Draft Response to the European Commission’s invitation for comments on
SEC(2004)346, the “Commission Staff Working Paper on the
interoperability of digital interactive digital television services”
1. This response from the UK Government is in two parts:
i. General comments on the interoperability of digital interactive television
services, and the Commission's analysis as set out in sections 1-3 of its
Working Paper, and
ii. Specific responses to some of the issues listed in subsection 4.4. of
the Working Paper as "Issues for consultation"
i. GENERAL COMMENTS
2. The Commission is to be congratulated on a thorough analysis which
the complexity of the situation across Europe,
the different levels at which "interoperability" issues can be addressed,
the overall market context within which "interoperability" is an important,
but not the sole concern, and
the dynamics of this market and, in particular, the transformation brought
about by convergence with IT technology and practices.
It is precisely in the area of interactivity where IT technology and practices have
their greatest impact. As the Working Paper notes in 3.2.3 in its analysis of the
state of play in interactive TV and, in particular, of APIs, "the functionality was
entirely new and controlled by players from outside the broadcasting sector ...
the specification body that developed the European digital television ... standards
had hardly any members with software and IT experience."
3. The truth of the matter is that the addition of interactivity to broadcasting
practices (beyond such vestigial applications as teletext) is a bodily transfer of
functionality from the IT sector, made feasible by the digitisation of broadcast
transmission and digital processing technology in receivers. If it is to develop
healthily, any proposal to totally divorce its management and future development
from its IT roots needs to be looked at very carefully.
4. The vitality of IT developments in interactivity – both on the Internet and
elsewhere - is predicated on the ability of receivers (terminals) to store and
process data and, in particular, to respond to new developments by downloading
new capabilities (eg browser plug-ins) to their repertoires. As communication
bandwidths, processing power and storage capacity increase, new interactive
services are constantly being introduced and taken up. Existing
receivers/terminals become progressively disenfranchised as their capabilities
gradually fall short of those required to access the new services. New threats, in
the form of viruses, worms etc require regularly updated defences. It is a fast-
moving, demanding environment.
5. Interactive TV services need to be a domesticated sub-set of those available
on the Internet and elsewhere. In particular consumers need packages which:
can be processed by their (relatively feeble) receiver,
provide protection, where necessary against unauthorised applications,
are easy to use (ie hide complexity).
Market studies have shown that consumers place particular value on interactive
facilities which are directly related to the TV services to which they have access.
6. As the Working Paper notes, there have to date been two successful
approaches to the provision of such services:
i. MHEG is a simple, open standard, one-way API, which nevertheless
supports a number of enhanced TV features (eg EPGs, digital text, one-
touch recording) which consumers find very attractive.
ii. Proprietary APIs have provided greater functionality from the start of
digital TV services. They have been primarily taken up by PayTV
operators concerned to differentiate their offering by providing their clients
with advanced interactive services, and to take advantage of the active
protection and development naturally provided by the APIs'
In terms of market penetration, the success of these APIs is illustrated in Figure 1
of the Working Paper – where, for some reason, all of them are described as
"legacy" platforms! This use of “legacy” suggests that despite their success, all
will be superseded in the near future.
7. The development of the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) suite of standards
is indeed a major achievement. They were created by the DVB on the
understanding that they were to be voluntary standards and it was on this basis
that they received crucial input from experts across the field. Work on their
further development is ongoing. The continued involvement of the whole API
community, including proprietary API providers, in this common endeavour
provides a strong underlying drive towards increased interoperability across the
8. A particularly important achievement is the acceptance of GEM (Globally
Executable MHP) – which comprises the central elements of MHP – by standards
bodies in the USA and Japan. This will provide a major contribution to facilitating
the global interchange of interactive TV programmes and services.
9. UK-based members of the DVB made a major contribution to the
development of the MHP standards. The standards have a particularly strong
affinity with the MHEG-5 standard currently used by UK terrestrial broadcasters,
from which many of MHP's attributes were derived. MHP therefore provides a
natural upgrade path for UK terrestrial broadcasters looking to provide more
sophisticated interactive services in the future. A great deal of thought and effort
has gone into defining a migration strategy from MHEG to MHP and work is
continuing in the DVB and elsewhere in improving alignment of these two open
standards so that interactive services can be provided efficiently to a mixed
population of receivers.
