The latest version of the MHEG-5 standard for interactive television middleware has been published as a standard by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute. It includes a number of significant upgrades, with support for an internet protocol Interaction Channel and improved high-definition graphics. The Interaction Channel is already in use in the United Kingdom for catch-up television services.

The latest published MHEG-5 specification, version 2.1.1 of ETSI standard 202 184, represents the most significant increase in capabilities since the inception of the open standard in the mid-nineties.

“The publication of the new version of MHEG by ETSI is a significant milestone,” said David Cutts, the managing director of Strategy & Technology and a leading advocate for the open standard interactive television middleware. “These developments are a step change in the capabilities of the globally deployed technology providing broadcasters with a cost-effective route into a new world of hybrid service provision and therefore revenue growth.”

The MHEG-5 Interaction Channel uses a hybrid file system that allows broadcasters to create applications that can work on both internet protocol connected and unconnected receivers. Where available, a broadband data connection can be used to deliver MPEG-2 or MPEG-4 streams using standard web protocols to a compatible device or display, in addition to services broadcast over the air, to provide catch-up services such as versions of the BBC iPlayer as currently implemented on Freesat.

IMPALA, the association established by S&T, Cabot Communications and Echostar Europe to promote the use of MHEG, notes that “Other hybrid technologies currently remain unratified with no publication date yet set.”

This is presumably a reference to the draft HbbTV specification that was submitted to ETSI for ratification as a standard in December 2009, a couple of months after the submission of the latest version of MHEG.

The HbbTV specification employs similar principles to provide a hybrid broadcast broadband environment, but uses HTML, CSS and JavaScript with television specific extensions for its presentation. Its supporters argue that this is a more modern approach to presentation, aligned to widely adopted web technologies.

Others question whether interactive television standards originally developed over a decade ago are an adequate basis for next generation services that may have more in common with internet delivered services.

With both MHEG and HbbTV already adopted in Europe, their proponents question the need for new standards for network connected televisions, such as Project Canvas which was originally proposed to develop standards for a hybrid broadcast and broadband platform.

The Digital TV Group, a broadly based industry association in the United Kingdom, is meanwhile working on a Connected TV specification that it aims to publish by the end of 2010. It might be hoped that this could achieve interoperable standards on which the proposed platform as envisaged by Project Canvas might be based. In which case, the purported objective of Project Canvas in establishing such standards will either have been achieved, or negated.