The chief executive of Virgin Media has roundly criticised the BBC for its handling of Project Canvas. Neil Berkett told the annual Cable Congress in Brussels that the consultation process was “an absolute whitewash in terms of any form of governance.” He said the BBC Trust is “incapable of regulating the BBC’s activities in an objective way”. The consultation on the proposed joint venture involving the main terrestrial broadcasters has also been criticised by Sky. Even the Digital TV Group has argued that the partners in the project, most of which are among its members, have failed to engage with the wider industry.
The stated aim of Project Canvas is “to build an open internet-connected TV platform” but cable and satellite operators, as well as many consumer electronics companies, have objected to the insistence of the partners in the project that this should define the user experience or specify the behaviour of the programme guide.
The Virgin executive said there was no need to create an entirely new television platform with a mandated proprietary user interface in order to achieve its stated goals.
“If Project Canvas has a set of genuinely open, technology-neutral standards, then it has the potential to inject a much needed momentum into the UK’s digital economy,” he said. “If these standards are contingent on the adoption of a single, branded interface, controlled by the BBC and its partners, then canvas will significantly distort the market, restrict consumer choice and chill private sector investment”.
Virgin Media is advancing with its own integrated proposition that will be based on software and a Flash-based user interface from TiVo. The aim is to roll this out by the end of the year, which remains the ambitious aspirational launch window for Project Canvas.
Sky is meanwhile proceeding with its own plans to enable its existing high-definition satellite set-top boxes to connect to broadband.
The BBC Trust said its assessment of Canvas has been rigorous and given ample opportunity for comment. It gave the project its provisional approval at the end of last year, subject to a further period of consultation.
Critics might argue that they have had very little detail on which to comment. For a project that is supposed to be about open standards there is as yet very little in terms of specification that has been published.
In its final submission to the BBC Trust, the Digital TV Group said project had failed to engage fully with the wider industry. It suggested there was widespread concern that the project was developing its specification separately from the process by which digital television standards, such as those for Freeview and Freesat, were generally developed and deployed.
Responding to these criticisms at the annual DTG Summit, Richard Halton, who heads Project Canvas at the BBC, said it would only achieve its aims if it becomes an open platform. Asked why a technical outline for the initiative had not yet been made available to the industry, he conceded that the “substantial progress” made so far was “probably not enough to get us where we need to be”. He said that collaboration with the DTG is “absolutely critical” to the success of the project and committed to publishing the technical specifications by the end of May.
That is unlikely to give time for most manufacturers to develop product in time for the important Christmas market, although the consortium is already working closely with some companies, including Broadcom, Cisco, Intel and Humax.
Meanwhile, Freeview is about to launch a high-definition service that is currently independent of Canvas and various vendors have products that integrate broadcast and broadband services. The Freesat offering now also integrates with broadband. Most major manufacturers are already selling Blu-ray players and television sets with internet connectivity. The reality is that convergence of communications and divergence of devices will happen despite the best efforts of the BBC. The result will be a fragmented market, confusing to consumers, which is what Project Canvas aimed to avoid.
The BBC Trust is considering its response to the consultation before publishing its final conclusions in the coming weeks. With the independence of the BBC Trust from the body it governs in question, this will be a severe test of impartiality that could be critical to its very future.
Irrespective of any conclusions from the BBC Trust, which only affects the participation of the BBC, rather than whether the proposed joint venture can actually go ahead, it can expect further scrutiny from the communications and competition regulators, the outcome of which is far from certain.