FreeviewPlus: Second time lucky?

This may be Australian free-to-air television's last opportunity to ride the IPTV wave, rather than be washed away by it.

Freeview Australia is a consortium of Australia's free-to-air television broadcasters which has worked hard over the last five years to maintain the charade that Freeview is actually a product. It's not. It's simply a marketing exercise. Until now the Freeview consortium has been more interested in dictating the way we watch free-to-air television, and staving off the threat from Foxtel, than in providing anything really new and interesting.

The new FreeviewPlus streaming video service, set to launch in June, finally promises to deliver something worth getting excited about -- but only if Freeview can keep its controlling nature in check.

The short-lived Freeview EPG service was undermined by Freeview's determination to maintain a stranglehold on the way we watch television. However, this time around the television networks have invested too much in FreeviewPlus to let Freeview botch it again.

At launch in 2008, Freeview was merely a marketing campaign designed to rebrand the mish-mash of digital television channels which had sprung up since the digital TV launch back in 2001. The campaign tried to dress up these existing channels as an exciting new service, while the networks gradually added new digital channels which generally failed to impress.

Flick through the dial today and you'll find a dearth of high-definition content but an abundance of infomercial channels flogging exercise equipment and miracle diets.

No escape from ads

While trying to paint Freeview as an exciting new product which negated the need for pay television, the campaign also strived to stamp out the practice of ad-skipping. The concept of Freeview was deliberately kept vague to create the impression that buying digital television equipment sporting the Freeview logo was the only way to ensure you had access to all that digital TV had to offer. Instead it was actually the best way to ensure that you couldn't skip through the ads in 30-second increments.

To obtain Freeview certification, Personal Video Recorders needed to disable ad-skipping, limit fast-forward speeds and remove the ability to easily copy recordings off devices. The certification also ensured the devices were compatible with MPEG-4 broadcasts -- something which Freeview painted as a significant issue, even though MPEG-4 broadcasting failed to take off in Australia.

That's a rather long preamble, but it's important to understand where Freeview came from if you want to understand where it might be going next. It's also the justification for viewing FreeviewPlus with some suspicion.

So exactly what is FreeviewPlus?

FreeviewPlus is a new service designed to run CE-HTML and AJAX-CE-based apps on Smart TVs -- CE-HTML being a flavour of XML optimised for home entertainment devices. FreeviewPlus will also launch Catch Up TV streams directly from the onscreen guide. The service is built on the open Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV standard, which is already used in Europe and is coming to some new Australian televisions and set-top boxes this year.

Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV (HbbTV) is quite a mouthful and it's a phrase that Freeview would prefer was never uttered. It wants to brand the entire platform as "FreeviewPlus", just like it wants to brand Australia's entire digital TV platform as "Freeview". But HbbTV is comprised of several components, an architecture which will hopefully stop Freeview from choking FreeviewPlus to death.

What killed Freeview EPG?

Freeview EPG launched it in 2010, offering the same schedule details as the program guide embedded in the broadcast signal, but with extra flags to supposedly ensure that you'd never fail to record the end of your favourite show again. Early testing saw it struggle to deliver on that promise, but this shortcoming wasn't the Freeview EPG's downfall.

The Freeview EPG failed to take off because it relied on the locked-down MHEG-5 multimedia platform. Only a handful of compatible set-top boxes appeared in Australia, due to the fact that it wasn't open to all devices. Licensing access to the new guide required "Freeview EPG" certification. This meant abiding by Freeview's other rules such as disabling ad-skipping.

After the initial Freeview logo failed to win over shoppers, the hardware makers saw little point in embracing the Freeview EPG -- especially in a small market like Australia. As such the service quickly disappeared into oblivion, although it is still maintained for the handful of Freeview EPG-compatible boxes remaining in Australian lounge rooms.

How FreeviewPlus works

FreeviewPlus should escape a similar fate because, unlike MHEG-5, the underlying HbbTV platform is completely open. Freeview can't easily control which devices access HbbTV content and how they use it.

