HbbTV: A New Play for a European Broadband-to-TV Standard

Among the demonstrations at next week’s International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam will be a new pan-European initiative aimed at harmonising the delivery of broadband-to-TV content.

The consortia behind Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV, which makes for the rather awkward acronym HbbTV, includes French broadcasters France Télévisions, Canal+ and TF1, leading German R&D outfit Institut für Rundfunktechnik (IRT), and satellite operator SES Astra, as well as the software and media solutions providers ANT and OpenTV.

With support from consumer electronics manufacturers Philips, Humax, and Kaon the intention is to deliver interactive advertising, personalisation, voting, games, and social networking as well as programme-related services such as digital text and EPGs.

The concept debuted at IBC 2008 where IRT showed German broadcaster ZDF’s web services delivered to the TV. If ratified as expected by European standards body ETSI, manufacturers and service providers could implement hardware and services in 2010.

“The idea originated a couple of years ago when free-to-air broadcasters in France and Germany separately concluded that their long-term future involved moving from pure broadcast to a mix of broadcast and broadband,” explains Régis Saint-Girons, OpenTV's SVP sales and programme director Europe.

“There was need for a basic replacement of teletext (information broadcast between image frames in a broadcast signal) but technologies like MHP or MHEG5 were not designed for broadband delivery. We needed a technology capable of managing the mix of broadcast and broadband content including catch-up, VoD, and internet access on TV.”

The initiatives in France, where free-to-air delivery is mainly digital terrestrial, and Germany, where satellite free-to-air services are more prominent, were combined to form the new consortia.

It is based on the efforts made by the Open IPTV Forum to provide HTML over IP, the DVB specifications and the Consumer Electronics Association’s solutions for HTML over TV, and it provides for delivery of purely broadcast services—where households don’t have a broadband connection—for pure broadband services and for hybrids.

“This standard means we’ll move away from typically what this industry has managed up to now—a standard per country which requires broadcasters to build content for that particular region,” suggests Richard Baker, ANT’s executive VP sales and marketing. “HbbTV brings a uniform standard so that content owners and application developers can write once and deploy to many countries. For device manufacturers it addresses an ROI issue. It’s not particular attractive currently to build a connected TV or new receiver just for one market.”

The concept is not only paralleled by an existing scheme in Japan, the BML/HTML integrated browser for digital TVs of which OpenTV is a founder member, but also to Project Canvas led by the BBC, ITV, and telecoms provider BT in the UK.

“The BBC has a near identical goal therefore we are talking with the BBC to better understand their requirements and differences and hopefully see if there’s a way we can cover the BBC’s needs,” says Saint-Girons. “We all know that solutions for one country have less chance of growth than for larger territories. The efforts of everyone from CE vendors to solutions providers will be stronger where there is a large market. We’re not looking to compete but collaborate with Canvas.”

The BBC Trust will give its interim judgement on Canvas in the autumn but may not give its final approval until early 2010, pushing back the launch of the project to possibly as late as 2011.

In the meantime more European broadcasters – both payTV and free to air - are expected to join the HbbTV consortia. Already RTL has said it will introduce a new text service using the standard in 2010. “The reason perhaps that we are suddenly more visible coincides with the introduction this year of many connected TVs,” he says. “The CE industry is producing the hardware to make the connected TV revolution possible but doing so with their own solutions. It really makes sense to have a single solution.”
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