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France unleashes TNT 2.0 to heal fragmented world of connected TV

France is pushing ahead with its connected TV platform, called TNT 2.0, and first full deployments are expected late 2011 or early 2012 from both free-to-air broadcasters and pay TV operators. While for the latter, the main motivation is to reach new customers and combat cord cutting by ensuring existing subscribers can access services from all their devices, free-to-air broadcasters are interested in the potential for monetizing content that is currently paid for by advertising, if at all.

The key security components enabling monetization are now in place, with the TNT 2.0 consortium having elected to offer implementers a choice of two DRM platforms, the open Marlin standards and Microsoft's Play Ready. This highlights the reality of Microsoft's continuing force in the PC arena, but also the rising status of Marlin as a universal DRM. Marlin has been adopted by some other European connected TV platform initiatives, including the UK's YouView promoted by the BBC, BT and others, which is otherwise out of line with the rest of Europe in not being based on HbbTV.

Marlin owes its growing status partly to having a flexible rights management engine called Octopus that allows operators to implement different business rules to suit their model, with the system components or entities such as users and devices represented as nodes in a graph, joined by lines denoting relationships among them. This graph defines who can access what content when, where and how. It runs on a variety of platforms, including smart cards, handsets and servers, and will support a variety of cryptographic systems.

Another key point is that Marlin is strongly promoted by the TV manufacturers partly responsible for the current fragmented state of the connected TV field, each having proprietary connected home technology. Marlin was founded by Panasonic, Philips, Samsung and Sony, and DRM technology vendor Intertrust. Not surprisingly, Marlin has been adopted by UltraViolet, the cloud-based digital locker system promoted by DECE (Digital Entertainment Content Ecosystem). DECE was largely instigated by Sony even though it now enjoys cross-industry support with members including operators, security vendors and a few big content houses such as Warner Brothers. Of the major content houses, only Disney Company has so far stayed firmly outside the UltraViolet camp, developing its own rival digital locker called KeyChest, but with no release date yet set it remains to be seen whether this ever sees the light of day.

The TNT 2.0 group in France is bullish about prospects for connected TV in the country, convinced that is has made the right technology choices and that interest will grow quickly. HbbTV has already been demonstrated in the recent French Open tennis championships by France Télévisions, the country's national public service broadcaster, in conjunction with IBM, which operated the tournament's website. Users required a Panasonic Viera TV costing about €2000 to tune in to this demonstration, which is rather an irony given that the idea of HbbTV is to allow access from multiple TVs and encourage competition to bring the price down. No doubt that will come.

TNT 2.0 insiders meanwhile are well aware there is a lot more work to do. They view their platform as an enabling step for tackling the inevitable security-related teething troubles that will have to be overcome to make broadband access to premium HD content a worldwide reality. They compare the current situation facing operators on the brink of connected TV with the one prevailing in the early years of digital pay TV, which arrived in Europe in 1996. The first five years was almost a prolonged honeymoon period in security terms with little piracy, creating a false sense that the smart card conditional access then in place was robust against attack. But as the prize gained in value with growing subscriber numbers, so the pirates moved in, bringing some operators to their knees in the early 2000s. While never resolved entirely, the situation was brought under control with new platforms enabling regular replacement of smart cards.

Broadband TV is in a similar situation now, with platforms such as TNT 2.0 getting ready to roll, although with no expectation this time of a long honeymoon period and no illusion that the platform will be secure from attack. This is because connected TV in its broadest sense involves delivery of content in an uncontrolled environment, which will therefore require collaboration among providers of networking infrastructure and above all the end devices. It still remains to be demonstrated that a broadband-based delivery platform often not be under the operator's control, delivering directly retail devices from anywhere, will be able to support the highest premium content. But the industry is at least tackling these issues, with several European initiatives now running to add more security to HbbTV for example.