Peter MacAvock. DVB Executive Director
For Digital News at IBC, Sept 2002.
By Kate Bulkley
Q: DVB is the standard here in Europe, but it is not the preferred standard in some other markets, namely the USA and Japan. How is the fight going to make DVB the dominant standard?
MacAvock: There are of course two competing standards, one of them is the ATSC terrestrial system and the other is the Japanese ISDBT system. The Japanese have largely modeled their technical infrastructure on the DVB system. They have taken the satellite and theyíve taken the cable standard and terrestrial standard. For satellite they have taken one element of our specification and for terrestrial they have made some changes to the specification and they are now evaluating the equipment and they will launch their own services.
Q: So the fact that other markets are adopting at least parts of the DVB standard is good, right?
MacAvock: Well, the sincerest form of flattery is copying so thatís pretty good from our perspective, but the fact remains that for instance, it does make it difficult to identify technical differences between ourselves and the Japanese. We are able to do it because of the way they have designed the system. It uses elements that we investigated at the time and said Ďthis could be a benefit, maybeí, but in the end we feel it is not as complete a system as the DVB system and will certainly can never have anything like the global reach of our system. We work closely with our Japanese colleagues and things work quite well beyond the fact that theirs is a different standard.
Q: How about with the US?
MacAvock: The US has, shall we say, a hodge podge of different standards being employed for digital TV dominated largely by DVB-like systems. The US cable environment uses standards that are very close to DVB, in fact based on DVB with some small changes and the result is an incompatible standard. It need not have been in our view.
Q: So where are you in resolving these incompatibilities?
MacAvock: Cable is one area but we are working extremely closely with Cable Labs on the further development of MHP. And we have aligned with OCAP and the feeling now is that with what we have now it is the basis for ensuring that content can be written for both Cable Labs environment and a DVB-MHP environment without a problem.
Q: Thatís a great success, how about for terrestrial and satellite?
MacAvock: For satellite, there are, as you know, takeover discussions between Echostar and DirecTV. Echostar is a DVB provider and DirecTV is not. Echostar has made MHP announcements in the past and it seems likely that they will migrate to an MHP solution although how and when we donít know. So the jury is still out on exactly what will happen with satellite environment, but it is likely to be very DVB-centric, and DirecTV although not DVB compliant, is as close to it as you can get without being it. Terrestrial is an entirely different environment. The terrestrial standard ATSC is being deployed but it seems to us that a lot of the discussions going on in US outside of standards are somewhat behind what are going on in the European framework. Interactive TV, while it is important, there is still no firm commitment to do anything yet (in the US) and in our opinion unless the terrestrial operators are careful they will be completely overtaken by cable and satellite in these innovative technologies. So in terms of the competition between these two standards we see DVB more or less completely dominating the terrestrial st andard, which is the only place we really have much competition. The American ATSC standard is being heavily promoted in South America for terrestrial. (DVB dominates on cable and satellite in South America) The feeling is that the Japanese are also heavily promoting their standards. One thing we lack in DVB which would help is we are not linked in any way to a political entity.
Q: But I thought you had backing from the EBU?
MacAvock: Absolutely not. We are not part of the EBU. We are an industry association founded in Europe but now encompassing all these organisations around the world. For reasons of administration we have to have an office and that office was established in the EBU which initially provided some manpower and some help in setting it up, but that was it.
Q: So not having a political affiliation is both good and bad?
MacAvock: Itís good because it is the reason why we have been so successful particularly on the basis that many of the large users of DVB and pay TV operators who are sensitive to any political involvement in standards development. They believe standards are a pure commercial and technical discussion. To a certain extent the proof is in the pudding and weíve done pretty well.
Q: And the downside?
MacAvock: There is a downside in that there are still certain countries that regard standards as something that is nationalistic and politically based. We then run into a problem that we lack the support that we would ordinarily have, or that our colleagues have. So if you talk to Phillips they donít really mind which standard is adopted, so why should the Dutch government or the European administration really care? The answer is they do, which is helpful for us but at the same time we also get support from countries like Taiwan, where there is a potential large manufacturing base and these countries are eager to promote their own organisations externally and they promote their own standards. But we are absolutely apolitical in that sense.
Q: Does the fact that you are a consensual organisation with such a wide membership give you problems? What I mean is, this is a commercial marketplace where time to market is important. But the fact that the DVB is a consensus organisation, where you have to get everyone on board before a decision can be made, hasnít this made you less effective because it has slowed down decisions?
