Canvas eyes 2010 launch date
By Andrew Laughlin, Technology Reporter
BBC programme director, IPTV Richard Halton has revealed that IPTV joint venture Project Canvas is aiming for a 2010 launch date.
Back in July, the BBC Executive submitted an extensive report to the BBC Trust outlining detailed specifications for the BBC, BT, ITV and Five-led project which aims to develop a new standard for the delivery of content to broadband-enabled set top boxes.
The Trust has now set a deadline of September 1 for stakeholders to respond to the report, but Halton believes there is a "real opportunity" that Canvas boxes will reach the market in 2010.
Speaking in an interview with Digital Spy, he said that next year will be particularly important for the digital TV industry, including the push to get Freeview HD in 50% of UK homes in time for the World Cup tournament in South Africa.
"Freeview has always been about presenting people with choice as a free option and I think next year we will see a lot of activity in the pay TV sector, so free-to-air platforms offering competitive choice to consumers is really important," he said. "That is why for us 2010 is really important."
In its published guidance, the BBC outlined greater detail on the proposed technical specifications for the project and arrangements for control of any EPG or user interface.
Halton said that this was to clarify that Canvas will be an open platform which is available to everyone. He added that the project is all about "democratising the living room" and extending the functionality of the Freeview and Freesat platforms.
"If Canvas is successful, then it represents a massive opportunity for content providers, particularly new players who will never get anywhere near the television because of the costs of doing something on a linear channel," he explained.
"We hope that the message for content provider and service providers is that this is very exciting and a real opportunity. The feedback we have had from indies, studios and content retailers of all description has been really positive. Normally its a question of 'when can we get going?' or 'what do we do next to get on the platform?' Which is great."
Another aspect outlined in the report was the fact that the technology underpinning Canvas will support a wide range of monetisation options, including subscription-based models. Halton explained that the important thing to bear in mind is that Canvas will never be directly involved, or draw a revenue stream, from those models.
However, Sky has previously expressed concern about the BBC Trust's ability to understand and regulate the level of control being proposed by Canvas. The satellite platform holder has been particularly concerned at the prospect of public funds being used by the BBC to act as "a market maker" in the emerging IPTV industry.
In response to this situation, Halton said that "capturing the interest of so many groups in the industry is always difficult", and also acknowledged that the open model being promoted by Canvas "could be threatening" to certain parties.
"You look at an open source model and you would think that this would be the most liberating thing ever, but for anyone with pay business models who have built those up over many years to control their intellectual property, it's an absolute disaster," he explained.
"I understand that. We need to make it quite clear and explicit - and hopefully what we published in July will have gone some way towards that aim - that this platform is about involving other ISPs and service providers."
Despite the five weeks set aside by the Trust for stakeholders to respond to the additional information supplied by the BBC, Sky's group director of corporate affairs Graham McWilliam recently described the turnaround time as "wholly unrealistic".
"I think that Sky's position in the run up to July was understandable. They wanted to be sure that they understood what the nature of the proposals involved and then form a view on that part. But hopefully what we have published will allow them to do that," said Halton.
"I think it interesting that some of the things that have been said over the past few weeks have been about the time it might take them to read [the report] more than anything in relation to the specific proposals themselves."
Sky has also previously pointed to plans outlined for a Canvas user interface as evidence that it will be a completely new platform rather than just a service wraparound for IPTV. Despite this, Halton explained that it is important for content to be navigable and easy to discover for consumers if the service is going to "meaningful".
He said that it is also important to create an appropriate technical framework to allow content providers to "very simply" integrate with the platform, which will require a consistent level of infrastructure that works "across a wide range of devices and ISPs".
Despite acknowledging the concerns that Canvas is "somehow going to manipulate things to give certain content precedence", Halton stressed that the platform will not "give an inherent advantage to the shareholders", primarily because it would be "very naive for us to do something so obvious".
To ensure that this situation does not occur, the Canvas team has turned to "relatively set industry paradigms to apply to the Canvas EPG" so that content providers get maximum creative freedom. This includes utilising the current system for deciding the order of linear channels on digital terrestrial television, in which an independent body decides the ordering with all relevant groups being represented.
As this works well for DTT, it will be replicated for Canvas in an effort to create the desired level of flexibility and fairness. From a BBC perspective, the need for creative freedom is just as pressing, because of its need to present individual programme brands in whatever way is desired.
"At the BBC, we know how important that is because we create our own content across multiple platforms. We want Doctor Who to look and feel like Doctor Who on BBC One, mobiles and hopefully Canvas as well," he said.
"We want the freedom to express our brands which works across simultaneous platforms, and I think most content providers get that."