO, Saankhya Labs Pvt. Ltd.

Then, cable TV uses J.83 A/B/C (QAM) standards, Satellite uses DVB-S, DVB-S2 (QPSK) and Mobile TV has its own variants: DVB-H, DMB, ATSC-M/H, CMMB and MediaFlo. In future, TVs will need to support WLAN (802.11a/b/g/n) for interfacing to home video servers/IPTV gateways and Bluetooth for photo-display,

Although most countries have announced switch-off dates for terrestrial analog TV transmission (NTSC/PAL/SECAM), it will not disappear overnight because there are many sources of analog TV such as cable-TV, camcorders, DVD players and VCRs which will continue to exist. The future TV designs need to support analog standards in addition to digital TV standards for some time to come," so you can well imagine the welter of standards TV manufacturers have to cope with," he said.

Pruthvi reduces the bill-of-materials (BoM) cost of TV chassis by supporting multiple standards on a single chip and manufacturers can achieve significant savings by reducing the number of designs to be manufactured. By using it, PC-TV dongle manufacturers can support seamless operation across different regions for nomadic users, Kayargadde said.

Most DTV/PC-TV manufacturers today cater to the world market through region- specific products, leading to additional design, manufacturing and inventory costs due to separate product lines for each region. DTV sets in each region have to support terrestrial, cable and sometime satellite reception, requiring two or three demodulator chips on the DTV chassis, leading to higher BoM costs.

"RF tuners and the Media Processors (MPEG decoder and A/V processor) - the other two major components of a TV - are moving towards universality. So the time for multi-mode demodulation has arrived and Saankhya aims to capitalize on this market opportunity," he said.

While it is important to support multiple standards in a single chip, the key challenge is to provide a cost-effective solution. The conventional methods of demodulating each standard through a hardwired implementation are not scalable.

Saankhya used the SDR approach to the cost-competitive consumer electronics market like DTV, saying that as semiconductor technology moves deeper into sub-micron geometries (65, 45 and 32-nm) the SDR architecture starts becoming cost-effective. The flexibility that SDR approach allows is extremely well-suited for the TV market due to the variety of standards and this approach allows field-upgradability of demodulation software, Kayargadde said.

"Pruthvi has been designed to deliver the optimum required compute power per square mm of chip area. Instead of providing generic compute power (as in a generic DSP instruction set) which tends to get under-utilized (wasted), Saankhya has recognized that each stage of processing in a demodulation signal chain needs different type of compute power leading to different class of instructions.

Also, different standards involve different types of processing: 8-VSB/QAM use single-carrier modulation which contrasts with the OFDM based multi-carrier modulation methods. The innovation at Saankhya has been the definition of a common class of instruction set that addresses these differing standards. The platform has been designed to handle compute requirements for demodulation of high-definition TV," said Parag Naik, chief technology officer, Saankhya.

The company has an understanding with a Japanese foundry and believes that it will gain in credibility even more when it announces the name/s of its next round of institutional investors.

Mahant Shetti, a former senior engineer with Texas Instruments in Dallas, Texas and now running his own venture out of India, is one of the people who have funded Saankhya thus far. According to him, the Saankhya effort is on par with some of the best efforts in the world.

"The concentration on using CPUs in my opinion is high. Flexibility provided comes at the cost of silicon efficiency. With the current states of the standards, some of the flexibility is warranted but over time in a consumer market, most of the chip would have to become custom to get all the economies. The biggest problem with such a chip in this generation is likely to be the economies of manufacturing. With DSM, the initial cost of proving the design being high, the chip has to be capable of satisfying large number of applications."

"To my knowledge, Saankhya has developed the only programmable multi-standard TV demodulation solution available. What makes their architectural approach so unique is that they have optimized the instruction set of their DSP to handle digital and analog TV signals. This allows them to have a cost effective chip," said Robert Lensch, managing director, Boucher-Lensch Associates LLC, Sunnyvale, California.

Kayargadde contrasts Silicon Labs IC, Si2170, which integrates tuner and analog TV demodulation functionally and said it cannot perform digital TV demodulation. Here, the TV manufacturer has to use a separate IC for digital TV demodulation while the Pruthvi can perform both analog and digital TV demodulation.

On Marvell's ICs 88DE80xx, it can demodulate both analog and European digital TV standards, but does not enable Global TV chassis, since it does not support the rest of the world's DTV standards. Pruthvi enables true Global TV chassis by demodulating any TV standard in any region.

"Besides, neither of these ICs are based on a programmable DSP platform, hence adding support for demodulation of any new standard will be very difficult with a firmware upgrade," Kayargadde said.

The one doubt expressed by local industry executives is the hurdles the company will face, since India does not have a products background, much less a background in high-tech products, as against its well-known against services.

"Saankhya will face similar issues in marketing their chip as other fabless semiconductor start-up companies do. The fact that the chip designed by Saankhya will be manufactured by a proven foundry will reassure potential customers about the ability of Saankhya to deliver the product. The experience of the team in the TV sector will allow them to provide the support necessary to bring customers into production, which is another concern of potential customers. I don't think that Saankhya's location in India is a particular handicap in that respect," said Lensch of Boucher-Lensch Associates.

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