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Portable IBOC May Be on Its Way

A recent Radio World editorial (Jan. 17) lamented the absence to date of portable HD Radio receivers, and cited their importance to a successful transition to digital for the U.S. radio industry.

(click thumbnail)The SiPort IBOC/DAB/DMB single-chip, low-power solution, at right, is 9 mm square. A typical product-ready module (~15 mm) is at left. A recent Radio World editorial (Jan. 17) lamented the absence to date of portable HD Radio receivers, and cited their importance to a successful transition to digital for the U.S. radio industry. It now appears that help may be on the way.

A company called SiPort has developed an IBOC receiver chip with small size and low power requirements — attributes that previous HD Radio receiver chipsets have not included — and the company expects the device to be widely available later this year.

The chip is also notable because it represents the first IBOC receiver to be developed using a non-Ibiquity implementation. SiPort developed its own implementation of an IBOC receiver based largely on the NRSC-5-A standard, and licensed the necessary IP (plus the HDC audio codec, which is not included in NRSC-5-A) from Ibiquity Digital.

You may recall that as part of the IBOC standardization process, Ibiquity disclosed and pledged to license on reasonable and non-discriminatory terms to any applicant all necessary patents for building IBOC systems (absent the HDC decoder). SiPort appears to be the first company to do so, and its accomplishments are testimony to the viability of this approach — at least in part. Perhaps this action will pave the way for more IBOC implementers coming to market with new systems that use either Ibiquity’s own HD Radio implementation, or independent IBOC implementations based on the NRSC-5-A standard.

Note, however, that although the process began as an open standards play, the SiPort chip ultimately was not a “pure” standard-based design (i.e., not a true “clean-room implementation,” to use standards terminology). Along the way, Ibiquity provided SiPort directly with additional documentation and technical resources beyond the standard specification, particularly in the porting of the HDC codec and the optimization of the chip. Thus the development of a completely NRSC-5-A-based implementation has yet to occur, although Ibiquity Digital has affirmed its continued openness to pursue such a solution with any interested parties.

In any case, the key departure of SiPort’s chip from previous designs (from Texas Instruments and Philips, all based on Ibiquity HD Radio implementations) remains its appropriateness for portable application. It is able to provide fully compatible IBOC AM and FM reception at a fraction of the size and power requirements of previous systems.

Reportedly, Ibiquity Digital is also working with at least one other chip vendor (TI) on another small, low-power chip suitable for portable use, based on Ibiquity’s own implementation, so there may soon be a competitive market for such devices.

Impressive development

The SiPort chip is impressive on numerous technical fronts.

First, it is considered a “mixed signal” design (meaning that analog and digital elements coexist on a single die), an area in which SiPort has substantial design expertise. Such techniques are at the frontier of today’s chip technologies, and in this case they allow one small (~9 mm square) piece of silicon to handle both RF and baseband signals. In other words, this single tiny chip manages tuning, demodulation and decoding of AM and FM analog and digital audio plus auxiliary data signals, making it the first truly single-chip IBOC receiver design.

By way of context, consider that other developments in the mixed-signal environment have made some of today’s most attractive and leading-edge handheld devices possible (and affordable), such as 3G multimedia mobile phones. The current and projected market size of these popular products has stimulated the substantial investments made in development of such chips, and companies like SiPort have thereby been able to make remarkable progress in relatively short order.

The SiPort chip likely will also break a price barrier for IBOC receivers. Unlike previous HD Radio chips, which use a more expensive Silicon Germanium (SiGe) process, SiPort developed its device using the widely available CMOS approach. The use of CMOS is also what allows the SiPort chip to operate on about 10 percent of the power required by previous IBOC solutions. Combined, these attributes should enable manufacturers to offer inexpensive portable IBOC receivers with reasonable battery life, and to consider adding IBOC reception to other popular handheld devices like mobile phones and MP3 players.

Finally, the SiPort chip uniquely leverages the cost-effectiveness of multiformat capability. It is designed to handle IBOC, DAB and DMB reception on the same hardware (with different firmware loaded for each format), and thus the chip can be sold into a global marketplace, even though the deployment of each of these formats is essentially limited to a single region at present.

Working prototype receivers have been demonstrated in all three formats (including both VHF and L-band modes of DAB) by SiPort, and it expects to have engineering samples of the chip available by mid-year. The chip is designed for quick and simple integration by consumer electronics manufacturers, and SiPort is developing comprehensive support and documentation materials to facilitate this.

SiPort expects to formally announce the chip’s availability this summer, with mass production by fall, and perhaps the first products based on the device on store shelves for the 2007 holiday buying season.

Downstream marketing

The SiPort chip and others suitable for portable use will clearly have a welcome impact on the HD Radio environment, enabling a variety of new digital radio form factors for the U.S. market. They may also be useful in new portable HD Radio datacasting receivers, where no audio components need be included. (SiPort believes that in such devices, its chip may be further optimized to operate with even lower power requirements.)

Perhaps even more important, the SiPort chip shows that independent implementations of IBOC solutions are feasible — and that Ibiquity is willing to undertake a flexible range of relationships with developers — thereby opening the market to a more diverse base of suppliers, which in turn should continue to drive costs down and availability up for digital radio receivers in the United States. This is nothing but good news for the industry.

A related issue concerns the use of Ibiquity’s HD Radio logo on products built from non-Ibiquity implementations. Manufacturers using an Ibiquity implementation in their receivers automatically receive the right to license the HD Radio trademark along with technology they license, but those taking a standards-based route to their own IBOC implementations do not.

However, Ibiquity has now established a process for verifying the compatibility of such products, and if the developer chooses to seek such approval and receives it, Ibiquity will classify the product as “HD Radio Ready.” SiPort will apparently be the first to pursue this label, after which manufacturers of receivers built with its chip can license the HD Radio logo from Ibiquity for use on those products.

Such are the challenges of bringing a new format to market today, and the opening of a hitherto proprietary marketplace. On balance the SiPort development should be a strongly positive and groundbreaking development for U.S. digital radio broadcasting, enabling cost-effective HD Radio delivery to portable digital audio systems, and potentially, to a whole new class of personal data devices. Watch for its ultimate impact over the coming months.