At launch in June, six apps will run on Australia's HbbTV 1.5 platform. If your television or set-top box supports HbbTV, the green FreeviewPlus logo should appear at the top left of the screen as you change channels. Alongside it will be the logo for the channel you're currently watching. Press the green button on your remote control and you'll launch the FreeviewPlus app. An overlay on the live picture, it displays the multi-channel television guide -- obtained via the internet but based on the same HWW-supplied EPG data embedded in the broadcast signal.

The FreeviewPlus app incorporates a searchable 7-day TV guide, as well as a "reverse EPG", letting you scroll back in time to find programs you've missed and then click play to stream the from the internet (assuming it's available via that network's Catch Up TV service). The app also offers a showcase of what's available via the various Catch Up services.

Rather than pushing the entire FreeviewPlus app over the air, the HbbTV platform merely delivers URLs to the television which link to online apps and video streaming optimised for the smart TV interface. All but the ABC are using MPEG-DASH video, which supports adaptive picture quality streaming and the ability to insert advertisements.

Press the red button on your remote control and you call up the HbbTV app for the network you're currently watching. The translucent home screen is overlaid on the live picture, with each network app offering easy access to the network's Catch Up TV services, which in some cases match the look and feel of the network's Smart TV app. HbbTV also offers the networks the ability to add interactive television features over time.

All five major networks aim to have their apps ready to launch in mid to late June. Most networks have outsourced their apps to developers with a proven track record in IPTV app development, but there's still a lot of testing and fine-tuning to be done.

Alarm bells and mixed messages

To ensure everything runs smoothly, Freeview is running a FreeviewPlus certification program for digital television equipment -- immediately ringing alarm bells when you consider Freeview's track record.

The networks' initial app demonstrations certainly look slick and impressive but, while HbbTV is an open standard, like all standards it's open to interpretation. Freeview and the networks are working to ensure that the advanced features of their apps run smoothly on as many devices as possible. The complications of this process saw FreeviewPlus' initial May launch date pushed back to June

So is Freeview going to use the FreeviewPlus certification program as an opportunity to exert control over the platform and possibly doom it to suffer the same fate as the Freeview EPG? So far there have been mixed messages from Freeview, which seems determined to create the impression that the FreeviewPlus certification is essential. The Freeview press release reads: "FreeviewPlus will be available through new connected receivers carrying the FreeviewPlus logo including panel TVs, set top boxes and recording devices."

Freeview Australia general manager Liz Ross concedes that any manufacturer can build HbbTV into their digital TV equipment, but says "We just wouldn't be able to guarantee that everything will work smoothly. Our testing is designed to ensure a great user experience."

There's no technical impediment to using Australia's HbbTV apps on any HbbTV-compatible device, but to claim that FreeviewPlus will work on non-FreeviewPlus certified equipment is "irresponsible, and sends an entirely misleading message to the Australian consumer," according to Ross. "There is no guarantee of the performance of that equipment to deliver FreeviewPlus properly -- or even at all."

Last chance to get it right

This is starting to sound like the Freeview of old, but whether Freeview will try to enforce its ongoing agenda of combating ad-skipping is difficult to say at this point, because FreeviewPlus is initially targeting televisions rather than Personal Video Recorders. What is clear is that Australia's broadcasters have invested considerable time and money into developing their HbbTV apps, along with preparing their content server and Content Delivery Network infrastructure in order to support FreeviewPlus.

There will likely be FreeviewPlus-certified televisions at launch from Sony, LG, Panasonic and perhaps Samsung, as well as smaller players. Some Personal Video Recorder are also ready to support HbbTV from day one, with or without Freeview's blessing. Over the coming months it will become clear how compatible the service is with a wide range of devices -- although the networks clearly have an incentive to avoid a repeat of the Freeview EPG disaster and get FreeviewPlus running on as many devices as possible.

More than a technical challenge, the introduction of Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV and FreeviewPlus is a test of Freeview's ability to put aside ideology and focus on making the new service as inclusive as possible. This may be Australian free-to-air television's last opportunity to ride the IPTV wave, rather than be washed away by it.

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