In-Depth

The hybrid evolution of Europe’s HbbTV standard

Photo shoot Barcelona 2011.With free-to-air broadcasters increasingly looking to hybrid solutions, combining broadcast with IP-based advanced interactive services to stay relevant, Europe’s HbbTV standard is evolving to enable a wider range of applications. Stuart Thomson reports. 

The majority of viewers in advanced markets are now accustomed to interacting with TV, most obviously via the EPG and catch-up TV and on-demand applications. The proliferation of web-connected set-top boxes and TVs means that the ways to deliver interactive services has expanded dramatically since the early days of digital TV.

Hybrid TV – combining the advantages of broadcast and broadband – have been around for some time, having originally been used by telcos to deliver TV cost-effectively by providing free-to-air channels over digital-terrestrial networks and on-demand and niche channels via IP. However the more recent interest shown by free-to-air broadcasters in delivering IP-based interactive services gave impetus to the search for a standards-based approach in the shape of Hybrid Broadcast Broadband Television (HbbTV).

HbbTV adoption

HbbTV was initially driven by free-to-air broadcasters as a way to deliver interactive services  over multiple distribution networks – principally digital terrestrial and satellite.

Ten European countries have officially endorsed the standard including Germany, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Poland. Australia has adopted it and Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam are actively looking at HbbTV.

Outside the countries that have adopted HbbTV, technologies to enable interactive TV in horizontal markets remain fragmented. While convergence is happening elsewhere in Europe, the UK and Italy stand apart with YouView and MHP respectively. In the case of the UK, the YouView platform tried to combine a range of technologies including HTML, Adobe Flash and MHEG into what Frode Hernes, vice-president of TV and devices at Opera Software, calls “one huge spec” that was initially, at least, not hugely successful, with HTML ultimately being dropped. The UK’s Freesat satellite platform has meanwhile implemented something closer to HbbTV, using the Digital Television Group’s (DTG) D-Book specifications and parts of the Open IPTV Forum (OIPF) standard, a close relation of HbbTV, to create a platform that can deliver services separately in MHEG and HTML.

HbbTV was designed with relatively modest aims in mind – something that set it apart from the likes of YouView. For Simon Trudelle, senior product marketing director at TV technology provider Nagra, HbbTV is a technology “for interactive information on the screen and video stores and simple apps that enhance the TV experience – it’s not for advanced users but for people comfortable accessing services via the remote control”.

Key to the success of the standard, says Trudelle, is the relative ease with which it can be embraced by integrated TV manufacturers, broadcasters and app developers alike. “Connected TVs today have the horsepower to run these apps. The overall user experience is as good as on native set-tops or in the app stores or Samsung or others,” he says. “It is easy to get to services. For broadcasters it keeps people within their brand experience and in the free-to-air market there is a need for more on-demand TV and more flexible viewing capabilities.”

For Keith Potter, CEO of Digital TV Labs, which provides logo certification testing for HbbTV’s new logo programme, the HbbTV standard filled a gap, providing an attractive, HTML-based solution for the horizontal retail market. While many of the apps available so far in Germany are “teletext replacement”-type services, catch-up and on-demand services are beginning to emerge elsewhere, says Potter, pointing to the inclusion of on-demand services on the TNT 2.0 and TDT Híbrida next-generation digital-terrestrial platforms in France and Spain respectively.

Adoption of the standard by a growing number of countries has also fuelled its inclusion in devices, most notably by TV manufacturers. New TVs over 40 inches in Europe now typically come with HbbTV capability built in, whether it is switched on or not.

Usage of HbbTV services is also growing, with 1.2 million unique users and growth of up to 20% a month in Germany.

However, there is a perception in some quarters of a lag between adoption of the technology by broadcasters and consumer electronics vendors, the development of applications, and take-up by consumers. “What is missing is user awareness,” says Régis Saint Girons, CEO of TV technology specialist httv. “There is still a debate on how to communicate to the end user. It is definitely something that needs to be done at the consumer level.”

Saint Girons says that catch-up TV remains the killer app for connected TV, as well as variants such as startover TV. While much of the emphasis to date has been on integrated digital TVs, Saint Girons says that httv, for its part, is focusing primarily on the set-top box market. Services that require DRM or conditional access – enabled by the latest version of the standard – will be primarily set-top driven, he says. The set-top market, as well as enabling services such as Germany’s HD+ that require security, can also enable the use of HbbTV as a pure OTT platform, says Saint Girons.

