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Sky can help project Canvas unlock public value

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Richard Halton Richard Halton | 16:33 UK time, Monday, 12 October 2009

After reading this morning about Sky's submission to the BBC Trust about project Canvas I wanted to respond on behalf of all partners (BBC, ITV, BT and Five).

Central to the thinking behind project Canvas is that we can create an open platform for the next generation of internet-connected TV devices, and by open, we mean that all content owners, internet service providers and device manufacturers can get involved. Openness delivers scale, which will be central to all the partners' ambitions to make the platform a mainstream success.

The article in today's FT, which outlines Sky's objections to the proposals, highlighted a few misconceptions we would like to clarify on behalf of all the partners.

Canvas will not be a BBC platform. It is a proposal for a new joint venture - much like Freeview or Freesat - with commercial partners, and ITV, Five and BT have already committed their support. The BBC's involvement in this venture is subject to BBC Trust approval and we expect their emerging conclusions in the Autumn.

Nor is it a "BBC standard" that the venture would adopt. A standard for connected TVs is being developed now with the Digital Television Group - this was always our intention and work has already begun. Our ambition is that the Canvas platform would be compliant with that standard.

The partners would welcome the support of any ISP (i.e. including Sky), who could help us reach these aims, by offering the platform to their subscribers or as a venture partner, provided their ambitions for a free-to-air platform and open competition match ours.

And subscription-free doesn't mean all the content has to be free. Like the internet, the Canvas platform would support a range of monetisation options - from advanced targeted advertising, micropayments or straightforward subscription. And as an open platform, the rules of access would be the same for any video on demand service, be it Lovefilm, ITV player, the BBC iPlayer or Blinkbox. Sky could increase the reach of its video-on-demand service Sky Player through the Canvas platform.

Canvas is in addition to, not instead of the syndication ambitions of all of the existing partners. Making content widely available is fundamental to the economics of free to air content providers and Canvas adds to the range of options available. As a platform, it is intended to reduce the barriers to accessing the television set that some content providers already experience.

Public service or not, we can all contribute to supporting a Digital Britain: be it in increasing the availability of online services such as NHS Direct, helping to drive broadband uptake by delivering service innovation or by investing to ensure that our subscription free TV platforms continue to evolve. The BBC thinks that Canvas is central to delivering these aims and is keen to work with partners who believe the same.

Richard Halton is the Director of Project Canvas.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Despite all of this, it’s not actually clear why, in contrast to most other “open standards” which exist, a joint venture is necessary at all:

    • it’s not for regulation, as Ofcom and the ASA are perfectly capable of doing that (especially with the impending implementation of the EU regulations on IP-delivered video)

    • it’s not simply to ensure that the specs are followed, as this can be achieved through a straightforward brand/licensing regime (and isn’t necessary for other standards, such as the myriad existing specifications which Canvas will no doubt incorporate)

    • it can’t be to ensure a level playing-field, as again, the specifications can be suitably agnostic with respect to this (with the licensing regime ensuring it)

    So what -is- it for? My reading of the proposals suggests that it’s about control (e.g., the mandated UX, the EPG, ensuring—by nature—that existing broadcasters have top billing). By doing this, it becomes quite a costly exercise, and so requires a financial commitment from would-be partners in order to pay for itself, yet all of this could easily be avoided, rather than being an example of self-justification.

    I have, for what it’s worth, rather a keen interest in this both personally (as a license-fee payer), and professionally, and I can’t help but think the BBC’s approach to Canvas is essentially flawed—and the documents released by the Executive and published by the Trust have done little to allay this.

  • Comment number 2.

    #1 We need a firm platform for IPTV; Canvas provides this in an understandable and straightforward manner. Without it the service will simply not happen in a functional unit. Other broadcasters can join AS CAN non broadcasters which adds to the delight of the service. Those that object must have ulterior motives. A multiplicity of platforms will cost the potential viewer greatly in outdated hardware and software to receive them.

  • Comment number 3.

    The BBC doesn't have a good track record on creating "open" platforms.

    The iPlayer streams were wrapped up with Adobe's obscure RTMP protocol, making it difficult to access the AAC streams on wi-fi radios etc.

    The bandwidth consuming hidden P2P system installed by Kangaroo is still remembered.

  • Comment number 4.

    @ChrisCornwall:

    None of that actually answers the questions, but thanks for the speedy response.

    Canvas specifically _doesn’t_ provide that in understandable and straightforward manner, unless you’ve been reading consultation documents which have yet to be made public.

    The notion that a (very costly) business unit must be created in order to act as gatekeeper to the content is laughable. The point of open standards is that manufacturer A and content provider B can talk -without- requiring the middle-man.

    “Other broadcasters can join AS CAN non broadcasters which adds to the delight of the service.”

    How can you possibly quantify the “delight” of a service which hasn’t even been approved yet?

    “Those that object must have ulterior motives”

    Must they? Can you elaborate?

