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Interoperability of digital interactive television services
In this communication, the Commission confirms that it is not absolutely essential to impose standards for interoperability in the digital interactive television sector. From now on, the Commission will rely on non-binding standardisation initiatives developed by the firms concerned. The Commission's aim is a successful switchover to digital, for which interoperability is essential.
Communication of 2 February 2006 from the Commission to the Council, on reviewing the interoperability of digital interactive television services pursuant to Communication COM(2004) 541 of 30 July 2004 [COM(2006) 37 - Not published in the Official Journal].
This communication reports on an assessment of developments in the digital interactive television sector since publication of the last communication on this subject in July 2004.
Developments on this market have led the Commission to consider the effectiveness of interoperability * in digital interactive television. It highlights the roll-out of digital interactive television in Europe via applications programme interfaces (or API standards) and the involvement of various players.
Promoting common implementation
The establishment of a working group bringing together the parties concerned (broadcasters, network operators, business associations, representatives of ministries and regulatory authorities) made it possible to set a common objective for implementing the MHP (Multimedia Home Platform) technical standard.
Digital television gives the viewer the ability to interact directly with the broadcaster via a return channel. The MHP receiver has interactive capacities and a return channel which render the interactive features interoperable. API software is required in order for the interactive applications to work. 47 million receivers are in use in Europe, while 26 million have proprietary API and 4 million are able to use the MHP standard.
The Commission recognises the MHP standard as an open interoperable standard. It has concluded that the market would benefit from the continued use of non-binding standardisation initiatives originating from firms.
The common implementation of the MHP technical standard ensures interoperability but is not enough to ensure the creation and growth of digital interactive television services. Further commercial and technological efforts are required as the market success of interactive television remains limited at a time when the switchover to digital is accelerating.
The example of Italy is significant in this case: it shows how flexibility and consensus between market players can create the conditions for effective interoperability. The MHP standard has well and truly established itself on the Italian market. This success is due to the following:
- support from the public authorities for those who acquire an interactive receiver, granted with the aim of matching demand to supply;
- fierce competition on the MHP receiver market in Italy, causing the price of the receivers to fall below 100;
- the voluntary agreement of Italian broadcasters to use MHP.
In the Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway), the MHP standard has not penetrated the market despite broad consensus among broadcasters. The absence of national aid has kept prices high, restricting market penetration. Meanwhile, support for the MHP standard has been announced in Germany despite less coordination between interested parties than in Italy.
In Belgium, more precisely in the Flemish Region, partnerships with broadcasters and content providers have already been concluded with the cable operator.
Technical aspects of interoperability
Various interactive television standards can be added to those above. Each has its own specific characteristics, making its contribution to facilitating the development of interactive content and improving interoperability.
The MHEG-5 and WTVML standards were adopted by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) prior to publication on the list of standards in the Official Journal of the European Union, as announced in the Commission Communication of July 2004:
- the MHEG-5 standard is simpler than the MHP standard; there are estimated to be more than five million receivers using the MHEG standard;
- the WTVML standard is an extension of the Wireless Mark-up Language (WML) for TV. It is a micro-browser for interactive television applications. There are estimated to be more than seven million receivers using WTVML.
Other standards, such as PCF, will also be considered with a view to their being added to the list of standards as soon as possible. PCF enhances interoperability by enabling content providers to author their content once and run it on multiple platforms. It will be able to cover 80% of interactive television applications.
The Commission's priorities
The Commission's priorities are as follows:
- to monitor developments in the Member States closely. The switchover plans will be examined in order to ensure a successful switchover to digital;
- to promote the open standards developed by the European standards bodies;
- to repeat the practice of the MHP standard implementation group, which demonstrated the value of having a forum in which interested parties can exchange views. The Commission will continue to bring the Member States together in the broadcasting group of the Communications Committee to ensure that there is an exchange of experience and best practice in relation to digital television;
- to promote international cooperation concerning open standards and interoperability in digital television to ensure the exchange of content throughout the world;
- to ensure compliance with competition law in the use of proprietary technologies.
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