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Broadcom Pushes Multimedia in Desktop Phones

Computer and telecom chipset giant Broadcom today unveiled a new design platform for landline Voice over IP (VoIP) phones, bundling chips and other components together in a recipe that promises to add in the kinds of features now associated with advanced, Net-enabled mobile phones.

The chief thrust behind Broadcom's (NASDAQ: BRCM) new Persona design platform is to make it easier for phone manufacturers to build enterprise and consumer desktop IP phones that do more: like video, enhanced VoIP audio, Ethernet switching, better security and support for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi peripherals.

To Broadcom, the release sets the stage for tomorrow's phones. The company is betting that the desktop phones of the future will need to be more powerful than those of the past, but will also have to consume as little electrical power as possible and cost less than what's on the market now.

"Consumers already download music and browse the Web on their mobile phones," said Martyn Humphries, vice president and general manager for Broadcom's VoIP line of business. "Carriers have been searching for ways to bring these capabilities to the home."

Cutting costs while adding features is very important, as the market for phones is tougher than ever. Ian Fogg, principal analyst for consumer products at Forrester Research, told InternetNews.com earlier this month that the replacement times for phones are lengthening. In response, companies are pitching the cost savings delivered by new features.

"Multimedia functionality should ultimately increase user efficiency and productivity," Humphries said in a statement.

But there's a lot that could go wrong if not handled correctly.

Following the example set by the mobile phone market, carriers fear the price for advanced desktop phones, Humphries said. "The price point is key," he told InternetNews.com. "They don't want to pay too much for it. A lot of subsidies went into the cell phone market."

Complicating the issue further: Won't carriers fear losing revenue as traffic moves from their network to the Internet -- as with VoIP?

Not if the new services are sufficiently valuable, Broadcom said. "Having a multimedia product opens up new channels for new revenue," Bill Boora, senior product line manager for Broadcom's VoIP business, told InternetNews.com.

The effort also ties into Broadcom's efforts to leverage the industry standard Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) , giving phone makers that use its SIP-based chips an opportunity for a leg up on vendors using proprietary multimedia technology. By supporting SIP, Broadcom is wagering that end users will seek out best of breed solutions rather than relying on proprietary solutions for VoIP and videoconferencing.

"As we start moving to SIP, it levels the playing field," Boora said.

Platform for phone makers

The design calls for three tiers of phone based on three current Broadcom chips. The BCM11107 supports Gigabit switching and higher-end features, the BCM11109 is the mainstream design and the BCM11170 will support phones targeted at the low end of the market, such as small to midsized businesses (SMB) and small office/home office customers. The three tiers are "pin-compatible," meaning that a single phone's board can support designs for all three chipsets delivering significant savings to Broadcom's OEM customers.

"If you're an OEM, you need to develop all of these products, and some might be just 5 percent of your portfolio," Boora said. "We allow the OEM to work with one platform for hardware and software."

Humphries also noted that the one platform approach makes it easier to scale the manufacturing.

Like many other telecommunications equipment vendors, Broadcom is touting its own latest audio technology, called SmartAudio. The technology does a lot more than just sample voice at a higher rate, which delivers more data: It also incorporates echo cancellation, a jitter buffer and packet-loss concealment (PLC) technology that compensates for lost data to deliver better clarity.

But the key deliverable is clarity, and the key to that is the breadth of audible spectrum that is sampled. "Many companies are selling what they call HD voice or hi-definition voice, also known as wideband capabilities," said Boora.

"Now there is super wideband, which samples an even broader spectrum. This design supports, in hardware and software, super wideband voice. Even though it's not widely deployed today, the trend we see is that executive-type features are starting to come down to the mainstream, and in the future we expect every phone to have high quality audio."

The phones will have an onboard switch, either Fast Ethernet or Gigabit, so that the phone can sit on the same Ethernet drop as a user's PC. The onboard switch will be able to prioritize voice and video packets. Using one Ethernet drop for two devices (the PC and the phone) saves companies money, and this is a feature pitched to the IT manager, Boora said. "Running a second Ethernet drop is expensive. Instead, businesses can connect the wall to the phone and the PC to the phone."

Phones are being sold as an alternative to business travel, and cheaper phones that fail to deliver good audio end up not being used for conference calls, Humphries said. "There's user fatigue if you drop packets. This goes back to the Ethernet switch. It's the element that guarantees good quality."

Although the platform calls for three distinct tiers of phone, the IP telephony software will be the same -- Broadcom's PhonexChange IP telephony software suite. The software's modular design allows manufacturers to include only the features each phone needs, Broadcom said, which enables faster and cheaper development.

Green goals are also compatible with the recession goal of cost savings. Because it uses 65nm chip designs, the Persona platform requires 30 percent less power than its competitors. It uses packaging materials that are free of lead and some other toxins. The expected savings: 26 percent of electrical bill-of-materials for the mainstream phones.

Phones that consume less power can lower the cost of the enterprise backbone, Boora said. He said that the IEEE Power over Ethernet specification lists three levels of wattage that a device can use. "The IT manager can buy an expensive switch with high power ports, or a less costly switch with low power ports," he said. "This saves the end user money."

It may be several months at least before consumers and businesses get a glimpse at new models based on the Broadcom Persona chipset.

Reference designs and development kits have already been delivered to some Tier 1 customers, the company said, with consumer phones based on the platform coming as early as this summer, Humphries said. Enterprise phones will be available at the end of this year or in early 2010.

"Consumer markets are moving a little faster than enterprise," he added.

Broadcom claims that only it has the skills to deliver a design platform incorporating so many hardware and software elements.

"We're not just a silicon provider," said Boora. "PhonexChange brings together all the key elements, pre-integrated -- things like a SIP call signaling stack, Smart Audio, provisioning and security, video, Bluetooth, and wireless LANs. The OEM can focus on the value they want to bring to the market while we focus on the elements below that."

Updated with further details on the Persona design platform