The BBC iPlayer online video service will soon be available to Freesat viewers over broadband. A trial service on the subscription-free satellite platform will launch before the end of November. It calls into question the need for the proposed Canvas approach. A decision from the BBC Trust on whether to proceed with the proposed platform is expected soon. In the mean time, the BBC is hedging its bets and will make its iPlayer available in a number of standard formats.

Freesat is a free-to-air satellite service that is in use in around 600,000 homes in the United Kingdom. A new campaign is being launched in the run-up to Christmas to promote the service, which has yet to achieve the same level of uptake as its free-to-air terrestrial counterpart.

Unlike Freeview, the Freesat satellite equivalent was conceived with the prospect of also supporting services delivered over broadband. Freesat receivers are integrated into a number of displays and standalone digital video recorders are available retail.

The BBC is developing its iPlayer as a number of standard products, in MHEG, HTML and Flash formats, in addition to the existing online offering on the web and the video on demand variant on Virgin Media cable television.

So far, the BBC has been reluctant to unbundle its programming to allow it to be integrated and aggregated with other services, preferring to provide its iPlayer as a standalone BBC branded “product”.

The Freesat iPlayer is being developed using the MHEG-5 standard, using recently introduced interaction channel extensions to deliver online video over a broadband internet protocol connection. MHEG-5 is an open standard presentation specification, developed in the mid-nineties, which forms the basis for interactive television on the Freesat and Freeview platforms in the United Kingdom. Technically, the same iPlayer could also be supported by next generation Freeview receivers.

An HTML version will be based on a combination of HTML4.01, Javascript 1.5 and CSS2.1 web standards with “pragmatic” use of other extensions. A media playback application programming interface will be supported, which should work directly with HTML 5 audio and video elements. The existing Big Screen implementation, designed for devices such as games consoles, will still be supported.

A third version will be provided in Adobe Flash Lite 3.1 and is expected to be available from April 2010. The use of this basic Flash format, rather than the latest Flash Player that will be supported by the Adobe Open Screen Project, has surprised some, but is intended to reach the widest audience.

Rahul Chakkara is responsible for television platforms in the BBC Future Media and Technology division. “This is a fast changing and evolving industry,” he writes on the BBC web site. “Many of our assumptions will be challenged with time. We will keep coming back to the products and update them where appropriate.”

Given that the BBC is committing to supporting its iPlayer across MHEG, HTML and Flash platforms, the role of the proposed Canvas platform is less clear.

A decision on whether to approve the proposed joint venture initiative with commercial partners is expected shortly from the BBC Trust.

“We’re waiting for approval, which should be fairly imminent,” writes Richard Halton in Ariel, in BBC in house weekly publication. He is responsible for the Canvas project within the BBC, but prejudging the decision of the BBC Trust could be considered premature, as it is far from clear that approval will be granted for the proposal in its current form.

The BBC Trust has spent over £400,000 consulting on whether to give approval to the proposed joint venture, according to information obtained under the Freedom on Information Act. The BBC has spent over £700,000 directly on the project, which has yet to receive approval, although the total cost is likely to have been much higher.

According to the most recent published figures, the Canvas Project is now projected to cost a total of £115 million over five years, including nearly £50 million on marketing, £30 million on technology, and over £35 million on overheads, operations, product management and design.

The contribution of the BBC to this would be dependent upon the number of commercial partners involved. The BBC has now conceded that participants need not be restricted to public service broadcasters or internet service providers.

In the event that the Trust were to approve the Canvas proposals provisionally, it is likely that they would face further regulatory and possibly legal challenges from competitors that have so far been excluded from the project, notably Sky. The decision to open up participation to any party might mitigate this.

The BBC Trust itself will be under pressure to demonstrate impartiality and independence from the executive that it governs. With the prospect of a change of government at the next election, the governance and funding model of the corporation will face further scrutiny.

Any decision to launch what is effectively a new television platform could prove highly controversial in the current climate, particularly since it seems that solutions to delivering a combination of broadcast and broadband programming may already be available using existing technologies.