The body that represents the interests of the digital television industry in the United Kingdom has criticised the proponents of project Canvas for failing to engage fully with its members. In a submission to the BBC Trust the Digital TV Group says there is widespread concern that the Canvas specification for a new converged broadcast and broadband platform is being developed regardless of its own Connected TV initiative. It calls on the BBC Trust to require the proposed Canvas joint venture to engage with industry to deliver an agreed specification to achieve widespread market success in the interests of consumers and television licence fee payers.

As the industry association for digital television in the United Kingdom, members of the DTG include the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Five and BT, which are members of the Canvas consortium, as well as many major manufacturers and consumer electronics companies, such as Panasonic, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony and Toshiba, which are not.

The DTG said its members have spent over 4,000 person hours developing commercial requirements and initiating the drafting of a specification for its own Connected TV project, which was instigated in response to developments such as project Canvas. The DTG was initially encouraged by the indications from the BBC Trust and executive that this specification would be at the core of any future Canvas devices and that the proposed Canvas joint venture would closely engage with the digital television industry through its group.

In a submission to the BBC Trust, the DTG said “feedback from our membership indicates that there remains widespread concern in the industry that there is a parallel process in place — with a Canvas specification being developed between the Canvas JV and its innovation partners separately from, and regardless of, the DTG’s Connected TV specification work”.

It continues that “A number of our members have voiced serious concerns that the Trust’s provisional approval document does not contain a clear and unequivocal condition that the Canvas JV work with the DTG to develop a common standard for Connected TV devices and services.”

Indeed, the BBC Trust has only said that “as well as continuing to work with its existing partners, the Executive will take steps to work with the broader industry in developing the Canvas core technical specification” and that it will work with the industry group “to understand how its proposals might facilitate the development of the Canvas core technical specification, subject to agreeing a work plan that allows delivery by Autumn 2010.”

It appears that members of the industry group may have naively assumed that this meant that the BBC would work with them to develop the specification, while the partners in the project disingenuously continued to develop their own proposals.

Members of the DTG say they are concerned that specification documents developed by the BBC and funded by the public through licence fee have not been released to the industry. These apparently include documents describing the platform, delivery mechanisms, presentation engine, metadata, search, usage and reporting, configuration management and the treatment of intellectual property relating to the platform.

The DTG states that without the release of these documents it is unreasonable for the Canvas joint venture to claim that they have full engaged with the industry and that this has severely affected the ability of its working groups to deliver a specification in a timely manner.

Some members of the DTG are also concerned about a lack of clarity over the intellectual property status of the Canvas technical documentation. The industry group concludes that while its members have demonstrated a willingness to develop a Connected TV specification through its normal process, many of them have expressed concern that the parties in the proposed Canvas joint venture “appear to have not fully engaged with industry”. A significant number of members feel that a best endeavours approach to achieve consensus is “insufficient and unlikely to deliver an industry agreed specification”.

The apparent continuing failure of the partners in the proposed Canvas joint venture to work openly with the main industry association for digital television in the country threatens to damage the prospects for the platform. While some companies may stand to benefit from being more closely associated with the Canvas project, the success of any such proposition will be largely dependent upon the involvement of the major consumer electronics manufacturers that produce the vast majority of television devices and displays.

Although they are keen to be able to differentiate on features, functions and elements of the user interface, major manufacturers recognise the benefits of genuinely open interoperable standards, developed through the same consensus driven processes that have served digital television for over a decade. Many already have their own products combining broadcast and broadband delivered programming, reducing the rationale for a new platform. They are also producing products for Freeview HD and Freesat, which are also required to have broadband network connectivity, independently of Project Canvas.

The submission from the DTG represents its final contribution to a lengthy industry consultation by the BBC Trust. It suggests that the relationship with many of its member consumer electronics companies is far from open.

Strong objections can also be expected from pay-television service providers Sky and Virgin Media who have their own platforms and have previously raised concerns about the openness of the Canvas proposition.

A representative of the Canvas consortium responded that it intends “to continue our extensive work with the DTG’s connected TV working group with a view to better understand the reasons why the DTG have raised these concerns in this way, and work to resolve any concerns”.

At a London conference, Richard Halton of the BBC, who is programme director for Project Canvas, cited research that it could accelerate the growth in the market for connected television devices by 70% up to 2015. He insisted that Canvas was trying to create a platform like Freeview that was “very open” and “without a gatekeeper”. He also said that there was an aim to move Canvas closer to the HbbTV specification that has already been adopted by broadcasters in France and Germany and that Canvas was working closely with the European Broadcasting Union to achieve this.

The BBC Trust is expected within weeks to make its final decision on whether to approve a joint venture with other public service broadcasters and broadband service providers. This seems a foregone conclusion, given that the governing body of the BBC has already given preliminary approval to proceed.

The Trust itself faces criticisms about its independence from the corporation that it governs and has an uncertain future in the event of a Conservative government following the next general election.

The prospects for project Canvas remain far from clear, even if it were to be approved by the Trust as it is likely to come under further regulatory scrutiny and possibly even judicial review.

Meanwhile, the global consumer electronics industry is continuing to develop products and standards that may well satisfy the needs of consumers without the need for a new joint venture initiative involving public service broadcasters in the United Kingdom.