10. There have been encouraging developments both within and outside the EU
on the adoption and deployment of MHP standards and services. MHP and its
GEM derivatives look set fair to become the dominant open standard APIs across
much of the world over the next few years.
11. Of course the problems of interoperability and security within MHP (ie with
consistency of implementation and with the protection of receiver software from
attack) are not yet fully resolved, though work on developing an infrastructure for
authorising MHP applications is well advanced. As with other high-level APIs,
security clearance will put a continuing burden on MHP service providers who
wish to use the execution engine-based capabilities of the standard.
UK GOVERNMENT'S POSITION
12. The UK Government 's position is clear. In line with the requirements of
Article 18.1 of the Framework Directive (2002/21/EC), it encourages providers of
digital interactive television services and equipment providers to use an open
API. In this regard, it is gratifying to note the recent standardisation by ETSI of
the previously proprietary W(TV)ML specification.
13. It also agrees with the view published by the Commission in Para 6.2.2 of
Com (2003) 410 Final (9/7/2003) on barriers to widespread access to new
services and applications of the information society through open platforms in
digital television and third generation mobile telecommunications. Para 6.2.2
“... the Commission considers that standardisation should be voluntary and
industry-led. Standardisation is not a goal in itself. A balance must be struck in
the public interest, between the extent standards are needed to achieve
interoperability, with the possible adverse effects of standardisation on
competition, innovation, investment and the risk of choosing premature or
14. It believes the future of MHP is bright and that it will play an important role in
improving the interoperability of interactive TV content across the world.
15. It is not convinced that MHP completely supersedes the roles of MHEG or
the other "legacy" APIs described in paragraph 6 above:
i. Given that interactivity is an addition to classical televison reception, it
believes that MHEG has a continuing role to play, both in its own right (as
a desirable alternative to "zapper boxes" without any API) and as a natural
junior partner to MHP in a mixed receiver economy.
ii. It believes that closed-user-groups, such as PayTV communities, where
receivers are rented or subsidised, should be encouraged, but not forced
to use open API standards. The developers of proprietary APIs, both for
TV and Internet services are engines of progress from whose efforts later
generations of open standards can benefit. As noted in 3.1.3 of the
Working Paper (in another context): "Simple interoperability can only be
guaranteed at the expense of innovation".
16. Some UK broadcasters (most notably the BBC) provide interactive services
over several APIs. This has led to the development of cost-effective techniques
to support the authoring of the different versions required. As noted in 3.2.3 of
the Working Paper, the DVB is taking this process further in creating a
standardised portable content format (PCF). The UK Government regards this
work as very important as it directly addresses a key requirement of content
providers – to maximise returns by delivering the same valuable content to an
increasing range of receivers with differing APIs. As the types of receiver
proliferate (ranging from HDTVs to mobile phones and PDAs) so will the
importance of automatic transcoding. MHP will fit easily into this regime and with
its increasing prevalence should increase interoperability by reducing the need
for transcoding. However there will be an increasing number of receivers,
particularly small, handheld devices, where MHP would not be an appropriate
API. The DVB is currently looking at mobile networks which can support hybrids
of both broadcasting and telecomms services – where MHP would be too
complex and power-hungry.
17. Because of developments like these, the UK Government is not convinced
that the MHP standards can provide a universally applicable and timeless
"solution", even for broadcast interactivity, and considers that mandation of MHP
at EU level would be a serious mistake. By the time such a mandation resulted
in a substantial uptake of receivers across the EU, the MHP profile selected
would either be obsolescent or alternatively, there would be so many profiles,
that the mandation would lose much of its force as an effective vehicle for
promoting interoperability. Either way, the negative effects of mandation in
damaging market confidence and constraining market development would
18. In a completely unregulated market place, the level of interoperability of
interactive content would be one of a series of issues addressed at the level of
the individual enterprise - and factored in to its economic modelling. A wider
concern over interoperability has led to the requirements set out in Article 18 of
the Framework Directive (2002/21/EC) where Member States are required to
encourage enterprises to use an open API. This still leaves the enterprise to
decide the time of transition and choice of open API. The proposal to take both
these choices away by mandating MHP would undermine, at least to some
extent, the economic basis on which the enterprises had made their investments
and business plans. The ex post imposition of such an additional regulatory
constraint would certainly damage business confidence to the detriment of
existing business prospects and future investment. A stable regulatory
environment is a necessary underpinning for the continued development of a
vibrant digital televison market.
