New Zealand is to adopt the same interactive standard for its forthcoming FreeView service as that used on digital terrestrial television in the United Kingdom. It will be the first full-scale deployment of the MHEG-5 standard outside the UK.

FreeView, a consortium of free-to-air broadcasters in New Zealand, plans to launch its satellite service in 2007, followed by a digital terrestrial television platform, both using MHEG-5 in conjunction with DVB-S and DVB-T transmission standards respectively.

Unlike Freeview in the UK, where the current digital terrestrial television platform was developed without a uniform electronic programme guide, FreeView in New Zealand will have a guide with a consistent appearance and behaviour on all certified receivers and set-top boxes.

The FreeView Group is a consortium of public broadcaster TVNZ, CanWest, Radio New Zealand, Maori Television and the New Zealand Racing Board.

FreeView has placed an order with Strategy & Technology in the UK for an electronic programme guide application and interactive playout systems. It follows successful completion of a trial hosted by TVNZ using sample MHEG-5 applications and set-top boxes.

“We have worked very closely with S&T and other suppliers to deliver a successful proof-of-concept that showed the capabilities of the MHEG-5 technology and the advantages of a consistent EPG,” said Steve Browning, the newly-appointed general manager of FreeView who was responsible for the TVNZ-hosted trial. “We believe this will offer significant benefits to broadcasters and consumers alike when the FreeView platform launches next year.”

Colin Prior of S&T said he was “delighted” with the decision to select the MHEG-5 standard. He said: “MHEG-5 offers a flexible interactive solution as well as the significant advantage of low incremental cost in receiver devices that will ensure that the whole FreeView audience is able to receive interactive applications.”

The MHEG-5 standard was originally developed a decade ago and offers very basic interactive facilities through a declarative description language. This means that unlike procedural languages which can be used to produce more complex interactive applications, MHEG-5 is generally limited to simple text and graphics services.

As a result, interactive television services on digital terrestrial television in the UK are less sophisticated than those possible on satellite. This has been a particular limitation for the development of more commercial applications, including interactive advertising, not least as there is currently no return path for digital terrestrial in the UK.

A working group is currently developing a specification to enable the use of a broadband return path with MHEG-5.

The main attraction of MHEG-5 is that it has minimal hardware requirements and is a freely available ISO open standard. Its successor, MHP, the Multimedia Home Platform — the basis of OCAP which is being developed in the United States — has more demanding hardware requirements and is subject to royalty requirements.

An initiative known as IMPALA, the International MHEG Promotion Alliance, has been founded by S&T, Cabot Communications and EchoStar Europe, which owns Eldon Technology, to promote the deployment of MHEG-5 interactive services in international markets.