Project Canvas, the proposal from the BBC to establish a joint venture with ITV and BT to define and promote standards for network connected television devices, has already attracted regulatory attention. It faces the prospect of the same scrutiny that killed Project Kangaroo, a previous joint venture online video initiative from the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. The communications regulator has said it may need to “assess the arrangement under relevant merger or competition law”.

The BBC Trust is engaged in a consultation on the Project Canvas proposals, which have attracted criticisms from some consumer electronics companies that have complained about lack of transparency in the approach adopted by the broadcaster.

In a letter to the BBC Trust, Ofcom has effectively warned that Project Canvas could run risks similar to Project Kangaroo, which was blocked by the Competition Commission.

Peter Phillips, who is responsible for strategy and market development at the communications regulator, outlined his concerns. He said that while the initiative “has the potential to be an exciting and innovative proposition,” it was vital that the technology was open, that it should not be allowed to be develop as a separate platform, that the interface should not be designed to be exclusive and that it should be available on any commonly available transmission system.

He added that third parties should be able to market their own material using the Canvas standard and any companies providing alternative platforms should be allowed fair access to material from the BBC and its partners.

“An inequitable approach to participation in the joint venture which favours certain participants may lead to potential harm for consumers as a result of market distortion,” the Ofcom submission noted, diplomatically. “It is therefore important to ensure there are no unreasonable barriers inhibiting third parties participating in the joint venture and contributing towards future updates.”

In response to concerns from a number of companies, informitv submitted its own recommendations to the BBC Trust. In summary, informitv concludes:

  • A joint venture is not necessary in order to develop or promote a standard
  • Any such joint venture is liable to complaints that it could be anticompetitive
  • Any technical standards adopted or promoted by the BBC should be entirely open
  • Such standards should be developed and adopted through open collaboration
  • Resulting standards or specifications should be published by a recognised body
  • Any such standard should be available for implementation without restriction
  • Such standards should be limited to publishing and distributing programming
  • The priority should be to make programming available in open standard formats
  • The specification of the navigation and presentation should be left entirely open
  • Programming should be made available to other platforms on equivalent terms.

The BBC Trust is expected to publish its conclusions in response to an initial consultation in early June. This will be followed by a second consultation period before the trust publishes its final conclusions by 24 July.

However, the submission from the communications regulator Ofcom suggests that might not be the end of the matter. In the event that the BBC Trust were to approve the proposals in their current form, which seems increasingly unlikely, it is possible that the plans could be subject to further regulatory review or legal challenge.

While Ofcom has limited jurisdiction over the the operation of the BBC, which is governed by the BBC Trust, the communications regulator will certainly have an interest in any proposed joint venture with the commercial broadcaster ITV and the national telecommunications company BT.

As with the ill-fated Kangaroo initiative before it, the Canvas project, in a misguided attempt to create a platform, runs considerable regulatory risks. The irony is that this is entirely unnecessary.

The BBC could achieve its stated aim of developing and promoting open standards simply by publishing its programming in open standard formats, as mandated by the charter and agreements that establish its objectives.

The reality is that numerous network connected television devices will become available irrespective of any plans proposed by the BBC. In attempting to gain credit for such developments, the BBC executive appears to overestimate its own role.

It seems the BBC Trust will be left with little option but to refer the Project Canvas proposals back for further work, possibly to be resubmitted in a more open form, or risk damaging the reputation and independence of the corporation and its governance as a result of potential regulatory or legal challenges.