Richard Halton, the strategist who heads up IPTV at the BBC, addressed a marquee full of industry executives at the fifth annual IPTV World Forum in London. Many left little wiser about the proposals the corporation has put before the BBC Trust under the name Project Canvas. The big picture vision may be superficially seductive but as yet there is little detail emerging.
In a session revealingly entitled “Project Canvas: Bringing internet connectivity to free to air platforms,” Richard outlined a modest “proposal to with the industry create a standards based approach to IPTV in the UK.”
He spoke of developing “simple standards that will enable the rapid adoption of internet connected television in this country.” He said that the BBC is putting on demand and internet protocol connectivity at the heart of its future vision for broadcasting.
“The Project Canvas proposals are for the BBC to work with the industry to develop a common standard to enable internet connected television devices,” he said. “As part of this we’re proposing to create a new venture to promote this standard.”
“This is an ambitious proposal,” he conceded, but said that the BBC “can take a relatively neutral, benign role in bringing together different parts of the organisation to come up with some very simple standards.”
“Canvas is not an attempt to create a new standard,” he assured the audience, recognising that in the short time he has been involved in IPTV, it “is not short of standards or even standards bodies”.
“One of the things that we want to do is try and bring together those bodies from the broadcast side and the telco side and identify those standards that have been adopted that are already established and bring them together.”
Beyond that, there was no technical discussion, or even a commitment to using open, published standards. It was emphasised that this is subject to an ongoing open consultation, although the document on which the BBC Trust is inviting comments is sketchy when it comes to any real details.
The IPTV World Forum provided an ideal opportunity to engage with the industry. Speaking to a number of industry executives at the event, which drew over three thousand delegates, there was still much confusion over whether Project Canvas was about establishing common standards or creating a platform and a brand.
The IPTV industry is fundamentally based on standards, many of which are entirely open. The Open IPTV Forum was founded two years ago as a pan-industry initiative to develop end to end specifications for internet protocol television. The BBC joined three months ago, taking the membership to over 50 industry organisations, although these notably do not yet include some major software companies such as Microsoft or Adobe.
For some it seemed that the BBC was arriving late at the party and overestimating its influence on the global consumer electronics industry. Many manufacturers need economies of scale to address multiple markets far beyond a single territory.
Beyond the BBC, the issue for many is to create an ecosystem and a value network that can support commercial models that may have very different requirements to free-to-air public service broadcasters.
Another concern is that a protracted period of consultation, and in all probability regulatory scrutiny, could actually inhibit development in this rapidly evolving market. Many manufacturers have announced or are already shipping products that could deliver much of what is apparently proposed by the BBC. There is also the danger that developing a brand to promote particular products could actually have an adverse and ultimately anticompetitive effect on the market.
The Competition Commission ruled that a previous proposal, dubbed Project Kangaroo, was anticompetitive because the joint venture between the main public service broadcasters in the country could limit competition in the video on demand market. Part of the problem was the creation of a joint venture vehicle to run the platform.
The BBC runs the risk of similar scrutiny if it proposes to create a similar joint venture to promote a standard for devices. Some have argued that this is simply unnecessary if the intention is to develop a simple set of standards that are genuinely open and interoperable and which might be better maintained by an independent industry standards body.