Europeans Take Major Step Toward Driving Web-to-TV

A European consortium of leading players in broadcast, consumer electronics and technology has reached agreement on a de facto standard aimed at driving Web-based content to the TV in France and Germany and possibly other areas of Europe.

Known as Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV (HbbTV), the new specification draws on elements of existing standards and Web technologies to create a means of marrying broadband and broadcast delivery of content. This will make it easier for consumer electronics manufacturers to market new connected HDTV sets and for free-to-air and other digital service providers to enhance their offerings, says Klaus Illgner-Fehns, managing director of the Institut für Rundfunktechnik, a German research organization.

"By making the most of today's hybrid receivers, HbbTV merges broadcasting and broadband services seamlessly to deliver value-added content such as Web and on demand in addition to traditional linear broadcast TV," Illgner-Fehns says. "HbbTV not only allows service providers to enrich their offering, but results in considerable benefits to the end consumer who will no longer be challenged by usability issues across multiple platforms."

HbbTV activity in Germany is off to a fast start by virtue of its use as the supporting technology for enhanced HD electronic programming guides and HD interactive services, which German broadcasters have introduced this year in conjunction with the launch of HDTV services, Illgner-Fehns notes. "HbbTV will build on the success of the existing SD teletext service, which is used by more than 14 million consumers each day in Germany, by providing a high-quality video text service more suited to HD receivers," he says.

Along with Institut für Rundfunktechnik, the cross-industry consortium includes French broadcasters Canal+, France Televisions and TF1, satellite operator SES ASTRA, manufacturers Philips Electronics, Humax and Kaon and the software and media solutions providers ANT and OpenTV.

In France the HD-Forum, working with government agencies, is taking a lead role in making use of the new specification to drive the development and promotion of Digital HDTV, says Frédéric Tapissier, president of the forum's technical committee. "A key advantage for HbbTV is the ability to mix broadcast and online services while retaining the broadcasters' control," Tapissier says. "We plan to quickly agree on an IPR [intellectual property rights] regime that benefits the entire value chain so that we can deploy an interactive version of TNT, the French DTT platform, in 2010."

As explained by Joel Zdepski, senior vice president and general manager for middleware at OpenTV, HbbTV evolved out of separate initiatives underway for some time in Germany and France. "HbbTV is a synthesis of standards based on the requirements of the French, which emphasized a broadcast HTML component, and the Germans, which emphasized the broadband-connected side for digital receivers," Zdepski says.

"About 18 months ago we began working with TF1 on a specification that they wanted to promulgate in the French market on free-to-air delivery platforms," he explains. "So we concentrated on HTML and JavaScript standards but with additions to facilitate tuning set-top boxes and getting rid of presentations that have idiosyncratic behaviors.

"Independently and simultaneously," he continues, "ARD Channel 1 and ZBF Channel 2, two primary broadcasters in Germany, were working on another HTML set of specs with their partners. They were concentrating on connected TV sets, either for accessing media within the home or for over-the-top VOD." IPTV middleware provide AMP was a leading supplier in this effort.

Essentially HbbTV provides a set of TV-directed tools that comport with the coding processes they use in developing Web content and applications. While they still will have to develop the TV apps as a separate step, they will avoid having to use completely separate platforms, Zdepski says.

"Developers who do Web content design and use Web tools can now go through the normal design process, and the content can be included as an ancillary seed in broadcast TV," he says. "They'll develop specifically for TV but use the tool chain they're familiar with, and consequently dual purposing is much easier. So, for example, a VOD portal will have a dual output, one allowing you to view the content on your TV and the other for viewing on the PC. Packaging for broadcast and broadband playouts is now much more straightforward."

There are indications adaptation to HbbTV will spread beyond France and Germany, which could have a big impact on the ability of CE manufacturers to implement value-added marketing incentives by providing Web-based content to connected HDTV sets. "The EBU [European Broadcast Union] is interested in the spec," Zdepksi says. "You need broadcasters to commit to content creation so that CE brands know when they want to differentiate their product with access to the Web, consumers will know there's some content out there that will be compelling."

HDTV is just beginning to take hold in Europe, where, to date, HDTV flat panels have been purchased primarily to enhance the viewing experience on PAL (European standard definition) programming. With so many individual markets with different national broadcasters using different approaches to digital programming the absence of a uniform approach to enabling Web-based TV content creates a barrier to scaling a content base sufficient to serving the needs of CE manufacturers.

"The initiative taken in the German and French markets will provide consumer device manufacturers with the economies of scale they need to produce connected HDTVs, which they can leverage to reach other markets," Zdepski says. "Whether or not national broadcasters in other countries will make content available remains to be seen. But the effect of the EBU's interest is good and promises that consideration will be given to taking HbbTV to a broader market."

Activating the capabilities for EPGs, accessing Web content, interactivity and other enhancements made possible by HbbTV will not be a major cost burden for manufacturers of  flat-panel HDTVs. "There's no hardware modification that's going to be required other than that if the box is accessing the online segment it may need wireless or wireline networking connectivity to the data service in the home," Zdepski says. "But all the new sets
have CPUs and memory and all can receive digital transport from the tuner. They'll just need the software stack to receive the content."

Creating a specification that accommodates all the content access, display and interactivity components essential to developers and CPE suppliers alike is a complex task. For example, differences in Web browsers requiring use of proprietary tags have been a stumbling block in previous efforts to standardize in this arena, Zdepski notes. But advances supporting interfaces that overcome these barriers, especially in the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards and Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) applications platform, have been exploited by HbbTV to simplify things for developers.

There were also significant hurdles to be overcome with respect to TV tuning, retrieving DVR content lists and connecting to and retrieving offerings from VOD portals. By virtue of the work done in standards bodies like the Open IPTV Forum and W3C as well as the contributions made by AMP and OpenTV, developers of HbbTV have been able to create a highly useful spec that's worlds ahead of previous efforts. "The problem space is a bit different now, and I think that over time this spec will have new versions and grow," Zdepski says.

OpenTV, while best known for its interactive software for the pay TV market, has also been supplying an HTML browser-based solution for use by CE manufacturers, especially in Japan, he adds. "We do supply software to the CE market for the consumption and rendering of free-to-air broadcast content, so we're very familiar with that market," he says. "Not all TV sets in Japan have the same level of broadcast online portal accessibility. So this provides CE suppliers a means of offering a differentiated set of products. We'd like to see if this approach can be replicated around the world."

HbbTV will help that process very soon now that German broadcasters have committed to start preparing content that will be in compliance with the specs before the end of the year. French content companies are targeting producing content next year. "I think it's coming together, and we expect to see consumer devices that support HbbTV in the same time frame," Zdepski says.