Hybrid Broadband Broadcast has become a new buzz phrase in the audiovisual industry, writes Natalie Mouyal, of DigiTAG. While it defines the convergence between broadcast and internet content for a coherent experience, HBB has been used as a catch-all phrase to include the access of internet content on a television display. Manufacturers have demonstrated confidence in the emergence of this new market that allows viewers to watch internet video content directly on their television sets.

Using the HDMI input, viewers can connect a device, such as Apple TV, Roku, Maxdome set-top box or even a computer, to watch Internet content on their television set. Game consoles such as the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and PlayStation 3 also make this possible. In addition, consumer electronics manufacturers have also begun developing internet connected television sets such as Philips Net TV, Panasonic Viera Cast, Sony Bravia Internet Video Link, and Samsung’s Internet@TV. While each of these systems is different, all share the objective of allowing viewers to access some IP content using their television sets, whether it is video content, information services, or enhanced television services.

The demand for video content from the internet is high. Data released by ComScore showed that Internet users in the United States viewed 14.5 billion online videos in March 2009 which represented an 11% increase compared with February. Meanwhile, broadcasters have taken steps to make their content available on the internet. The demand for broadcaster’s content on the internet is high as demonstrated by the success of the BBC’s on-demand portal, the iPlayer. As of December 2008, over 180 million programmes have been watched since its release in December 2007.

Questions are now beginning to arise on how to bring together the content from a broadband environment and a broadcast environment. In what ways should the different types of content interact with each other? Should the internet content serve as a supplementary service to existing broadcast services or is it a separate service?

According to a study released by the Consumer Electronics Association in the United States entitled Net-Enabled Video: Early Adopters Only?, 14.5 million consumers are considering the purchase of an internet-capable television set in the next 12 months. In another study, conducted by the Diffusion Group on behalf of Intel, 76% of the surveyed group said that having a ‘widget toolbar’ allowing for access to enhanced content via an internet connection would be of value. Finding and watching an episode of a television show, proved to be the favourite application for 85% of those surveyed.

In addition, according to a new study by ABI Research, 20 million television sets offering wireless connectivity will be shipped worldwide in 2011. This segment is expected to show linear growth at least until 2014.

For many manufacturers, the ultimate aim is to ensure that the television set is used as the primary source of video consumption. The source of the video matters little, so long as the content looks good on the display. It is for this reason that manufacturers will be wary of certain content from the internet. While some on-demand or downloaded HD content may be available, it is not yet widespread on the main sites that viewers use to access video content. Because this content has been destined for viewing on computer screens, viewers are generally aware of the quality limitations of such content. However, poor image quality can have an adverse affect on the viewer’s perception of the television display.

Thus far, most manufacturers have set limits to the content that viewers can access on the Internet. Through the use of portals, manufacturers have served as de-facto gatekeepers by only providing viewers with access to content that they have previously vetted. With time, however, this may change. And, already, some manufacturers allow viewers unfettered access to the internet.

In providing Internet services on television sets, manufacturers have developed similar concepts but using different technologies. Because this market segment is nascent, it is not yet clear what exactly viewers will demand. However, manufacturers will need to find a balance between the necessary competition in the market and how they differentiate their products, against the collaboration required to build a successful platform.

The availability of internet video content on television sets poses new challenges for broadcasters. In a situation where a clear distinction is made between broadcast content and Internet content, broadcasters do not face a degradation of the displayed brand. However, should it be possible for viewers to overlay internet content over a broadcast image, concerns over broadcaster branding and on-screen image integrity will emerge. Viewers may not clearly distinguish between the different sources of content which could generate confusion and weaken the broadcaster’s brand value.

However, broadcasters can benefit from the availability of internet content. Supplementary services can be made available to enhance linear broadcast content. For example, access to the broadcaster’s internet portal can provide viewers with on-demand services, further programme information, and EPGs. It is also a means for broadcasters to ‘interact’ with their viewers. Broadcast interest in such services has been evident in the development of such specifications the BBC’s Canvas Project and HbbTV. However, broadcasters will need open ETSI standards to ensure that they can maintain control over their services.

Based on the current hybrid receivers available, the use of ‘portals’ by manufacturers to limit the content that viewers can access on the internet serves an effective gatekeeper. At this stage, while a few manufacturers allow viewers to freely access the internet, the difficulty in doing so is a form of deterrent. Manufacturer portals place an additional barrier between content providers and their viewers. They could also potentially limit the type of services broadcasters can provide depending on the rules established by the gatekeeper.

Yet the development of open standards for unmanaged internet television services has been slow. At this stage, work is just beginning within the DVB Project while the Open IPTV Forum has only recently published a first version of its specification in January. Yet, despite the lack of standardization, viewers have been able to access video content on the internet, albeit from different vendor-specific sources. The speed of internet content development has surpassed that of standardization organization.

The lack of standardization has been highlighted by the BBC when it noted that it must support 14 different video formats and four different Digital Rights Management or DRM formats to ensure that its online ‘catch-up TV’ service, the iPlayer, will work across different internet and mobile platforms. With such a scenario, the BBC’s desire for the use of a single specification to access its content can be better understood and perhaps explains its instigation of the Canvas Project.

However, manufacturers and competing broadcasters have been critical of the BBC’s role in developing a standard rather than providing the necessary broadcast requirements and then allowing manufacturers to develop the compatible devices. Rather, manufacturers will want to participate in the development of such standards in order to ensure that their technical concerns are taken into consideration. A common profile for interactivity, content security, the delivery, and consumption of content will be necessary.

Viewers will increasingly access content from the internet and find means for watching it on their television displays. This bodes well for the development of hybrid services that can combine both broadcasting and internet TV. Hybrid broadband and broadcast services present new opportunities for both manufacturers and broadcasters but they must be willing to take up the challenge.

Originally published by DigiTAG, the Digital Terrestrial Action Group. Republished with permission.