19. As the Working Paper recognises, there is a clear distinction between the
markets, like the UK, where investment in digital TV services is already under
way, and those markets yet to launch services. Given this distinction – and that
Member States have considerable automony in broadcasting policy in line with
the principle of subsidiarity – a viable way to achieve a sustainable commercial
launch for the MHP platform across the EU could be for individual Member States
to be free to mandate MHP for their own broadcasters if they wished and for
positive steps to be taken to aggregate initiatives to launch new MHP-based
services to achieve the required economies of scale. Co-ordinating the latter
could be a useful activity for organisations such as the MHP Alliance.
ii. IN LINE WITH THE COMMENTS ABOVE, THE UK GOVERNMENT
OFFERS THE FOLLOWING SPECIFIC RESPONSES TO SOME OF THE
ISSUES LISTED IN SUBSECTION 4.4. OF THE WORKING PAPER
1. a) – Different levels of interoperability, and access and interworking
- Simple interoperability
20. Simple interoperability for interactive services implies a single API. In the
UK, simple interoperability for the horizontal DTT market (which uses MHEG for
interactivity) is supported by traditional arrangements between broadcasters and
CE manufacturers, coupled with an independent capability for testing MHEG
applications and MHEG implementations in receivers provided by DTG Test.
21. The speed of technological development since the launch of DTT services in
the UK in 1998 has already caused the UK to formulate a migration strategy from
MHEG to MHP. It will not stop there. We can expect a steady stream of new
developments to come to market, including more efficient audio and video
compression schemes and new delivery technologies, eg DVB-S2 and DVB-H.
These militate against the prospects for lasting “simple interoperability” solutions
being deployed at anything like a universal level. The “proxy” approach
described in 3.1.2 of the Working Paper, combined with a judicious selection of
open standards (preferably from the same stable) could provide a more
practicable way forward, by providing a means to balance stability and progress.
- Content interoperability
22. Today, however, digital television is about more television and better
television, not necessarily interactive television. Interoperability is only one
aspect of interactive television. To impose a standard on the entire digital
television market in order to satisfy a requirement (which the market does not
demand) for one small aspect of that market would be a disproportionate
response, and one which would distort a market which is already functioning
23. Given the different levels of digital television penetration in individual Member
States and the different business models adopted by those with the highest
penetration levels (which have helped achieve these high penetration levels), it is
sensible to consider the objectives of interoperability. A major such objective is
the ability to receive content regardless of the platform on which it is transmitted.
24. UK broadcasters make the same interactive content available on more than
one platform (each of which uses a different API). As noted in paragraph 16
above, the BBC has developed systems to distribute effectively interactive
content on all three major platforms (cable, satellite and terrestrial) at reasonable
cost. All public service broadcasting channels are available on all three platforms.
We understand that such content interoperability already operates in some other
- Interworking agreements
25. Interworking agreements are to be encouraged to ensure that viewers have
access to the same content regardless of platform. Such arrangements do exist
in the UK. Cable companies broadcast channels developed by the satellite
operator, BSkyB, and BSkyB is a partner in the free-to-view DTT service
26. The UK experience shows there is no need to mandate a technical standard
to drive the major players in the market to compete with each other in certain
segments, and to co-operate in others. The competitive environment engendered
by the different business models adopted by the players and the unencumbered
way in which they have been allowed to develop their business within a
regulatory framework clearly defining their public service responsibilities has
created a situation which has allowed players to derive considerable commercial
success by providing programming and services wanted by the consumer.
- b) the role of market forces
- to what extent can market forces ensure that interoperability is provided
to meet user needs?
27. One of the major arguments in favour of interoperability is that to achieve it,
standardization is required. Standardization enables lowers costs through
economies of scale, and therefore benefits consumers and manufacturers.
28. However, the level of interoperability required by the UK market today is
satisfied by the market offerings available. This is presumably also true in other
29. It is not in any case clear that even if technical standards were mandated that
the interoperability problem would be solved. In the IT world, UNIX is a
“standard”, but a version running on Hewlett Packard machines will not run on a
30. It is likely that the demand for interactive television services will grow as
a) processing power and memory on digital reception devices become
cheaper, thereby enabling the inclusion of more complex and resource-
hungry software such as MHP, and
b) the social mindset moves more towards accepting the television (rather
than just the PC) as a normal way of interacting with external networks,
content, groups of people or individuals.
