The European Commission reiterates its support for open and interoperable standards for interactive television, but says implementation should not be made legally binding.

“There is no clear case for imposing technical standards at present, but the issue should be reviewed again in 2005,” the Commission said in a statement.

Member States should continue to promote open and interoperable standards for interactive digital TV, including the Multimedia Home Platform or MHP standard, on a voluntary basis, says the European Commission in a new communication on the interoperability of interactive digital TV.

Proposals made by the Commission include setting up a Member State group on MHP implementation, confirming that Member States can offer consumer subsidies for interactive TV receivers – subject to state aid rules – and monitoring access to proprietary digital interactive TV applications.

“In view of the complexity of the technological and market environment, the very different perceptions of interoperability held by market players, and the fact that interactive digital TV has not yet taken off on a larger scale in many Member States, we felt that the digital television market should continue to develop unhindered for the present” commented Enterprise and Information Society Commissioner Olli Rehn. “We will however revisit the issue at the end of 2005 in order to see to what extent market developments have contributed to interoperability and freedom of choice for users.”

The Commission notes that there are over 32 million digital receivers in use in Europe, of which at least 25 million have interactive capability. The market for interactive TV television developed without a European API standard. Initially there were five significant APIs in Europe; content or applications authored for one API could not be used by a receiver containing a different API. Currently MHP is the only open standard for APIs adopted by EU standards bodies.

The European Commission had called for a public consultation on Interoperability of digital interactive television services and received many contributions in response.

The MHP Alliance called for the Commission to make it a legal obligation for member states to pick one open API most suitable for their national market from a future date no later than 2008, while recommending MHP for all new ‘greenfield’ markets.

The EBU argued that the Commission should ensure that from a given date only open standard API systems should be used, that is those recognised by a European standards body, and that MHP should be recommended but not mandated for all new green field markets.

This view was largely echoed by ITV, the UK commercial television company, arguing that the standardisation of existing proprietary APIs over time while recommending MHP for new markets would provide a workable compromise that would not place a disproportionate burden on the market.

The BBC submitted that open standards should be required after a certain date, adding that mandating a single open standard is currently unnecessary and mandating MHP would present the British market with daunting legacy problems.

BSkyB responded by observing that its WTVML browser, based on internet compatible technology, had been submitted to ETSI and adopted as an open standard. The satellite operator argued that any intervention by the Commission would be unwarranted and detrimental.

The response of OpenTV, who currently provide the middleware for BSkyB, was not made public.

On behalf of the UK Government, the Department of Trade and Industry argued that any move to mandate MHP would prejudice plans for digital switchover and that MHP should be considered as one among a number of voluntary standards, including MHEG 5 and WTVML.