RTÉ, the public broadcaster in Ireland, is backing MHEG-5 as the interactive middleware standard for the rollout of its national digital terrestrial television service. The choice follows that of the United Kingdom, while France and Germany are moving forward with HbbTV. Meanwhile the national broadcasting authority has conceded that there is no immediate opportunity for a pay-television terrestrial service in Ireland, after prospective operators have pulled away from the platform.

The decision to back the MHEG-5 open standard was taken some time ago, more than a decade after it was adopted in the United Kingdom, some fifteen years after it was originally devised.

“The key reason for selecting MHEG is the broad consumer choice based on existing product development in other markets and the short-term availability of receiver products using existing supply channels,” said Emer Conlon, of RTÉ Publishing. “We have seen the success of MHEG in the UK and elsewhere and that simply isn’t the case for other middlewares. MHEG has very strong manufacturer support.”

Radio Teilifis Éireann has initially specified the MHEG 1.06 profile with the addition of high-definition capabilities and will explore further options as the DTT project develops. The broadcaster will provide a free-to-air service to around 1.6 million television homes in the Republic of Ireland and it will launch with the digital teletext service RTÉ Aertel.

There will be two DTT multiplexes with HD programming forming part of the ‘Saorview’ offering soon after launch. A satellite ‘Saorsat’ service, similar to Freesat in the United Kingdom, will provide access to the small number of households who are unable to receive the terrestrial transmissions.

David Cutts, the managing director of S&T, which provides MHEG products and services and which is a founder member of the IMPALA trade association that promotes the standard, points to the prevalence of compatible receivers. “A vibrant supply chain is vital to support the effective rollout of new platforms and services,” he said. “Over its years of success manufactures have consistently supported MHEG, via a stringent conformance regime and the development of country-specific profiles. We are pleased that these benefits have been recognised by RTÉ.”

A free-to-air digital terrestrial television platform will be provided by RTÉ using a network built by its transmission network subsidiary RTÉNL.

As yet no receivers have been approved for use with the service, which will use the MPEG-4 video compression standard. The platform profile is based on Nordic specifications.

RTÉ has appointed Swedish company Teracom to conduct receiver compliance testing. Those that are compliant will be able to use the Saorview logo to indicate they are compatible. RTÉNL will publish a full list of compliant DTT receivers on its web site.

A number of companies have dropped plans to launch commercial services on the digital terrestrial television platform, including Boxer, OneVision and Easy TV. They were apparently unable to agree terms with RTÉNL and cited unfavourable economic conditions as reasons for not pursuing their licence applications.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland suggested in a statement that legislation may be required to enable it to mediate in the event of disagreement on the terms of the transmission arrangements between RTÉNL and any future successful applicant.

BAI now considers that it will not be feasible to introduce commercial digital terrestrial television in the Republic of Ireland as originally intended until at least the end of analogue switch off, possibly coming into operation in 2013.

The Republic of Ireland is not a large television market and in following the United Kingdom no doubt hopes to build on the success of Freeview. While it is adopting MPEG-4 to enable high-definition television, it is not taking advantage of DVB-T2 for more efficient transmission. The specifications also do not take account of the developments in hybrid broadband and broadcast services that are being adopted elsewhere, for instance in France and Germany with the HbbTV standard.

The rollout of digital terrestrial television in Ireland has been fraught with issues, trailing the United Kingdom by a decade. It now comes as other broadcasters are working out how to embrace broadband, while receiver manufacturers are ramping up production of network-connected devices and displays. The risk is that while broadcasters are still launching digital teletext systems, consumer expectations will have moved on, driven largely by the web.