In the first of a two-part series, Contributing Editor Barry Flynn looks at the Future of Broadcast Television (FoBTV)â€™s attempts to create a global TV standard
When, on Christmas Eve, the European DTT lobby group DigiTAG announced that it would be closing shop and migrating its activities to the DVB standards organisation, it mentioned â€“ almost in passing â€“ that â€œplanning is now underway to allow for the development of a worldwide DTT standard.â€
According to the DVB, this was a reference to the activities of the Future of Broadcast Television (FoBTV) initiative, which brought together all of the worldâ€™s broadcast standardisation bodies in November 2011 in order to develop requirements for a unified, global next-generation terrestrial broadcast system.
At the time, Phil Laven, the DVB Steering Board chairman, reasoned that since terrestrial broadcasting was the best possible way of delivering live TV to massive audiences, â€œwe need to enhance digital terrestrial transmission systems to meet the needs of mobile and portable devicesâ€ â€“ and the obvious way to do that was through a single global standard, since mobile and portable receivers were, unlike fixed TV sets in the home, used around the globe.
But five years on, enthusiasm for the project appears to have waned. Even long-time FoBTV supporter and former co-chair GÃ©rard Faria, co-founder and CTO of French transmission company Teamcast, is downbeat about the projectâ€™s future.
He explains that, according to the organisationâ€™s statutes, after four yearsâ€™ activity FoBTV members are required to vote on whether the organisation should continue or be wound up. That milestone was passed in November 2015, and a consultation exercise is accordingly underway, the results of which should be unveiled when FoBTV members meet at the NAB Show in Las Vegas in April.
â€œDuring this exercise, the common view was that people were a little bit disappointed by the outcome of FOBTV,â€ concedes Faria. â€œOr more precisely, they say that FOBTV was very successful in its first year, but since then nothing very relevant happened.â€
2012 was indeed an active year for FoBTV, in that it spawned two significant reports. The first of these collated a set of use-cases for a possible future global DTT standard. Faria describes this as a â€œbottom-upâ€ approach, in which broadcasters from around the globe created â€œa sort of wish-listâ€ of what they wanted to see in such a standard.
Faria, meanwhile, was responsible for generating a separate document that followed a radically different line of research. â€œI was in charge of a different approach, which was more top-down,â€ he explains. â€œBecause with a bottom-up approach, a wish-list, you just try to accommodate new technologies in an existing platform within an existing business model. But possibly you could not see if it was really what you would need in 10 or 20 yearsâ€™ time.â€
Instead, Faria set himself the task of analysing current trends in video and TV delivery, and tried to imagine what type of system might be required over the next 20 years. The results of Fariaâ€™s analysis, described as a â€˜global modelâ€™, appeared as a separate FoBTV report published in April 2013.
Arguing that neither the telcosâ€™ one-to-one network infrastructures (whether fixed or mobile), nor broadcastersâ€™ one-to-many networks would on their own be able to satisfy the full range of scheduled and on-demand TV services future consumers would require, Faria proposed a smart, â€˜hybridâ€™ infrastructure combining both types of delivery platform.
The idea was that this would be able to deliver any type of video service, whether broadcast or on-demand, over whichever type of pipe the dictates of cost-efficiency and capacity might require at the time.
However, although by general consent FoBTVâ€™s two reports went on to influence the creation of the US standard body ATSCâ€™s next-generation standard, ATSC 3.0, that is about as far as they have progressed to date.
Several reasons have been advanced for this. “I confess to being one of those disillusioned by what has happened over the years in the FOBTV,â€ said one industry source familiar with the situation. â€œOne of the factors was probably because different regions of the world had different timescales for their next-generation DTT system.â€
For instance, the Europeâ€™s next-generation DTT system, DVB-T2, was first specified in 2009, and is already deployed in a number of countries, whereas the full specification portfolio for ATSC 3.0 is only due to be published later this year, and has yet to be implemented.
Peter MacAvock, Head of Delivery and Services, EBU Technology and Development, comments that â€œwhile philosophically it seems like a good idea, I think the issue is that the drivers to make it happen arenâ€™t there or at least not there in enough quantity.â€
Meanwhile, â€œthereâ€™s an entire industry built up around the regionality, and to a certain extent the nationality of broadcasting, and I think the political and cultural significance of that means that it will be hard for us to put in place a global standard â€“ at least based on the current set of standards that have been developed.â€
MacAvock also cites the fact that FobTV was deliberately not set up to be a standardisation body itself. This was significant, in view of the fact that the â€˜use-casesâ€™ developed by the membership â€œcouldnâ€™t be met by any one of the existing standards. So how it was going to do anything was never clear to a number of the participants, including myself,â€ he concludes.
Faria has not yet given up, however. He notes that â€“ due in part to FoBTVâ€™s influence â€“ the creators of the ATSC 3.0 standard have engineered a hybrid delivery platform that will offer more or less same features as the ones found in DVB-T2, albeit using IP for the transport stream in place of MPEG-2. This includes the ability to use HbbTV applications to bridge the broadcast and IP divide.
In a paper published at IBC 2015, Faria argued that there existed enough commonality between the two standards for each to offer the other an advantageous migration-path.
Broadcasters using DVB-T2 could adopt ATSCâ€™s IP protocol stack alongside MPEG-2 to deliver IP-based content to connected TVs, he suggested. Meanwhile, those using ATSC 3.0 (which only specifies the use of a terrestrial physical layer), could â€“ by taking advantage of DVBâ€™s second-generation cable and satellite variants, DVB-C2 and DVB-S2 â€“ gain access to US multichannel video-programming distributorsâ€™ (MVPDs) cable and satellite networks.
Faria argues that the resulting, harmonised, combined portfolio would, in effect, amount to a â€œfuture-proof, universal broadcast system.â€
If the long-standing tensions that existed between DVB and ATSC proved too great to allow the two standards bodies to come together themselves, â€œthen possibly FoBTV, which is a neutral place, could do it,â€ he suggested.
That would, of course, depend on whether FoBTV survives its membershipâ€™s vote on the future of the organisation at NAB.
In its recently finalised document on â€œA Long Term Vision for Terrestrial Broadcastâ€, the DVB comments that while â€œit is probably fair to state that the enthusiasm evident in the early phase of FoBTV has disappeared and the interest in FoBTV in summer 2015 [was] pretty low,â€ nevertheless â€œthere is a natural movement towards aligned broadcasting standards for terrestrial use.â€
The DVB goes on to say that â€œthe differences between DVB-T2 and ATSC 3.0 wonâ€™t be too dramatic, and both could be implemented in the same piece of siliconâ€ â€“ thereby offering some support for Fariaâ€™s position.
Next week, Barry Flynn looks at DVB and EBU efforts to engineer a next-generation broadcast TV standard