The UK's FTA DTH platform Freesat will launch set-tops compliant with the pan-European, hybrid broadcast-broadband (HbbTV) specification. The new set-tops, currently identified under the name G2, will allow broadcasters to deliver on-demand services, such as catch-up TV, over a broadband connection. A formal launch date for the receivers has not been specified, nor whether HbbTV-compliant hardware will include only high-end HD and HD DVR boxes.
At first blush, Freesat's decision to adopt HbbTV is unusual for three reasons. First, there appears to be a conflict of interest between the selection of HbbTV, and the backing of YouView, the UK's own hybrid specification. Freesat is operated as a 1:1 JV between UK broadcasters BBC and ITV, and these same broadcasters are members of the seven-firm JV that is responsible for developing and promoting YouView. Second, Freesat boxes already support IP content. Freesat set-tops currently ship with an ethernet port, and run MHEG-5 middleware that is compliant with the MHEG-5 IC specification; the IC extension adds support for broadband content, and is used to implement iPlayer on the platform. Finally, the dual deployment of HbbTV and YouView in the UK - even if on different FTA platforms - goes against conventional wisdom that though multiple hybrid specifications exist in Europe - HbbTV, YouView, MHP, MHEG-5 IC - specification fragmentation should not result within a given country's FTA segment.
Freesat's choice is not actually as confounding as it may seem. In the first place, YouView has yet to define compliance for satellite DTH receivers; the specification currently requires that set-tops include dual DVB-T2 tuners at launch as part of the Freeview HD terrestrial roll-out. Second, given that YouView will not be ready until at least H1 2012, waiting for a DTH-optimized extension to the specification could delay deployment; by contrast, HbbTV has already been deployed in the marketplace. In Germany, HbbTV is being used by the ARD regional broadcasters, and channels such as Arte, to deliver catch-up TV services over an IP channel. In France, broadcaster France Televisions is set to launch HbbTV services on LG connected sets, while network operator TDF now delivers HbbTV interactive services over the terrestrial DTT network. Perhaps most importantly, one of the primary Freesat set-top manufacturers - Humax - already builds HbbTV receivers.
The fact that HbbTV already exists in the market matters in several ways. First, time-to-deployment should be faster than waiting on YouView; in addition to Humax's experience with integrating HbbTV on its set-tops, an HbbTV software stack jointly developed by Opera and OceanBlue has also already been integrated with Trident, Broadcom, and Sigma Designs system-on-chips. Second, existing scale in the HbbTV market may well place downward pressure on receiver prices.
Ultimately, given attractive receiver prices, and that fact that MHEG-5 and HbbTV can happily coexist on a single receiver, the specification's uptake in the UK will add volume to an installed base of HbbTV set-tops and connected TVs that is already set to grow. Of the 135.5m connectable TV sets and FTA STBs installed in Western Europe by 2014, 63 per cent of this installed base will comprise HbbTV-compliant TV sets and set-tops.
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