MacAvock: It has in the sense that decisions have taken a slightly longer than might have been taken at other organisations, but the bottom line is a standard is useless unless it is deployed. And by having the whole industry as part of the process and reaching a consensus across that industry we are then in a very good position to ensure that what we develop isnít a waste of time. Now we donít always get it right, we got it wrong once or twice like when we developed a return channel cable system which is unlikely to be used in all but some niche environments, but by and large we get it right. MHP is a classic example of when it does work, here at IBC (in Amsterdam), we have a large number of industry members here showing product and we have broadcasters anxious to launch services and we have the operators wishing to carry these kind of standard solutions.
Q: You say that MHP has been one area where the DVB has worked but my understanding is that the technology has taken much longer to roll out that an ticipated and that it is still far from a commercial solution.
MacAvock: Itís important to understand how DVB operates. We operate in an environment called the pre-competitive phase. Particularly our North American colleagues donít understand the concept of Ďpre-competitiveí. It means that organisations seek to define the rules of the game before they go out and play the game. The type of commercial deployments we talk about in MHP and this whole commercial success or failure story is really about playing the game. DVB has been enormously successful in defining the rules of the game but we havenít yet got to the stage where the operators have said Ďokay weíll do this global launchí. There are a number of reasons for this. There is a maturing pay TV market in Europe which is based on proprietary standards and to be honest if I were an investor in such a market I would have serious questions about (making any changes) or the if itís not broke, donít fix it rule. And other operators that have tried to launch innovative interactive services have been stifled quite a lot by the debt-ridden operators in the industry. Cable is in a terrible state in Europe and pay TV is not much better, so new entrants are having a hard time launching into this market. All this means that MHP will be there but it will take more time.
Q: So itís not really a question of how to convince the BSkyBís of this world to adopt MHP, it will just happen over time and there is no rush?
MacAvock: There is a general recognition across the board that open standards are a good idea in this sector. Particularly in the environment of midddleware (the platform for interactive services) open standards are a good idea and this is what originally got everyone working together. However, to move from that to mandating an open standard is a step which is a step further and goes beyond this pre-competitive phase we are have been talking about. This is really forcing a commercial industry to adopt a particular open standard. What the DVB has done is we have managed to get everyone together on the basis that MHP is a nice idea and weíd all like to get there. On that basis, weíve developed a standard and the last of the measures to get there are in place. ETSI has starting shipping the tests that will determine the suppliers. What we then do is, well, itís up to the market then how to launch it. Far be it from me or anyone in my position to tell Sky how they should do their interactive businesses. They know far better than I do. We have provided a series of tools, they have agreed to the development of those tools but timing and the manner in which they launch those tools is entirely up to them and should remain up to them.
Q: So in the end itís up to the market. But to kick start the commercial side of all your good works, wouldnít MHP lite be a first step to getting MHP off the show floor and into the market?
MacAvock: Well, when someone can tell me what MHP lite is I think we would be happy to entertain it. If MHP lite is a solution which seeks to do the same as MHP but takes up less footprint and less processing power then show me that solution because then there was a mistake made somewhere along the line. That solution doesnít exist.
Q: Well MHP lite does have some inadequacies, for instance it doesnít have a return path of consequence, but what it does have is the ability to be a transitional technology, right?
MacAvock: There are a number of existing technologies out there that are similar to MHP but offer a very lite option with smaller footprint and less processing power. Mheg5 is one of them. The download mechanisms are similar to MHP but obviously it is a pretty basic environment. From our perspective the lite discussion has been had at different levels of DVB and unfortunately people have latched onto this idea of MHP lite without actually ever investigating what lite means.
Q: But Mheg5 is an MHP Lite?
MacAvock: Some would argue that MHP Lite could be considered Mheg5.
Q: But you and the DVB donít like or donít rate Mheg5?
MacAvock: That is a relatively provocative statement. Mheg5 was considered as one of the basic profiles of MHP right at the start, but was rejected as being too low in terms of capabilities to meet the requirements that we have. We needed something that was going to do a little bit more for the operators. The key thing is that the operators require a certain level of functionality from the specification and Mheg5 couldnít deliver that even as the basic profile, so we felt that what we should do is design something different and target a set top box that was going to be a little bit more complicated. So the result was that it wouldnít be the current generation of set top boxes which we would be targeting for MHP, it would be the next one, and that was the decision made five years ago. So this generation of set top boxes (today) are now MHP compliant and there are a number of them around here at IBC. The idea was that we were never going to compete with the current proprietary systems. They were doing a fine job and (competing with them) would have put us in competition with the very people involved in the (MHP) process. So we decided to pick a target that people could migrate to or could launch with when it came around to that time. And of course (for it to work) the performance versus price versus availability equation has to be dead right.
