Broadcasters warned to keep standards simple

Broadcasters at are at risk of repeating old mistakes in the multiscreen and hybrid TV era by making standards too complex and deploying customized equipment that consumes time and money to get working properly.

This was the key message from a recent meeting of the EBU's Broadcast Technology Futures (BTF) group, an alliance of Research and Development laboratories including NHK STRL (Japan Broadcasting Corporation Science and Technology Research Laboratory) and CRC (Communications Research Centre, Canada), as well as three from Europe: RAI CRIT (the Media and Innovation Centre of RAI, the national broadcaster of Italy), IRT (the Institute for Broadcasting Research of the national broadcasters of Germany, Switzerland, and Austria) and BBC Research and Innovation (British Broadcasting Corporation, UK).

The group discussed the perennial "buy now or wait" dilemma with reference to satellite broadcasting, with some arguing that it was better to wait for a new, common, open standard rather than go for an existing proprietary successor that offers higher performance and lower headline cost. This was probably a reference to technology from Israeli company NovelSat, which exploits chip performance improvements since the current second-generation DVB- S2 was conceived to reduce the guard interval (the portion of spectrum left empty between adjacent transmissions or channels to provide immunity from the interference between them that would otherwise result from propagation delays or echoes).

This, combined with some other developments, has achieved around a 30-percent increase in capacity, and NovelSat has been lobbying hard to have its technology adopted as a third generation DVB-S3. It has been tested successfully on satellites from Eutelsat and Inmarsat, but until recently at least the DVB has appeared reluctant to endorse it as its DVB-S3, which would be a big step and require absolute confidence that the investment in a major upgrade for satellite transmission was worth it.

The BTF also discussed the situation with hybrid broadcasting, where national variations may be emerging within the realm of the HbbTV standard taking hold in Europe. Klaus Illgner, who works with Europe’s German-speaking broadcasters at the IRT, argued that unless broadcasters stop this fragmentation and cooperate, they are “just making themselves poorer and the manufacturers richer."

Perhaps, inevitably, the lesson of the D-1 video tape recorder was brought up as an example of an over-engineered standard leading directly to commercial disaster. This story dates back to the early 1980s, during the transition to digital video recording, when broadcasters intervened to prepare a common standard in the EBU’s MAGNUM group. It brought together both broadcasters and manufacturers in the same group to develop the D-1 in the belief this would satisfy all parties. However, it turned out to have fewer unit sales than any other VTR, before or since, because it was too complex and therefore expensive to manufacture with features most people did not want.

Given the human tendency to repeat old mistakes once they have been forgotten, the BTF considered D-1 a timely example to set before broadcasters.