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The interactive glue

Last December, a study commissioned from Essential Research by the UK media regulator Ofcom found that while viewers, particularly the young, enjoyed watching catch-up TV and other video content on the PC, what they really wanted was the full television experience found in the living room. This expectation comes at a time when broadcasters are upgrading their delivery platforms, not just to digital but to high definition, and exploiting broadband Internet delivery that is now available in the majority of households.

Shortly before the end of 2009, Freesat, the satellite platform run by UK broadcasters BBC and ITV, began public beta testing of a version of the BBC iPlayer for homes with an HD receiver. It is expected to go live in the next few weeks and will be joined shortly afterwards by content from ITV's own catch-up TV service ITV.com. Freesat is recommending that viewers have an actual download speed of at least 1Mb/s or 2Mb/s to watch in high quality. With television sets not always sitting next to the broadband router, Freesat is considering the use of HomePlug adaptors to provide Ethernet connectivity via the power line, a solution that has already proven successful for Canal+ in France.

DTT in Australia

Last July, the Freeview Australia DTT platform confirmed plans to introduce MHEG-5 middleware in its Phase 2 receivers due to commence shipment in mid-2010. The Australian version of the MHEG-5 middleware uses the same core specification being adopted by its UK namesake for the commercial launch of HD services. Included in this profile of MHEG-5 are the interaction channel and streaming media extensions that will make it possible for conformant receivers to receive catch-up TV services similar in concept to the BBC iPlayer. The Australian profile of MHEG-5 includes the same features as Freeview HD, including all the interaction channel and streaming media support, so all the receivers that go into the Australian market will have both MHEG and the online capability. It is anticipated that many of Australia's major broadcasters will eventually offer catch-up TV through the Freeview Australia platform.

The MHEG technology included in Australia and the UK conforms to version 6.1 of the D-Book, the reference work maintained by the UK's Digital TV Group (DTG). The MHEG-5 profile included in D-Book 6.1 has also been standardized through ETSI and is now waiting on the vote of the ETSI membership prior to publication following the completion of its technical reviews.

In addition to Australia, MHEG is also up and running on Freeview New Zealand. The dual-platform already has 291,853 households connected, including 177,917 to its satellite platform and 113,936 to the terrestrial HD-based service, where a forthcoming receiver specification update will take the service up to the standard of the D-Book 6.1/ETSI specification.

World Cup Soccer

A key UK milestone will be the soccer World Cup that gets underway in South Africa on June 11 and will serve as a key opportunity to persuade viewers to upgrade to the new Freeview HD platform. Although the first transmitters in London and the northwest went live on Dec. 2, the major marketing push won't occur until the first week in April, when significant receiver volumes will become available in retail stores. After that, it's estimated nearly half of the UK population will have access to Freeview HD as a result of digital switchover.

All of the major receiver manufacturers will be launching Freeview HD conformant products, and while you will still be able to buy SD products, manufacturers will be pushing the new Freeview HD devices. Those who bought an HD-ready flat-panel screen in the last few years will be able to purchase a new Freeview HD set-top box, while those new to the market will be able to pick up a new iDTV that is already capable of displaying HD pictures. While no announcements have been made, it is widely expected that Freeview will join Freesat in the delivery of catch-up content.

IP delivery

Many people are comparing Freeview HD with Project Canvas, the BBC-led consortium designed to bring Internet-based services to the television screen, and the Franco-German Hybrid Broadcast Broadband (HbbTV) specification. With broadcasters becoming unwilling to allocate expensive DTT capacity for new media services, IP-delivered content is starting to emerge. This has been one of the reasons behind current enthusiasm for hybrid broadcast/IP delivery.

However, running alongside the introduction of hybrid delivery has been fragmentation, such as LG's recently announced exclusive partnership with Orange in France and Samsung's plan to include the BBC iPlayer in its connected TVs. Manufacturers are increasingly flexing their muscles and trying to influence broadcasters and operators as they seek to differentiate their products to gain market advantage.

Content owners and the Hollywood studios are also making their presence felt in the market, with requirements for content protection for streamed programs. For example, the majority of the BBC's online content is commissioned by the BBC, and to a lesser extent the same is true for ITV. But when it comes to other UK channels, such as Channel 4 and Five, there is an increasing amount of acquired content, and the content owners want to ensure this doesn't fall into the hands of the pirates. While there is generally less concern about SD content, anything that is HD will need to be protected against piracy. On the PC, Adobe Flash is widely used as it has its own DRM built-in, but when it comes to streaming to a TV receiver in MPEG-4/H.264, additional methods of protection are needed. This is something that the DTG is currently addressing within the Interaction Channel Working Group.

Common Interface Plus

While some platforms have been looking to add connectivity to their portfolio of services, others have been working on how they can improve on what was already there. European cable operators are actively exploring the capabilities of the new Common Interface Plus (CI Plus) feature in integrated TVs, again creating a role for MHEG-5. Manufacturers started to include a CI Plus slot in their iDTVs in early 2009; the majority of integrated digital televisions (iDTVs) already had the standard common interface (CI) feature, a mandatory requirement in Europe.

CI was always known to have a security hole in that the unencrypted transport stream was accessible, but the DVB's attempts to produce a second-generation version were not successful. The project was taken over by the CI Plus consortium including Sony, SmarDTV, Samsung, Philips, Panasonic and Neotion. The CI Plus consortium decided it should not only address the security issue but also improve on the original CI user interface, which enabled the CI module to pop up an on-screen text box with brief information. MHEG-5 was therefore included within CI Plus as the CI Plus Browser, providing a flexible user interface and user input. The Italian market requirements for MHP middleware meant that MHP is also included as an option in the CI Plus specification. The profile of MHEG-5 used by CI Plus is a subset of the UK 1.06 Profile standard. In CI Plus, the MHEG application is loaded from the CI module rather than from the broadcast carousel, but many manufacturers include the full profile with broadcast carousel support.

CI Plus has generated significant interest from cable operators as it can convert a standard iDTV into a hybrid receiver, thus enabling video on demand and similar services without a set-top box. Most current iDTVs have a tuner, MPEG-4 HD decoder, Internet connectivity and a remote control. The only thing missing is conditional access, which can be provided by a CI Plus module, with MHEG providing the user interface for on-demand content selection and playback control. TVs with CI Plus capability are now shipping in high volumes across Europe. Systems for VOD have already been integrated with a number of VOD system suppliers and demonstrated at European trade shows. This concept is now also gaining interest with operators in Asia-Pacific and China, suggesting the possibility that MHEG-5 may yet spread widely as a component of standard TV technology.

Colin Prior is a director of international sales at Strategy & Technology.