Freeview Australia has selected MHEG-5 as the interactive television standard for free-to-air digital terrestrial television receivers that are promoted under that brand. Australia is following the United Kingdom and New Zealand in adopting MHEG-5, an open standard that dates back to the mid-nineties. While there may be benefits in learning from the experience in Britain, there are also risks following too far behind.

Freeview Australia is jointly owned by ABC, SBS, Seven, Ten, Prime, Southern Cross and WIN, following a similar model to Freeview in the United Kingdom, which has also been adopted in New Zealand.

The Freeview brand is used to promote products conforming to published standards that are sold in shops. Freeview was first launched in Australia last November, although certified receivers did not come onto the market until earlier this year. Initially, they will not be required to support MHEG-5.

From next year an MHEG-5 based electronic programme guide will be launched providing listings across all Freeview channels, in addition to the basic now and next programme information currently carried by individual channels.

“We looked closely at both Freeview in the UK and Freeview NZ and were impressed by the success they had achieved,” said Ms Robin Parkes, the chief executive of Freeview Australia. “With the addition of high definition graphics and interactive channels, MHEG-5 provides the best route for enhanced services for Freeview in Australia.”

While Freeview has been an undoubted success in the United Kingdom, the same cannot be said for interactive services on the platform, which has been considerably limited in its capabilities and consequently the services that are available, as informitv has often observed.

Some of the original deficiencies have been addressed, for instance to support full colour graphics, high-definition, and the addition of an interactive return path, potentially supporting video delivered over broadband, but MHEG-5 remains rather rudimentary compared to the world of the web.

For its supporters, simplicity is an attraction, providing a reasonably robust and low cost platform that can be supported by inexpensive receivers.

The group that promotes MHEG-5 is known as IMPALA, the International MHEG Promotion Alliance, which was founded by Strategy &Technology, Cabot Communications and EchoStar Europe, who all produce MHEG-5 compatible middleware. They prepared the Australian profile of the standard, based on the latest specification in the United Kingdom.

The receiver specification includes support for high-definition and an interaction channel based on internet protocols. It has extensions for personal video recorders that are specific to Australia.

It seems likely that the cross-carried EPG data will be encrypted and compliant receivers will have to conform to requirements to inhibit users skipping commercials or copying programmes.

Part of the attraction for Freeview Australia, according to IMPALA, was an open standard middleware with maximum manufacturer support. Australia is a relatively small market in terms of population and therefore benefits from adopting a standard based on that already widely used in the United Kingdom. However, devices will need to support a specific profile for the Australian market.

The convergence of broadcast and broadband services also means that interactive services are increasingly likely to be delivered using internet protocols and web standards, rather than technologies intended for transmission to the television, originally designed at a time when receivers had very limited processing and memory capacity.

The current standards debate in Europe is over which specifications will be used to support the convergence of broadcast and broadband networks.

Australia has ambitious plans to roll out high-speed broadband networks nationally over the next few years. While Seven Network has a partnership with TiVo, the Freeview consortium will need a strategy for embracing broadband video services, without which they could be left exposed.