A new pan-European approach has been launched aimed at establishing a standard for news, information and entertainment services delivered to displays and other devices based on hybrid broadcast and broadband delivery. The proposed HbbTV specification offers much of what has been promised by the troubled BBC Canvas initiative. Based on a combination of existing broadcast standards and web technologies, it comes from a cross industry consortium that represents a number of French and German broadcasters, satellite operator SES Astra, Philips, and interactive television software companies ANT and OpenTV.

The Institut für Rundfunktechnik or IRT, a leading broadcasting research centre that represents the interests of German public service broadcasters, is a lead member of the consortium.

“HbbTV not only allows service providers to enrich their offering, but results in considerable benefits to the end consumer who will no longer be challenged by usability issues across multiple platforms,” said its managing director, Dr Klaus Illgner-Fehns. “By making the most of today’s hybrid receivers, HbbTV merges broadcasting and broadband services seamlessly to deliver value added content such as web and on demand in addition to traditional linear broadcast television.”

Visitors to the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin will be able to view broadband connected televisions and set-top boxes showcasing applications from German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF. German interest in the HbbTV standard is driven by the launch of high-definition services and the need to provide interactive programme guides, videotext and enhanced radio services.

A number of French broadcasters, which had been pursuing their own similar approach, have also joined the HbbTV consortium. They include France Televisions, TF1 and Canal+. The French HD-Forum, an association driving the development and promotion of high-definition television, together with the government bodies the DGCIS and CSA, are actively working on the HbbTV standard solution in its effort to make DTT interactive in France.

“A key advantage for HbbTV is the ability to mix broadcast and online services while retaining the broadcasters’ control,” said said Frédéric Tapissier, of the France HD Forum, which hopes to provide interactivity on digital terrestrial television in 2010.

The HbbTV specification, which is being developed as a proposed ETSI open standard, is founded on existing approaches to broadcast interactive television established in DVB standards, together with web technologies defined by W3C standards, the Consumer Electronics Association CE-HTML profile, and extensions developed through the broadly based Open IPTV Forum.

Essentially, it combines learning from the first decade of broadcast interactive television, as pioneered with ‘red button’ services in the United Kingdom, with developments from the web, providing a pragmatic solution to the problem of a standard middleware which has frustrated the evolution of services internationally.

A key proponent of the HbbTV approach is ANT, a small software company based in Cambridge, England. For many years it has developed implementations of browsers based on web standards for consumer electronics applications.

“HbbTV has real benefit up and down the ecosystem, from the content owner –the broadcaster –through to the device manufacturer,” said Richard Baker of ANT. “HbbTV brings about a uniform standard so that content owners and application developers can now write once and deploy to many countries. For the device manufacturers that also addresses a return on investment issue. It’s not attractive, particularly in today’s market, to be building a connected TV or a new receiver technology just for the French market or just for the German market. It’s important to get a good return on investment across a bigger territory. That’s what HbbTV offers.”

Support for the proposed HbbTV standard must further call into question the ambitions of the BBC to establish its own platform in the guise of Project Canvas. The BBC will face pressure from some consumer electronics manufacturers to fall in line with an open standard that could provide economies of scale across a broader European market. The Digital TV Group, which is the industry association for digital television in the United Kingdom, seems likely to play an increasing role in the definition of any such platform and will no doubt be influenced by the opportunities of a broader European market.

The HbbTV initiative is being evaluated by the European Broadcasting Union, which is keen to promote a pan-European approach to hybrid broadband and broadcast services. Examples of HbbTV solutions will be showcased on the EBU stand at the IBC show in Amsterdam. Representatives of the EBU and the Open IPTV Forum will also take part in a conference session chaired by William Cooper, the chief executive of informitv.