In a nod to the growing impact over-the-top (OTT) video is having on the Pay TV market, new standards bodies are emerging, with Europe leading the way. This is no surprise as Europe has for years been implementing various hybrid set-top-box (STB) solutions, leveraging a mix of IPTV, satellite, cable, and over-the-air (OTA) technologies depending on the competitive and regulatory environment in each country. For example, in the U.K free-to-air broadcasters already use OTT delivery mechanisms for broadcast text services such as teletext news and weather. So while introducing some new deployment and regulatory challenges, hybrid solutions leveraging an OTT connection will not seem unfamiliar in European markets.
One new group is the HbbTV consortium, formed by broadcasters from France and Germany looking to create standards for interactive television. “Hbb” stands for “hybrid broadcast broadband”, or "hybrid broadcasting” for short. Other groups researching and developed standards for hybrid broadcasting include the Open IPTV Forum and the DVB Project. This is in addition to U.S. initiatives such as the cable industry’s Tru2Way (formerly OCAP), TimeWarner’s TV Everywhere
, and Comcast subsidiary the Platform
, which are all trying to find profitable ways to merge traditional TV, interactive TV, and online video. Similar to TV Everywhere, HbbTV will enable OTT content already available from that broadcaster.
Why Wait for Standards?
Another organization is Project Canvas, formed by the BCC, Five, and ITV to combine free over-the-air content with free and paid OTT content. Like TV Everywhere, Project Canvas is less of a standard and more of a commercial attempt to quickly go-to-market with a profitable solution that is easy for consumers to embrace. It will build on the BBC’s success with its computer-based iPlayer for watching Internet video and the Freeview OTA system being used by 40% of Britain’s 25 million homes, a powerful combination for consumers. This is if Project Canvas can survive complaints by pay TV competitor Sky, as well as review by the BBC’s own governing body.
The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), an organization representing Europe’s 75 national broadcasters, joined forces at last week’s IBC show with ETSI, the technology standards body, to put on a hybrid broadcasting workshop. While informative for attendees, their ultimate goal is to create a new specification for a hybrid broadcasting system, HbbTV 1.0., which would have ETSI’s blessing and hopefully international support. The benefits of this standard include reduced costs for device manufacturers and better protections for content.
Herding Hybrid Cats?
The challenge for any new standard is not only getting the technologists to agree, but to balance the competing demands of various business stakeholders who are betting large sums on the future of this industry. Consumers want the increased (and lower cost) content options that online video represents, but traditional Pay TV providers do not want to “trade digital dollars for Internet pennies” by substituting lucrative subscription services with free online video channels.
Another practical challenge for hybrid OTT solutions is merging guides and user interfaces from the service provider with those native to the OTT channel. Add to this mix Internet-enabled TVs with their own overlay menus and applications (such as Yahoo TV Widgets), and the overall interface environment could become quite cluttered.
Rather than waiting for standards, initiatives like Project Canvas are tackling this problem head-on. Canvas plans to provide an integrated electronic program guide that would allow viewers to search both OTA and OTT content at the same time (similar to what TiVo can do today
). Consumers would need to purchase a new STB, and likely a new remote as well. In the U.S. the Platform is taking this need for integration several steps further by building a compatible ecosystem of pre-integrated partners, from content publishing and user authentication to STB middleware.
Since broadcast is still the most efficient method to deliver long-form content to millions of simultaneous viewers, expect OTT/Pay TV hybrid solutions to become more of the norm, further driving the need for agreement on standards. While major industry players working together will no doubt achieve some technical advances, we can also expect some major clashes as the various commercial initiatives, standards bodies, and regulators sort things out.