This is the fifth in a series of eight articles with some of the people involved with the Digital Lifestyles conference day at IBC2004.
We interviewed David Wood, Head of New Technology in the Technical Department of the European Broadcasting Union. David also works for the Secretary General as Head of New Media.
David has a background in electronics, television and the Arts – making him an ideal candidate for the European Broadcasting Union, and has worked for the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority.
We talked to him about the hurdles he will face in setting up a single technical platform for digital broadcasting in the EU, and the benefits of encouraging hardware, software and media providers to work together.
Some of the people visiting the site might not know about what you are up to, and certainly might not know about N2MC, the New Media Council, so can you give me some background as to what you are doing at the European Broadcasting Union and indeed what N2MC is all about?
They are kind of two separate areas. Essentially, the European Community helps to fund a series of research and development projects in a number of areas – and one of the areas is network, audio, visual systems and home platforms and it means digital broadcasting, interactive television, internet delivery and in home networks.
They are currently running a whole series of research and development projects which last two or three years in specific areas – some looking at digital television, some at the synergy of broadcasting and mobiles, and others at digital rights management issues.
Recently in the consultation discussions that we have had, amongst the projects where people share their results, there has been a feeling that Europe needs an entity – which is loosely called a technology platform – at which people from different organisations would examine where there areas or shortcomings in interoperability, production and delivery. The group has been putting together the case for setting up a technology platform which would try to investigate where there are shortcomings in interoperability and make suggestions as to what could be done.
If we look around today there are plenty of instances – for example, interactive television, as you know there is a whole range of different ways of doing that – Open TV, MHP and so on.
I believe there are currently five different interactive televisions standards in the wild?
Just in the UK alone there are three different ones being used.
So, if you take the Europe of 25 countries, it’s not that bad – but, yes there are certainly five major languages or application programming interfaces. Some people believe that we are on the threshold of what’s called high definition television and people in Europe are going off in several different routes as to the right way to deliver that.
You could also look at digital rights management and see different solutions and one solution is coming out of the mobile environment, and another solution is coming out of the digital television environment. The idea wouldn’t be to invent anything or to solve any problems that somebody else is solving, but to have people who could look at all of the networked audio/visual environment and ask the question “Have we done as much as we can on interoperability and what can we do to make everything connect together?”
It is not just a matter of the convenience for the user but of helping European industry to maintain its place in the world.
There is a general feeling that we should really do all we can to make sure that the European new media industry is as well equipped as it can be.
We worked for some time looking at what were the different issues, and we produced some proposals. The next step is to discuss with a new Commissioner, Olli Rehn, who is responsible for this area.
The idea is to meet with him in September to see how he sees this, and whether he would support such an initiative. Of course, this is a industry initiative and it is not a matter of something the Commission itself is doing.
Later in the year, if everybody agrees that it is workable, we would set up this technology platform. It happens that there are a couple of other areas in industry where the same thing is happening – one is called nano technology: areas where it seems very important for Europe to be competitive and have the best available tools, and we will do what we can to coordinate our research and development.
I suppose there is the desire to not want to reinvent the wheel every time…
…but then again you are up against commercial entities who want their own technology to succeed. How are you dealing with that?
The group who have been discussing this believe that, in the long term, the interests of everybody will be best served by open systems. This is the environment that has produced, for example, the massive success of GSM and so on.
What we have to do is to find a formula in critical areas where on the one hand we encourage entrepreneurialship, innovation and forwardness, but on the other hand we recognise that with things like a public offer there is a value in having common systems and standards. Somehow the trick in the technology platform will be to find the path between those two things. What we want to achieve is both. Encourage the entrepreneurialship and so on, but allow the stability of common systems where it is possible.
Nobody has an easy or quick answer or formula. I guess these things will have to be looked at case by case but at least we have a common vision of that’s what we are trying to do: encourage competitiveness and so on, but at the same for that to grow you need to have a stable industry where people know what is going and some degrees of, if not common standards, common interfaces. The trick is to make things interoperable.
