HbbTV 2.0: Could This Standard Become the Future of Television?

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First, there is no upgrade plan for the hardware as we know it in the “classical” OTT world, where devices get a continuous life for several years through OS updates.

Jon Piesing, director of standardisation at TP Vision and chair of the HbbTV Specification Working Group, explains: “It’s not that there’s a lack of upgrade capability—all TVs have a software upgrade mechanism. It’s the lack of business models to fund upgrades beyond bug fixes.”

Indeed, margins are very low and manufacturers are heavily dependent on their suppliers; they don’t control all the pieces of the technical puzzle, and they buy the minimum support duration for the components they use. Introducing new versions of HbbTV usually requires a big jump in terms of TV architecture, so we won’t see any upgrade from 1.5 to 2.0 on the TVs and the STBs—exactly as we saw between 1.1 and 1.5. It means that HbbTV 2.0 installed basis will come only from new units.

Even if it were possible from a technical standpoint to upgrade the devices, it would be difficult for human reasons, as manufacturers tend to keep only a small engineering team to work on support for a deployed TV generation after it’s launched—it’s always for fixing bugs but never for implementing new features. This modus operandi generates interoperability problems, as the engineers usually have a short window for fixing the main problems between the CES announcements and the commercial launch of the TV generation in late spring. After that, the majority switches to the next TV generation development. Thus, most of the interoperability insurance is provided in the initial development time by the test suite that is used to validate the TV interop. And sometimes these test suites are not fully baked when the development happens. Let’s take the example of live MPEG-DASH streaming; it was in the scope of HbbTV 1.5 but not included in the 1.5 test suite, so the manufacturers implemented on-demand DASH support and extrapolated from the DASH spec for the live part of it, as it was almost impossible to produce live DASH streams when the first 1.5 generation was produced in 2012. The result is that few of the 2013 and 2014 TV models correctly supported live DASH, and now it’s very difficult to get those models upgraded by the manufacturers.

Now let’s extrapolate this lifecycle on the first generation of HbbTV 2.0 models that will be launched in spring 2016. During the first year there will be no official test suite available, only unofficial test suites, for schedule reasons. Given the wide range of features and the complexity of HbbTV 2.0, there is a good chance that some problems will slip through the cracks and will have to be fixed afterward, with the same limitations on human resources. So the 2016 generation of HbbTV 2.0 TV sets might be a bit of a risky investment for consumers. The HbbTV consortium has been trying to mitigate such problems by dedicating a larger effort to building test assertions throughout the specifications writing process. But will that be sufficient to guarantee that early unofficial test suites will prevent major flaws? And how can manufacturers guarantee that they won’t sell wonky devices to customers?

Keith Potter, vice president of product strategy at Digital TV Labs, looks back on the DASH test suite problem that crippled HbbTV 1.5, and how it might compare to HbbTV 2.0.

DVB-CSS Architecture 

“Yes, it took longer than the HbbTV Association would have liked to get DASH test cases released, but prior to this the industry effectively standardised on Digital TV Labs Ligada iSuite for HbbTV DASH test suite,” he says. “This test suite combined with the Ligada DRM test suite has enabled successful deployments of DASH with HbbTV for example in the Freeview Plus deployments in Australia and New Zealand. The Digital TV Labs DASH test cases are now part of the official HbbTV Association test suite. DVB-DASH is an important part of HbbTV 2.0 and is addressed in the new test suite, but there are other complex new features in HbbTV 2.0. Digital TV Labs is building tests for companion screen discovery using DIAL, remote launching of companion screen applications, and remote application to application communication. Also, new tests related to the synchronisation of applications and content across devices, multistream synchronisation, and for improved support for applications to synchronise to video in HbbTV 2.0.”

When asked about the potential danger of final test suites being available only in 2016, versus the complexity of the new standard’s version, Potter provides some detail on the test suites’ incremental development cycle. “The HbbTV Association has interoperability as one of its top priorities and has learnt a lot from the previous HbbTV 1.5 introduction,” he says. “Digital TV Labs is already working on the HbbTV 2.0 test suite after being awarded part of the tender by the HbbTV Association. For HbbTV 2.0, new test cases will be made available to HbbTV members as they are approved in advance of the full release of the complete HbbTV 2.0 test suite. It is the nature of any new standard that adopters will be deploying the technology as test materials are being developed.”

Potter continues: “As we saw for early HbbTV 1.5 adoption in France and Spain, platform operators have engaged with Digital TV Labs to build test suites prior to the official test suite release. For HbbTV 2.0, Digital UK contracted Digital TV Labs to build a test suite as part of our Ligada iSuite for HbbTV industry standard HbbTV test tool, covering the specific features of the new standard they regarded as important and manufacturers are using this now. Typically these ‘advance’ test suites and then incorporated into the official HbbTV association test suite at a later date. The degree of test coverage for any standard is a function of time and money, and will never be perfect. Where operators are early adopters, are using optional parts of the specifications or have mission-critical services using a specific part of the specification, they will often procure additional test cases to allow early access of test materials to ensure interoperability.”

Regarding the 2.0 test suite maturity and completeness, Potter is confident. “HbbTV has learned from previous test suite programs and is putting a lot of money and effort into the HbbTV 2.0 test suite,” he says. “The test specification, development, and test approval processes have all been matured and streamlined. A huge amount of work was put in by the HbbTV Association to develop the test assertions and prioritise test coverage. The HbbTV Association is growing fast in line with global adoptions. There are always interoperability issues with any standard, but with more resources put into test, more HbbTV manufacturers, more HbbTV app developers and the burgeoning of real HbbTV broadcasts, interoperability issues will be quickly overcome.”

