Poland weighs into HbbTV

Two more European public broadcasters have launched hybrid TV services based on the HbbTV standard sweeping across the continent. Polish public broadcaster TVP will begin HbbTV broadcasts in time for the Euro 2012 football championships, which Poland is co-hosting with Ukraine between June 8 and July 1.

This will coincide with increased range of the country’s first DTT multiplex (MUX-1) extending to over 90 percent of the population, and the start of HD transmissions of its two flagship channels TVP1 and TVP2.

Meanwhile France 5, part of national broadcaster France Televisions, has just started its first HbbTV service around its flagship daily show C dans l’air. This was chosen because it commands far higher viewing figures than any of its other shows, over 2 million viewers, or around 12 percent of the total French audience.

But, the broadcaster plans to follow up by trying HbbTV around other shows before the end of the year, as well as using it to provide interactive coverage of the French Open tennis championships at Roland Garros in May/June, and during the London Olympics just over a month later.

Such activity around HbbTV has been encouraged strongly by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which is offering free white-label HbbTV interactive applications that its members can rebrand to help them deploy services this year. The applications are focused on getting HbbTV services going across Europe in time — first for the EBU’s flagship event Eurovision Song Contest in May, and then the London Olympics. The applications are being provided by ARD-IRT and commercial partners DOTSCREEN and Abertis Telecom, providing a basic level of interactivity to demonstrate the potential of the HbbTV platform, including catch-up TV, video on demand, interactive advertising, personalization, voting, games and social networking.

It now looks like there is little to stop HbbTV becoming the dominant European standard for hybrid TV with interactive services. But, it did not look this way when HbbTV was launched in 2009, with the aim of combining broadcast, particularly terrestrial, services with IP-based broadband access to web content. At the time, various fledgling initiatives or platforms such as YouView in the UK, then called Project Canvas, were developing their own hybrid technology.

There were also two other standards being deployed in Europe, Digital Video Broadcast’s (DVB) Multimedia Home Platform, and the Multimedia and Hypermedia Experts Group’s MHEG-5. At this stage, these were not hybrid standards, but provided the interactivity that is the other key aspect of emerging hybrid TV services. MHP has been deployed in Italy for DVB-T services, and Poland for DVB-S, along with some trials in Germany, Spain and Austria. MHEG-5 was adopted by the Freeview DVB-T and Freesat DVB-S Free To Air services in the UK, and by Saorview, Ireland’s Free To Air DVB-T service that launched in May 2011.

Recently the Digital Technology Group (DTG) in the UK developed an extension to MHEG-5 called the MHEG-5 Interaction Channel (MHEG-IC), allowing broadcast interactive services to be delivered via an IP connection. This made it more like HbbTV, and suggested that the UK was maintaining its loyalty for MHEG-5, which has been used for the country’s Red Button interactive services for over a decade. But now, the DTG has also endorsed HbbTV at a time when it is taking off so dramatically elsewhere in Europe.

This momentum, reflected in the existence of set top boxes from Humax and others, and HbbTV software stacks integrated into system on chips from the likes of Broadcom and Sigma Designs, suggests the scale is there to start driving down prices, as well as the integration that will reduce time to market. It now looks like all roads in Europe for hybrid TV and interactive services are leading to HbbTV, with MHP withering away.