The Commission has said this week that no decision is going to be made until the end of 2005 on whether a common interactive television standard is to be looked at and that everyone should share information and play nice until then. But then you have got organisations in the marketplace there who are direct competitors to each other, for example, Sky are quite happy using their own platform. Are they really going to want to open it up to their competitors when this could possibly be a chance for them to own the interactive TV platform?
The particular case you are discussing was the issue of whether or not the Commission should encourage the national members of the Community to insist on using the MHP interactive television language.
This particular issue is a very difficult one. For example, take BSkyB who have already a legacy of 5 or 6 million set top boxes which use Open TV.
If you say to them after a given period of time that they must change to an open system, then that is a very difficult thing. Who is going to pay for all that replacement?
Perhaps sometimes you have to swallow hard and say maybe we started this process and bit late. It is the same in France: large numbers of propriety boxes already in public hands.
The Commission was faced with that dilemma: they can’t fund replacements for existing receivers and the conclusion they came to, as you rightly said, was to try to use other means – forums to encourage people towards a common system rather than making it mandatory.
That was their decision and some people think that was the right one, others think that it might have been better to bear the pain and go for a common system. It certainly illustrates that there is no simple route in this and the technology platform would have to look at it case by case. Sometimes if you get in early these things are easier to do than if you arrive late.
Can you just give me a bit of background to your session at IBC this year and the sort of things that you are hoping to cover?
I will be taking the delegates through some of the issues are significant in terms of interoperability of networked audio/visual. I will give them an update on what the result was of the discussion with the commissioner and how they might, if they wanted to, be part of any initiative of this kind – the technology platform.
Who have you got behind you in N2MC?
It is the work that we have done so far came out of the consultation group of the projects that are being partially funded by the Commission. At the beginning at least most of the actors came from that world and that is the large European companies that are involved in research and development in this area like Phillips, Thomson and Nokia.
We have also taken advice from a number of individuals who have helped us. One is a guy called Leonardo Chairiglioni who is the convenor of the MPEG Standardisation Programme. Richard Nichol former boss of Martelsham, the British Telecom labs, Jean Valliesen who is another third guru with Phillips.
So we’ve had the major manufacturers and also we have brought into the discussion quite a number of other actors like Bertelsman, the German broadcaster, BSkyB, Deutsch Telecom, Intel – quite a range of actors from the media environment. We’ve got no reason to exclude anybody.
We sampled what we thought was a cross section of people who might be interested in the initiative.
Now you mentioned Bertelsman there, what sort of feedback are you getting from content producers?
Content producers feel that they do have their own issues in terms of interoperability and everybody is conscious that, in the end, this is one of the really critical areas in terms of content distribution and programme production.
At this stage what we are doing is asking the question “In what areas could such a venture provide added value for Europe?”, but there is this definite feeling that the content industry has to be something which we help in Europe, that it is a vital part. It must be a vital part of the European media industry, so we should be particularly looking to help, if that is the right word, the content industry to make life easier, to make things interoperable, to encourage competition and at the same time encourage entrepreneurialship.
Some would say that you have a mammoth task ahead of you –
Everyone would say that!
Even just looking at one area like DRM. What sort of milestones are you setting? How are you going to know that you are on the way to sorting this out?
We are at the stage of discussion and people would say how they thought it was best to handle that particular one. But my part in the discussion has been to suggest that, probably the best way to go forward is that we need to see what the requirements are of the different ways of delivering content in terms of digital rights management.
We need a list of what broadcasters need, mobile phones need, broadband needs, and then we will see whether there are some things which are the same, some things which are different and if there are some things which are the same then we could move to a stage where we can actually use the same technical systems.
It is a matter of discussion but my fourpennethworth has been to suggest that the right way is to delineate what are the requirements of the different media and see what the similarities and differences are. That for me the way we should move forward on interoperability on DRM, but it is all for discussion.
You’ll be looking at the requirements between manufacturers for interoperability, but will you be looking at consumer requirements?