Barriers to entry

For Fearghal Kelly, CEO of  Digisoft.tv, the key appeal of HbbTV is in lowering the barriers to entry to the interactive TV business by eliminating a great element of technical complexity from the process of creating applications. He believes DVB markets will adopt HbbTV rather than the kind of expensive bespoke platform that was created for YouView. 

In Focus

HbbTV version 1.5: MPEG DASH and DRM

Multiscreen delivery of video content requires a number… Read more

“The initial focus has been on standardising APIs and rolling out services in a managed environment,” says Kelly, who admits that application and service development has been slower as consumer uptake is still relatively limited. He admits that HbbTV does involve certain minimum hardware requirements because the JavaScript engine requires considerable processing power. “The memory requirement isn’t huge but you are not talking about a cheap zapper box,” he says. Despite that, he says, the breakeven point for a service provider implementing HbbTV is likely to be 18 months rather than the 10 years it would take with YouView.

Key to the standard’s appeal and an enabler in terms of lowering the barriers to entry is the fact that HbbTV is HTML-based – albeit the special version of HTML called CE-HTML.

“The internet has brought a new dynamic to the pay TV and free to air broadcast ecosystem, and broadcasters are looking to combine the abilities of broadband and broadcast,” says Milya Timergaleyeva, marketing director at interactive TV technology specialist Oregan. For Timergaleyeva, one of the key achievements of HbbTV has been to highlight the need for a standards-based approach in the first place and to act as a way for the industry to pull together the best ways of achieving common goals.

“[Pay TV] operators’ plans are driven by end-user features and companies cherrypick the key technologies that enable those apps,” she says. “HbbTV has done the job of summarising the key underpinning technologies that will enable operators to author those applications in a standards-based way. HbbTV communicates the availability of those standards and allow the industry to share and distil the key ingredients.”

While HbbTV is by no means a universally accepted standard globally, or even within Europe – the older MHP standard still holds sway in Italy and the UK has gone its own way  – there is a strong degree of commonality between hybrid technologies, according to Timergaleyeva. Hybrid applications typically require an application triggering mechanism, a mechanism for the transport of metadata and the application, including a technique for caching, and a presentation and graphical user interface environment. HbbTV, in common with MHP, signals services via a DVB-based Application Information Table and Programme Map Table, and applications in both cases are carried and pre-cached using a DSMCC carousel. On the signaling and transport side, interactive standards – including HbbTV, MHP, MHEG and OIPF – have been based on the DVB TS 102 809 standard, useful for time-sensitive applications requiring frame synchronisation such as voting, as well as the DVB TS 101 154 profiles for H.264.

Superseded by HTML5

The main differences between interactive standards lie with the presentation layer. The MHP standard adopted Java, while the UK’s YouView platform utilises Adobe Flash and HbbTV adopted CE-HTML.

This effectively means that all three standards are now based on technologies that are rapidly being superseded in the internet environment by HTML5. The number of HTML5 developers – and therefore of apps – is large and growing and the technology is seen as the future. It is increasingly clear that the next generation of HbbTV – version 2.0 – will embrace HTML5. The fact that applications will still need to be authored in CE-HTML as well as HTML5 to reach legacy HbbTV devices is likely to be problematic but most agree that the HTML5 is the future. In addition to its appeal to a wider community of app developers, HTML5 has the benefit of allowing TV operators to develop an app once that could be delivered across multiple platforms – TV, the web, tablets and smartphones.

In the meantime, different technology players are already implementing features including HTML5 outside the strict framework of the HbbTV standard. Saint Girons says that httv is extending its httvLink open middleware to encompass HTML5 and is adding second-screen features that could enable applications such as the ability to launch an app from a tablet or access content on a smartphone. (Further down the line, he says, he expects HbbTV to evolve to embrace the HEVC compression standard for Ultra HD services.)

Hernes believes that the DIAL protocol to enable discoveru and launch of main screen applications by second screen devices will be implemented as part of the next iteration of HbbTV, while HTML5 will be implemented further down the line as part of HbbTV 2.0.

Digital TV Labs’ Potter agrees: “We think it will progress. All the standards are converging on HTML5.” This will, he says, enable broadcasters more easily to deliver multiscreen services – the key trend of the moment.

Ultimately, the adoption of HTML5 could render the HbbTV framework less important. Hernes says that the adoption by HbbTV of CE-HTML has enabled TV manufacturers to implement a range of video services on their devices. With the development of HTML5, HbbTV itself could become less relevant over time. Some Opera customers already use HTML5 for the video service and HbbTV for the broadcast trigger, he says.