This is likely to be true in the UK as well as in other member states, although
given the high level of PC and internet penetration in the UK compared to some
other Member States it is recognised that the market for interactive TV services
may move faster in other countries than in the UK.
31. As demand for interactive TV services grows, market forces should create the
demand for greater technical interoperability. For the time being, however, the
limited interactivity provided by MHEG-5 on DTT and that provided by the APIs
used by the cable and satellite operators is enough to satisfy current demand,
and cost effective ways of providing content interoperability have been
32. Mandation would upset the balance by forcing the market to do what it is not
yet ready to do.
- will the market on its own produce "one box" receiver solutions, e.g
containing several proprietary APIs and conditional access systems?
33. There is very little demand from consumers in the UK to access more than
one PayTV offering, so there is no call for such a "one box" solution. The different
competing business models adopted by the players in the UK DTV market in the
context of the UK regulatory environment do not create a need for a “one box”
34. At this stage of its development it is therefore unlikely that the market will
produce “one box” receiver solutions on its own. Currently, consumers have the
choice as to which type of receiver they acquire, depending on which DTV
signals are available to them and which they choose to adopt. One of the
reasons the DTV market has developed so quickly in the UK (to over 50%
penetration) is that the boxes have been made available to consumers in an
affordable fashion. In the horizontal DTT market this has meant the availability of
a range of DTT receivers of varying level of sophistication and functionality priced
accordingly. The consumer can then choose the receiver they want according to
the functionality they require and what they can afford. In the vertical DTV
markets the boxes are typically supplied by the service provider as part of their
payTV subscription. The cost of the receiver is therefore not an issue directly for
the consumer. Service providers currently supply boxes adequate for the levels
of functionality (and interactivity) required by their applications, and supply
applications which respond to the needs of their customers. A single box solution
with several APIs would of necessity be more expensive due to the need for
more memory and processing power, and the incremental cost of each API.
MHP, for example, is a more expensive product than MHEG-5. A further
constraint on potential demand for a “one box” solution is that for coverage
limitation reasons not all UK households have access to all three – or even to two
– of the major digital platforms.
35. It is recognised, however, that this situation will not necessarily exist in other
Member States, and that a single technology standard for transmission and
reception could be a means of providing simple interoperability for “greenfield”
states. In order to recognise the need for each Member State to act according to
its own requirements and to take into account its current DTV situation, the
decision as to which standards to adopt should be left to each Member State.
This approach is in accord with the principle of subsidiarity.
- will the deliverables resulting from the CENELEC report and the follow-up
mandate (in particular, authoring guidelines and possibly a common
content format) facilitate adequate interoperability across the different
markets of the EU?
36. Yes, the UK Government believes that these will be sufficient.
c) the role of public authorities
- what forms should public authorities' support for interoperability take
during different phases of the technology lifecycle typically (1) proprietary
systems (2) introduction of standardised system(s), possibly after some
delay (3) introduction of replacement next generation technology
...etc,taking into account policy objectives described above?
37. It is the responsibility of administrations to see ensure that a clear regulatory
framework exists within which the market can develop. This framework should
avoid inhibiting innovation.
38. UK experience has shown that there is no need for public authorities to be
prescriptive on interoperability in order for market penetration – a good proxy for
consumer satisfaction - to occur (from 0% to over 50% in the UK in just five
39. Market players in a competitive environment have a common interest in
providing an appropriate level of interoperability demanded by the market and
should take steps themselves to provide it
40. It is recognised that the situation may be different in other Member States,
especially those “greenfield” states in which digital television rollout has not yet
started or is just beginning.
- how far will access rules suffice to meet the objectives of content
regulation, as expressed in Art 18 (free flow of information, media pluralism
and cultural diversity)?
41. The UK Government does not consider that interoperability is material to
media pluralism or cultural diversity
d) the result of including the MHP standard in the voluntary list of
standards published in the OJ in December 2002:
- is MHP being implemented by market players? If so, by which market
42. No, MHP is not currently being implemented by any market players in the UK.
Digital Television had been successfully broadcast in the UK for over four years
prior to December 2002. By the time MHP was included in the list of voluntary
standards there were already several million non-MHP receivers in the market.