Let’s hope he’s right.

Finally, there is a new risk coming with HbbTV 2.0: the options. “We try very hard to limit optional features to fundamental device hardware differences—e.g. PVR or mass storage,” Piesing says. Still, previous versions had only some optional features, but the 2.0 version has many more, starting with HEVC support and ranging from broadcast signal buffer to push VOD. This means that the fragmentation risk is not negligible, between entry-level and high-end models, thus reducing the opportunity for content providers to have the exact same service run everywhere, or at least requiring them to consider graceful service degradation strategies.

Market Penetration

How strong can HbbTV 2.0 become worldwide? Let’s start with the current state of deployments. Europe is the original playground of HbbTV: 80% of the TV lineup is HbbTV-compliant in France (a million connected HbbTVs), while in Germany we can find 10 million connected devices and 97% of the TV lineup. In Spain there are probably around 3 million deployed devices, and there are several hundred thousand users in other countries. Almost all of the countries in Western Europe are in production with HbbTV or migrating from old interactive TV standards to HbbTV. The move is expanding to Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as Africa, the Middle East, and in Australia, where HbbTV 1.5 replaced MHEG-5. Some countries are already implementing HbbTV 2.0, starting in the U.K., where the Freeview Play service will soon include on-demand content through an HbbTV 2.0-based platform, instead of MHEG-5 which was used in previous Freeview applications. In Italy, the migration from MHP to HbbTV 2.0 started in late 2014 and publication of the corresponding HDBook 4.0 specification is expected in early 2016.

HbbTV worldwide expansion as of October 2014 

“I believe all countries using either MHEG-5 or MHP have indicated they will be migrating to HbbTV 2,” Piesing says. “Indeed they will be some of the first adopters of HbbTV 2.0.”

HbbTV 2.0 is now making its way to the U.S., as version 3.0 of the ATSC specification will include all of the HbbTV 2.0 features except the signalling API. Approval of the new standard is expected in 2016. This is a great recognition of the work done on HbbTV 2.0 and it will be a great booster for the standard when it starts to deploy in American TVs, giving TV manufacturers another reason to invest in HbbTV development as the effort can be amortised across several continents.

While HbbTV is very popular in some countries, HbbTV services aren’t necessarily available on all networks. In June, the German media regulation commission stated that platform operators are not obliged to deliver TV channels’ HbbTV services alongside the broadcast signal. That’s why organisations like NPO (The Netherlands Broadcast Organization) and TNO (The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research) are working on an HbbTV application discovery over broadband solution that prevents the HbbTV services from being jeopardised by an absence in the broadcast mux or by an intermediary set-top box. It’s using the DVB service name to identify the channel, cascaded DNS queries to retrieve the AIT from a server, and the HbbTV app over HTTP.

“The HbbTV signal is not present for the majority of customers, although it’s increasing,” says Rob Koenen, principal consultant at TNO. “The major factor here is the set-top box. Even if there is a signal in the mux, many people watch TV through a STB and most (although not all) of the currently deployed STBs do not support HbbTV. Some support it in principle (Horizon), but the provider turns it off.” The HbbTV Application Discovery Over Broadband specification is currently being finalised and should soon be applicable to all HbbTV versions, where needed.

”Independent App Discovery will apply to all versions of HbbTV, also to 1.1 and 1.5,” Koenen says. “Certainly the 1.5 version will be relevant for some more time. Whether it is optional or mandatory is unclear at this point, but I note that as a general rule, HbbTV does not make things optional (a few things are conditional upon other features in the terminal, such a local storage). Regardless of whether it is optional or mandatory, I expect it to be supported in markets that can use it.”

The architecture of HbbTV application discovery over broadband 

This sounds like a great way of circumventing regulations restrictions and ensuring HbbTV a universal coverage across all DTV/IP/cable/sat delivery means, which is not the case even in countries where HbbTV is highly popular.

It is clear that HbbTV 2.0’s new features carry a great potential of innovation for upcoming services, if broadcasters are ready to embrace disruption of traditional broadcast approaches and take advantage of the IP power to provide richer user experience. But the broadcasters’ first consideration when thinking of preparing a 2.0 service might be to evaluate the importance of the legacy installed base.

“I’d say in Spain we’re in a situation halfway between Italy, which will jump straight to HbbTV 2.0, and Germany, where there’s such a large base of HbbTV 1.0 and 1.5 receptors deployed that they have to think twice about wholeheartedly embracing the new version of the standard,” Gómez says. “Since we yet don’t have such a large base of deployed HbbTV sets, we can look forward to the new features without obsessing so much about backwards compatibility.”

Where the deployment of new generation services is realistic, what will be the key attraction factors for broadcasters?

“I believe the first and foremost welcome feature will be the new ad insertion capabilities,” Gómez says. “In order for HbbTV to succeed in Spain we need to find ways to persuade the private networks to deploy HbbTV services and for it to happen monetisation is a must. Then, the use of HTML5 and H.265, even though these are features already supported by plenty of manufacturers in their Smart TV platforms (HbbTV is playing catch up here). And the possibility to synchronise devices and content in order to create more engaging and participatory TV experiences, such as the TV Ring pilot which was launched for the Eurovision Song Contest.”

In terms of lifecycle, can we imagine that HbbTV 2.0 services will run for a decade from now? Piesing is rather positive on this point: “HbbTV 2.0 apps and content can be delivered for many years after TV sets implement something more recent [than what they currently have].”

This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of Streaming Media European Edition as “HbbTV 2.0: The Future of Television?”

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