The MHEG-5 standard for interactive television has gained support from a number of receiver manufacturers. Hitachi, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony are among the latest members to join the International MHEG Promotion Alliance, IMPALA. The lobbying for MHEG comes as the BBC and ITV are preparing plans for their Freesat proposition.

The IMPALA trade associated was formed by Strategy & Technology, Cabot Communications and EchoStar Europe, all of which provide technology for the MHEG-5 open standard for interactive television as used on the Freeview platform.

Until recently, the United Kingdom was alone in supporting the standard, originally developed in the mid-nineties. It has recently been adopted by New Zealand for its own Freeview satellite and terrestrial television service.

While relatively basic, the main attraction of MHEG is the minimal requirements it places on a receiver, which can consequently be cheaper to produce. MHEG has been used for services such as digital text and simple interactive applications, including multistream audio and video services.

However, as the BBC and ITV are preparing plans for a Freesat service, which will require a new range of receivers, some may well question whether MHEG is suitable as an interactive platform going forward. While proponents argue that the middleware has not limited services, many see Freeview as providing an inferior interactive platform.

MHP is a more capable but more complex standard based on Java which was intended to replace the rather idiosyncratic MHEG approach which bears little relation to other languages. Adoption of MHP has been limited, although it forms the basis of the OCAP standard which cable operators in America have committed to roll out across their networks.

Mark Londero, who is general manager for technical planning at Sony TV in Europe, explained that MHEG-5 is one of the core technologies embedded in all their TV sets sold in Europe, even though so far it has only been adopted in the UK. “Our motivation for supporting IMPALA is to see the expansion of broadcast support for MHEG-5 in Europe and beyond,” he said. “There is the alternative MHP but that is much more processor and memory intensive and has yet to demonstrate any clear user benefit over MHEG.”

Peter Johnson, technical sales manager for Hitachi in Europe added: “MHEG-5 has proved very successful in the UK as a method of delivering interactive services to the customer in a cost-effective way. It is tried and tested and we would like to see this technology adopted more widely.”

Nigel Pankard of Panasonic Europe also added his support for MHEG-5. Other manufacturers that have joined the IMPALA association include Samsung and Finlux, together with Freeview in New Zealand.

“Freeview New Zealand has taken its lead from the successful Freeview UK platform in its business structure, brand positioning, and a number of technology decisions,” said Steve Browning, their general manager. “It made sense for us to go with a cost-effect and proven open standard middleware platform for interactive broadcast applications.”

Many of the considerations come down to cost. MHEG-5 is relatively inexpensive to deploy. Ultimately, however, the key concern should be the features that consumers are likely to require in the future, in a world of hybrid broadcast and broadband devices and high-definition displays.

With only the United Kingdom and New Zealand so far using MHEG, it is still unclear whether they will remain digital islands or whether initiatives such as IMPALA will lead to more widespread adoption, particularly in countries where the cost to the consumer is a critical factor.