Q: How do you extend this to other environments, IP, DSL, mobile?
MacAvock: The DVB over IP business is extremely important to the future of DVB and also to the future of DVB content. As time goes on we will see a lot more content being offered over IP networks and there will come a time, and there have been some demos already, when extensive DVB TV services will be offered over an IP Network. Thereís no reason why that shouldnít happen we just have to make sure we put in place the necessary mechanisms to make it happen. We have the over architecture documents in place and we are developing some of the elements but the whole picture is not in place. It will beÖ
Q: Is the marketplace going to take over your standardization efforts?
MacAvock: We think not in the sense that a couple of the initiatives we have in this area are pretty much dead right and weíre at the forefront of whatís happening at the moment. So we hope to have all the elements in place by about the end of first quarter next year (2003)
Q: And mobile and DSL?
MacAvock: Iím not sure what standardisation we need to have in the DSL environment, there are services using VOD and whatever and they use technologies that are DVB based. So there is a question of whether standardisation is needed there. There is a big initiative now to standardise some interfacing with 3G mobile networks in order to try and promote the standard with hand-held PDA devices that would be able to use DVB services. Itís a big issue but it is pretty much at an early stage because there are an awful lot of people stalled in terms of UMTS deployment at the moment. Unfortunately when the funding dries up operators focus on what there core business is rather that seeking the lateral thinking solutions. But we so feel that the solution to the UMTS problem is to develop hybrid network solutions delivering technology such that you donít need to be switching devices to get a particular type of service. The service is available to you in an open fashion across really any network. So youíll find hybrid devices with UMTS, interaction channels and youíll find the DVB downstream will become a very powerful tool as well.
Q: DVB over satellite. Youíve revised the standard how has that been proceeding?
MacAvock: Well the technical revision focus is still underway and there is development of both backwards compatible and non-backwards compatible solutions in order to ensure that the operators that are currently trying to defend a business donít find themselves having to swap out all their receivers. So we are developing two different types of solutions. But clearly the market is I think some 8 years on from the original development of the standard and it is time to consider what the technology offers now and whether that has any commercial requirement. The answer is yes it does and so we are now going to go down this road of developing another standard. This does not mean that DVB-S is defunct, but rather than have to form a new group why donít we do it within the DVB group and offer it as an option. I donít know when we are going to get a solution out of this, but the elements are in place and there is a work programme in place. The first result will likely be the non-backwards-compatible solution.
Q: What about HDTV? Today HDTV is a bigger question in North America perhaps but it will increasingly become an issue in Europe. Because of the bandwidth requirements for HDTV, where does this leave the DVB?
MacAvock: In fact HDTV is one of the major topics driving this upgrade to the DVB satellite solution. The operators in North America will be required and are delivering HDTV, which is a bandwidth hungry application. What they would like to do is deliver more HDTV from a particular satellite transp onder. That is one of the major technical requirements for us at the DVB. It is clear that in Europe there is little interest in HDTV but when I talk about Europe being a few years ahead of our US colleagues in the development of TV in general that also extends to HDTV. I donít think it is now beyond the bounds of possibility that a pay TV operator cold launch a premium TV service that would offer HDTV and surround sound that would be their single channel. This in my mind would help drive the sale of high-end TV sets, which are now almost HDTV compliant, particularly projectors, and that would provide some driver for those type of sales. But in my mind, the key thing to note is that HDTV will remain a premium offering for quite some time because there is no reason to look at HDTV on a small TV screen. Also, there most of us have space limitations (in our living rooms that preclude) these bigger sets.
Q: So that fact that the Swiss have decided to make room so to speak for HDTV by limiting the number of channels on their DTT roll-out, you donít think this will be emulated around Europe?
MacAvock: Difficult to say, but if I were delivering HDTV I wouldnít be doing in over terrestrial. Because the screens are so big that to move them you need a bus and not many people have busses at home! And also the type of bandwidth that is required lends itself for satellite or cable rather than terrestrial.
Q: DTT has been far from a great success in Europe. I know you are involved in some DTT trials in Berlin, is that shedding any light on how to make these systems work commercially?