    “A multiplicity of platforms will cost the potential viewer greatly in outdated hardware and software to receive them. ”

    First, this depends rather on your definition of “platform”. Is the web “a platform” or many? What if you simplify it: are “HTTP downloads of H.264/AAC-LC content within an ISO/IEC 13818-1 container” a platform, or many?

    Second, not if the standard’s specified sanely, which given the amount of money involved and number of partners with an interest in seeing this happen should be the case. Even moreso if stringent compliance requirements are attached to brand licensing.

  • Comment number 5.

    Readers of this post may be interested in Sky’s full response, which can be found at:

    http://corporate.sky.com/documents/pdf/20c24d2e1c62406594e1a79de5f917db/BSkyB_Canvas_Submission

    (PDF)

    For the record, I’m no great fan of Sky by _any_ means, but they do echo my concerns in a number of areas.

  • Comment number 6.

    navali - you can use html to put links in your comments. Less clunky than pasting the whole link.

  • Comment number 7.

    Nick—many thanks. It might be worth asking the powers that be to mention that somewhere near the comment box, so that people know :)

  • Comment number 8.

    You're being very level headed about this, as the BBC should, especially given that said sattelite broadcaster would probably take great joy in dismantling the BBC for commercial gain!

    Keep up the good work.

  • Comment number 9.

    @tengearbatbike:

    You’re not wrong about Sky, although they make some very good points.

    The key difference between the BBC and Sky is:

    • given the chance, Sky would likely decimate the broadcast industry (with the public “collateral damage”). fortunately, it’s in no position to do it!

    • the BBC, on the other hand, is in a position where it could, but generally as no interest in it.

    occasionally, the BBC heads in the wrong direction with something (which is, of course, subjective). the intense scrutiny the BBC is put under—the difficult questions, and the need to justify new initiatives, and so on—are there to make sure the BBC doesn’t do what Sky would given half a chance.

  • Comment number 10.

    @nevali

    I would never accuse Auntie of being perfect, but I think that's part of it's charm! Good points though!

  • Comment number 11.

    Its actually worth reading. Of course Sky wants us to keep paying through the nose! Those fat cat CEOs don’t want to have to take a pay cut. I’m all for free internet TV.

  • Comment number 12.

    Seeing as the BBC are creating/specifying a video playback/distribution format, why can't they also create/specify one that is loads better than Blu-ray (in capabilities eg. higher resolutions eg. 4K, 1080p50, higher colour depths, bitrates, 3D & much more stuff - one that could accept discs/memory sticks etc. as well as via downloads/streaming), but since the BBC could create/specify everything, the licensing costs would be practically zero (ie. loads less than Blu-ray)?

  • Comment number 13.

    @HD1080:

    many of the expensive parts of Blu-Ray are fairly applicable to Canvas (and DVB, for that matter): if you ignore the physical disc parts, what you’re left with is a filesystem, containing files which make up an MPEG transport stream (amongst other things). The transport stream is almost identical to that carried by DVB-T2 HD services, except there’s a 32-bit timecode prepended to each 188-byte TS packet. Of course, DVB services carry EPG information and such, while Blu-Ray discs have other assorted stuff, but much of it’s very very similar (and covered by the same patent licenses handled by the MPEG-LA).

    It’s also worth noting that the BBC’s Dirac Pro CODEC is going through the process of being standardised by SMTPE as “VC-2” (i.e., a successor/competitor to VC-1, which is based upon Windows Media Video 9, and is a standard part of all current Blu-Ray players, as well as the Xbox 360).

    That said, getting this up and running in the near-term requires playing nicely with existing stuff, including bandwidth constraints which tightly limit how much high-def material can be stuffed down the public Internet without the use of multicast. Much of Canvas augments existing Freeview (and forthcoming Freeview HD) broadcasts, so the standards used there will likely be the benchmark for the first iteration of supporting devices and content.

  • Comment number 14.

    Thanks nevali. One of the reasons I wanted/suggested that the BBC create/specify a video playback/distribution format even better than Blu-ray was so that they wouldn't be limited by current internet bandwidth restrictions (though it could still allow downloads/streaming, it could also use discs/memory sticks etc.). eg. they should easily be able to allow higher bitrates than BD by just spinning the discs faster or something like that. And releasing content on that of format should be really cheap (they wouldn't need to pay any AACS license fees or anything like that if it was their own format).

  • Comment number 15.

    In the hope of clarifying some of the points raised in the comments here, an "open platform" is not "open source". Through their provision of APIs (application programmable interfaces), both Facebook and the iPhone for example may be considered open platforms, yet both are proprietary, neither is open source, and the respective companies exert complete control over the ecosystem.

    Having witnessed first hand the slog of beating back Microsoft from holding a near monopoly position in Web browsers, during which time they felt no compulsion to adhere to Web standards, I see no reason at all why the next IPTV platform should be proprietary and under the control of the few. Have we learned nothing in recent years?

  • Comment number 16.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 17.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

 

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