The issue of the installed base on non-MHP receivers, and the market
consequences of demanding that they should be replaced by MHP receivers
cannot be ignored. This is not solely an issue for the UK. However, because
digital penetration is higher in the UK than in other Member States the issue is
particularly acute in the UK. Any move to mandate MHP would seriously
prejudice the UK’s plans for digital switchover, which have been notified to the
Commission as required by the Commission Communication on Switchover.
43. MHP belongs where it is, as one item on the list of voluntary standards which
can be adopted. It should shortly be joined by MHEG-5, which is currently going
through the ETSI standardization process, and by W(TV)ML which has been
through the ETSI process.
- at what point after publication would it be appropriate to decide whether
or not the standards have been adequately implemented?
44. This depends on the speed of rollout of digital interactive TV services. As
stated above there is not a lot of demand for these services at present, although
demand is expected to grow. Anything less than three years would be likely to
be premature, and a review after four or five years would appear more
appropriate. This would have the added advantage of enabling a review of the
digital television experiences of “greenfield” Member States, some of which may
have decided to mandate the standard, others of which may have chosen an
approach similar to the one adopted by the UK.
2. the benefits that could be achieved if implementation of the MHP
standards published in the OJ were to be made compulsory.
- how would compulsory implementation of MHP standards improve
interoperability and freedom of choice for users?
45. Freedom of choice would be reduced. Given the complexity of MHP and its
lack of an owner/champion in the UK, interoperability would also be likely to be
reduced. Furthermore, as stated in paragraph 29 above there is no guarantee
that even if all players adopted MHP that true interoperability would be achieved
- who would benefit? who would not benefit? when would the benefits be
felt? which undertakings would be required to implement the standard?
46. There would be no overall benefit to the UK. It is recognised that other
Member States might see benefits, and they should be free to attempt to realize
those benefits within their own jurisdictions.
47. Certainly UK vertical market players would not benefit because of the
investment they have in over 9M non-MHP receivers, nor would over 3M digital
terrestrial viewers who also receive their digital television services using non-
48. Consumers and service providers in other Member States with significant
non-MHP receiver penetration would also not benefit for the same reasons.
49. It is acknowledged that there may be some benefits for consumers and
receiver manufacturers who could benefit from the increased economies of scale,
but the caveats noted in our response to question 1b. should be considered.
- who would bear the costs? Would the benefits exceed the costs?
50. Costs can be seen in terms of lost investment, loss of market confidence, the
need to replace existing receiver equipment, and inappropriate constraints on
system developments. They can be financial, or stem from the disruption that
would ensue from such market intervention.
51. Many of these costs would be borne by existing vertical service providers,
broadcasters and by consumers. The majority of receivers in the UK market
today do not have the capacity to be upgraded to MHP – these boxes would
therefore need to be replaced (either at the expense of the consumer or of the
service provider), and the necessary changes would also need to be made at the
content format and transmission ends. Furthermore, MHP boxes are – and look
set to remain – more expensive than other boxes on the market, both limited
functionality “zapper” type boxes, or (for example) MHEG receivers which allow
a certain level of interactivity. Lost investment costs would fall most heavily on
the DTV market leading service providers who have invested in non-MHP APIs.
Forcing a move to MHP would almost certainly slow investment in new products
and services and stifle innovation. The effects would be felt by the whole market.
52. The benefits would not exceed the costs.
- if implementation were to be made compulsory, from what date would it
apply? would there be a phasing-out period for legacy systems?
53. The UK Government does not believe implementation should be made
compulsory at EU level.
- how would the imposition of the MHP standards affect switchover and
related policy objectives?
54. The imposition of MHP standards would be a body blow to UK plans to
implement switchover within the timescales currently under consideration. It
would impose costs on the broadcasters at a time when they are expected to
invest in their digital networks. Given the consequent loss of confidence and
anticipated adverse consumer and market reaction the elapsed time before
current DTV growth rates could resume would be much greater than just the time
required to resolve the logistics (eg develop MHP receivers for the UK market,
replace existing receivers etc.) It could be expected to delay switchover by
several years at a cost of several billion pounds to the UK economy.
3. Should the Commission add further API-related standards and public
specifications to the list of standards required by Article 17 of the
Framework directive as they become available?
- MHEG 5, currently undergoing a standardisation process in ETSI;
- Other possible outputs from the standardisation mandate M3 31,
mentioned in section 3.2.3 above.
56. Yes. The Commission should add any appropriate standard on request.