Brussels (Belgium) - In a curious split with its countries’ leading electronics manufacturers, the European Union’s Commissioner for Information, Society, and Media, Viviane Reding, issued a statement yesterday recommending that the EU not set up any compulsory standards for digital television systems in Europe, saying that markets are the best determinants for suitable standards. This statement comes after having just completed a whirlwind tour of South American countries, including Brazil and Argentina, accompanied by representatives from leading European CE companies including Nokia, Siemens, and Philips, persuading their governments to adopt Europe’s DVB system as their mandated DTV standard.
|EU Commissioner for Information, Society, and Media Viviane Reding|
In a statement released this morning, Reding said, "I want to accelerate the take-up of digital television in Europe. Our policy is to encourage investment and promote freedom for industry to innovate. It is good news that interoperability is no longer a major obstacle for interactive TV, thanks to the growing number of technical solutions supporting it. This is proof of the successful development of digital TV standards in Europe, which increasingly ensure that TV buyers get the maximum benefit from their investment."
Reding’s statement provides the obligatory tip of the hat to Multimedia Home Platform (MHP), the interactive services system built for Europe’s Digital Video Broadcast (DVB) standard. But even after acknowledging that the EU has been working directly with the MHP Implementation Group - the standard’s leading promotional alliance - the EC statement goes on to say, "...After regulatory enquiries and public consultations, the Commission now has concluded that mandating a particular EU-wide technical standard is not necessary because Europe’s digital TV market is dynamic, and already benefits from a range of robust digital TV standards, initiated by the industry and covering both transmission and interactive applications."
Exactly what other robust DTV standards there are in Europe, the EC statement did not mention, although the leading alternative candidates, mentioned in a Booz Allen Hamilton report whose release TG Daily covered last month, are standards emerging from Internet television (IPTV) - a field in which Microsoft, especially in Europe, is a major player.
"Interoperability" has become a political watch-word in Europe, as the EC continues its fight with Microsoft to get that company to open its Windows communications protocols to the world, in the name of interoperability. Perhaps in the interest of avoiding the appearance of a double-standard, EU commissioners may have decided against the appearance of favoritism, at least at home, toward any other technological standard, in a field where Microsoft plays a role. Microsoft has contributed some technology to DVB-MHP, particularly with regard to its implementation of HTML code for set-top boxes that are the principal decoders of DTV signals in European households. Microsoft’s IPTV experiments, which also involve set-top boxes, contribute to European standards.
But at the core of MHP’s interactive layer is Java, the Sun Microsystems technology whose goal in life, it seems, has either been to upset Microsoft’s dominance or at least hold back its gains. As the debate over high-definition standards and interoperability erupts in the US, one emerging issue has been how or whether high-def CE devices will institute Java functionality. This continues to be the sticking point in the Blu-ray vs. HD DVD dispute, as the Blu-ray Disc Association - of which Philips is a member - continues to back its own flavor of Java, citing its inclusion in DVB standards as a critical factor in its reasoning. If the EC were to appear to openly back a Microsoft competitor in any field in which "interoperability" is a keyword, Microsoft might be able to use that fact in its defense, as it responds to the EC’s objections in the Court of First Instance - an independent judicial body which has not necessarily shown favoritism toward the EC up to now.
So what could the EC have meant by "regulatory enquiries and public consultations ?" Today’s EC statement refers to a Commission report, completed last Thursday and released to the public this morning, entitled, "Communication on Reviewing the Interoperability of Digital Interactive Television Services." Surprisingly, the report expresses the Commission’s disappointment with the uptake of MHP. "The demand for interactive TV applications has proved to be less than many forecast some years ago, and the commercial success of interactive television remains limited. The most successful applications have been in the area of quiz shows, sport, gambling and reality television ; governments have yet to find ways to exploit the technology successfully as a means of communicating with citizens.
The report goes on to cite one country where MHP uptake is relatively high : Italy, whose government partially subsidizes consumers’ purchase of MHP-endowed set-top boxes, in an effort to drive country-wide adoption as well as assist Italian CE producers. The subsidy served to boost the popularity of MHP devices in Italy, says the EC, which in turn increased sales, driving down retail prices. This would all seem well and good, but the problem was, it was the devices that were popular for the content to which they enabled access, not MHP itself. So while consumers were happy with the broadband downlink capacity, there was no incentive for them to connect themselves to the "return channel," which would enable interactive services. Hindering such incentive, the report says, was "the very mundane reason that the TV set in the home is not always near a telephone connection."
Thus, the Italian government found itself working with CE manufacturers there to excite consumers into using the very equipment they had already purchased, but to no avail. As a result, manufacturers ended up taking the hit for having discounted STB prices so low, as an incentive for services the Italian consumer ended up not wanting in the first place.
In its recommendations, the EC report today goes on to say, "A standard like MHP is a complex specification with a variety of implementation options. One reason for the success of MHP in Italy is that the broadcasters collectively agreed a common technical implementation specification for MHP, and developed appropriate test suites to verify compliance and ensure interoperability of equipment from different manufacturers. This experience demonstrates that interoperability cannot be guaranteed by simply imposing in law a standard like MHP ; it can be achieved when stakeholders act together to implement a standard with a common aim of securing interoperability." In other words, the Italian government involvement here did nothing to expedite consumers’ embrace of MHP technology, even after they had already purchased it.
The report goes on to hint at a possible solution, without exactly identifying it by name - or, perhaps more importantly, by geographic location : "A new paradigm of consensual approach and cooperation on technical interoperability has emerged in the area of High Definition TV," concludes the EC report, "and this appears as a promising model for solving other interoperability issues." The report appears to be acknowledging that the high-def TV field has brought forth alternative methodologies, which could be brought together under a collective, market-driven standard, if only the CE companies would come together and agree. Granted, they’ve never done that before, but they could always start now.
In the meantime, the EC’s international stance toward DVB will, oddly enough, remain the same, as the EC statement this morning indicates it will continue to ask other nations to adopt standards which it believes can very well play themselves out within Europe’s own boundaries. "The Commission’s priority is now to work with EU Member States to ensure a smooth and rapid switchover to digital TV," the statement reads - in the first paragraph, actually, which is the part more people tend to read. "To this end, Member States should continue to promote open, interoperable standards. The Commission will complement this by promoting European digital TV standards in other regions of the world." The message here may very well be, if it isn’t good enough for Europe, at least it’ll play in Argentina.