Of course, yes – the two have to go hand in hand.
Rightly or wrongly the companies, like the one that pays me – the European Broadcasting Union, and public service broadcasters somehow see themselves, apart from anything else, as the guardians of the consumers.
We are paid for by a license or by advertisements. Our shareholder is the public. When we come to the question of requirements, we have to first and foremost ask whether the customer is a user. We must the right to time shift or whatever it is they want to do.
European Intellectual Property Directives state that it’s illegal to try to circumvent a copy protection scheme. Yet there is also a fair use clause in another European directive, stating that consumers can make copies of media. These seem to be contradictory.
Yes, I guess it is a fairly complex issue and one of the things that people are wrestling with now is the use of things like the broadcast flag which the FCC in the United States is adopting.
In the US the plan, as we understand it, is that if you have a digital broadcast you have to put this signal in, on the one hand, and then you have to put some apparatus in the receiver which acts on it and prevents the signal being carried over onto an internet connection.
This is a matter of discussion but the idea of obliging receiver-makers in Europe to put anything in the boxes is pretty difficult to imagine happening. The climate of opinion in Europe – getting 25 different states to make it mandatory to have some particular prevention technology in a digital receiver – just sounds absolutely impossible.
There are lots of issues to discuss and there are no easy answers, but all of these kind of things, as you say, are matters that a cross platform body like the technology platform could discuss and see where there are common ways forward.
So out of the areas that you are going to be looking at with, what is your favourite? What are you most looking forward to getting your teeth into?
In the digital phone world you have the 2.5 G and GPRS methods of delivering digital media, and to some extent 3G or UMTS, and in addition to that there are two other routes to delivering content to handhelds by a broadcasting channels already in the wings. One is a system called DVB-H, and the other one is an enhanced profile of DAB.
How these four options will live together is a difficult one. In an ideal world, I guess, we would have some cooperative network technically where you could imagine that if there is something on your hand held that lots of people want, it comes via a broadcast path. If it is something that only a couple of people want, then it comes via the digital phone network.
Could we achieve these kinds of cooperative networks? The same notion of cooperative networks may also apply between broadband delivery and digital broadcasting to the home. Could we imagine connecting both broadband and TV and TV broadcasting, and if we can do it in a kind of seamless way for the user? Creating that world of cooperative network – well, that would be pretty exciting.
What support do you think you will get from the new Commission?
We don’t really know what his priorities are. The civil servants there change every so many years because the Commission is generally afraid that if someone stays in the job then people get friendly with them and perhaps exert too much influence or whatever it is. The staff are forever rotating – so there will be new people not just only Rehn.
The issues of interoperability in the API and MHP and all of things that you mentioned, have come out of a group led by a gentleman whose name is Adam Watson-Brown.
Adam is moving on out of that area which is loosely called Strategy and into a group which is looking at content regulations – quotas and so on. We may have quite a new order at the Commission in terms of things like interoperability and the API in the future, but it remains to be seen.
The public are now getting used to buying digital media which is quite often protected in different ways: doesn’t work on some devices, works on others, can’t be transferred, has different rights. Are you looking to the public for support in what you are doing?
The consumer associations would be very much invited to be part of the technology platform to make sure that we listened and heard what they had to say. It is a two-sided thing, we want to make industry prosperous and give the European public the convenience and so on that they deserve. We are very much aware that there are two sides of this coin.
We can’t say with certainty that we will create a technology platform and it will be useful and successful, but in the discussions there seems to be a body of opinion that something like this may be useful and we will never know unless we try.
We want to encourage people to think about the issues of interoperability, where there maybe something that could be done, what could be done, who could do it and hopefully encourage people to contribute to this process.
If we have a single aim it is to make it inclusive of all of the actors so that everybody feels that they are buying into their solution.
David is a panellist in the ‘Understanding the Range of Platforms‘ session between 14:00 and 15:30 at the IBC conference on Sunday, 12th September in Amsterdam. Register for IBC here
European Broadcasting Union