Saint Girons says he expects pay TV middleware to converge around HTML5 “so the platforms over time will be very similar”. In this environment, it will not be a challenge for pay TV operators to support HbbTV .

Pay TV providers

Oregan - catch_main-menuWhile those who wish to implement HTML5 within the framework of HbbTV must await the next version of the standard, the current version of HbbTV – version 1.5 – does embrace adaptive bit-rate encoding and DRM (see sidebar, p.14) – technologies that are seen as crucial to enabling monetisable web-delivered on-demand video services.

The addition of elements that support subscription and transactional services brings into focus the possibility of adoption of the standard by pay TV service providers as well as the free-to-air broadcast market. Adoption of the standard by pay TV operators has been limited up to now but there are signs of activity – Turkish pay TV service provider Digitürk has adopted HbbTV, for example. IPTV operators are also taking an interest in HbbTV, with French operators currently mulling the impact of the standard. And, while not pay TV services, Germany’s HD+ and French satellite offering Fransat – both CAS-controlled networks – have also adopted the standard.

Vendors in fact report growing interest from a number of pay TV players. “In the short term we haven’t seen a lot of requests from pay TV or cable operators. For an operator with full control of set-tops and specs industry standards may help or may create problems,” says Trudelle. “That could change over time because of specific regulations that say a platform has to be the same for free-to-air and pay services or because there are so many connected TVs out there with HbbTV that pay TV operators can use those to reach consumers. The consumer electronics industry is what will get them to adopt it.”

For Digital TV Labs’ Potter, there are a number of advantages to pay TV operators that adopt a standards-based approach. “Pay TV operators have to incur rollout costs in using proprietary technologies. Where they can use standard techs, they will. DASH is an open standard and is supported by manufacturers outside the TV world as well,” he argues. “Operators are moving to being an app. The ability to provide services on other platforms is becoming important. If you do it without a set-top there is a cost saving.”

Digisoft.tv’s Kelly also believes a market will emerge for HbbTV amongst second and third tier telecom providers in the US. “We are working with tier-two cable companies in the US on prototypes and proofs of concept. It is affordable and there is no massive licence fee required or complex negotiations,” he says.

However, many pay TV providers are ambivalent about HbbTV, which could enable broadcasters to deliver interactive services – and possibly even pay services – over the top. There was recently a controversy highlighting the conflict in the Netherlands, where the local regulator asked cable operators to cease filtering out HbbTV services from broadcasters retransmitted over their networks.

Monetisation

Whatever the appeal or otherwise to pay TV providers, technology providers are looking to enable monetisable applications as well as providing an entry point for a wider range of industry players. Nagra has implemented a cloud-based HbbTV platform in partnership with Spain’s Abertis Telecom that can manage the complexity of multiple DRMs from the back end as a cloud service. “This is essentially HbbTV on demand as a service from the cloud,” says Trudelle. Nagra and Abertis have launched cloud HbbTV in Spain and an HbbTV version 1.5 variant is due to follow this autumn. “The key principle is that we provide broadcast red button apps that take you into a portal in the CDN, available to all connected TVs, that gives you access to content services and VoD packaged in an HTML app. The TV connects to that app and plays out. We do ingest, transcoding and all the workflow and make sure the service is up and running 24/7,” explains Trudelle. This, he says, enables second-tier broadcasters to get HbbTV services up and running without the need to make major investments in infrastructure.

Digisoft.tv’s Kelly meanwhile believes services will emerge including video-on-demand in the broadcast stream without an IP return channel – something already tested in France.

Subscription and transactional services are not the only routes to additional revenue. In addition to enabling premium on-demand video services, HbbTV offers the prospect of developing targeted advertising. This is increasingly seen as “the holy grail of the content industry”, says Oregan’s Timergaleyeva. “Targeted advertising is starting to gain mindshare in the face of increased need to subsidise much of the new [HD capable] hybrid hardware for next generation service offering.”

Kelly meanwhile points to the prospect of delivering personalised ads in the form of pop-up windows overlaying the main broadcast advert. He also points to possible future applications in the field of home automation, using the Z-Wave interfaces on set-top boxes and HTML alerts to enable homeowners to monitor and control home appliances.

There is a growing consensus that the future of media is wedded to IP. Broadcasters are facing up to the likelihood that, over time, the ‘broadcast’ element of video delivery – and therefore also of HbbTV – is likely to decline and the ‘internet’ element is likely to grow. Nevertheless, for now HbbTV is a relatively cost-effective way to deliver interactive services and, in the ever-changing universe of interactive TV enablers, this is a technology that remains on an upward trajectory.