MacAvock: I just came from Berlin yesterday where I made a presentation at a conference designed to discuss their switchover scenarios and they have an extraordinarily aggressive switch-over timetable. Because of the high cable penetration they are proposing to start DTT broadcasting in October and immediately as they start DTT each of the existing analogue services will carry subtitles advising people that these signals will turn off and here is where to go and buy a digital receiver. The idea is to start switching off the analogue signals immediately and it is so heavily cabled in Berlin that the cost of supplying cheap receivers to the rest of the community will be less than the cost of maintaining the transmitter network. So the target is complete analogue switch-off before August 2003.
Q: That is aggressive. So is Berlin a viable model anywhere else?
MacAvock: The feeling is that is could work in countries that are heavily cabled. Getting back to my competitive message, my message is: arenít you lucky you donít have ATSC here because it simply wouldnít work because there are still a number of technical difficulties with it. That said, it is an aggressive plan, but in Germany the federal system allows them the flexibility to say Ďthis is what we are going to doí. They have also developed a whole marketing programme and they have gotten together with receiver manufacturers and I now understand that 22 manufacturers are prepari ng product for this type of launch. The price target is around the same level as in the UK of under Euro 150 to Euro 200 (per digital adapter box).
Q: What about the little old lady on the pension who doesnít even have the Euros 150?
MacAvock: My understanding is that is could go as far as the government going out and buying a couple of 10s of thousands of receivers and bringing them around to the lady and saying this is what you have to do.
Q: What about PVR? I understand the DVB group has been slow to work with this technology
MacAvock: The key thing with any standards development process is to get the price, performance and timing right. Any work on the PVR sector (now) is outdated and a waste of time. My feeling is that what will happen in PVR is that certain parts of the PVR chain will be standardised or that we will at least seek to offer solutions such that you can deliver standardised solutions in that domain. To be honest, proprietary PVR standards will remain a round for awhile but there are a lot of pieces to the jigsaw puzzle there. If you could join a few of those together you could provide some quite interesting open solutions which would enable PVRs to operate in a more free to air and user-friendly environment.
Q: But PVRs are being rolled out for example quite aggressively in the UK through BSkyB, so doesnít the DVB group need to catch up?
MacAvock: They are and to be honest the Sky offering is extremely good but that is not bad news because itís good for digital TV overall. PVR functionality was one of the things that digital television promised and they can now get the hard discs and the prices they need. There is an enormous amount to work that has gone into the Sky offering, which is frankly spectacular. So, do we need to try and beat that? No. Because Sky are part of the overall DVB scene. They have been part of the overall discussions on PVR and what I think PVR discussions will centre on particularly is this idea of meta-data. Whatever happens to the box is either proprietary or is part of a pay TV operation.
Q: Copyright management protection is a big issue in digital, in PVR, in all this. What is the DVBís position?
MacAvock: We developed some year and half ago a set of commercial requirements outlining an overall strategy for management of copyright protection. There are systems out there. And a number of the Hollywood studios are very anxious to ensure there are very strict controls on the copying of content received on the set top box. Currently I see the problem is that there are extremely polarised views on how this should be done. But I think there is a general recognition now on both sides of the Atlantic that DVB is a place what it can be sorted out, if at all. In the US, the ATSC may do (some of this), but if you consider that 80% of US homes are cabled and the number of cable subs are probably not increasing all that much, whereas the number of satellite subs is certainly increasing a lot, we see that the ATSC, which deals exclusively with the terrestrial environment, is dealing with a small segment of the business. They are doing some work, but the amount of cooperative effort by the members of ATSC behind it is significantly less than the amount of effort behind DVB.
Q: If this copyright protection issue really is impacting on getting the business models right, what can you do to help?
MacAvock: Itís a really big issue. And particularly as content starts to be offered over IP networks and different types of networks. We will then get into a problem to ensure that the appropriate copy protection mechanisms are there.
Q: Is there a timeframe for getting something sorted on this?
MacAvock: I donít know but I hope inside of a year.
Q: We havenít specifically talked about DVB2, but I know we have touched on a couple of its key points, how is DVB 2 going?
MacAvock: The DVB 2 initiative is one that focuses DVBís attention outside of its current frame of reference, which is the consumer electronics industry and TV broadcasting, and into other networks. The idea is not to try and standardise but to try and make DVB content available to anybody who wishes to access it, no matter what network they are currently on. So IP, UMTS, and the whole area of ensuring that proper copyright management techniques are in place so the content can be protected as it leaves the DVB environment. DVB 2 is also involved in this whole area of what happens if you try and do video services over a mobile phone. You have lower resolution displays; you have much lower bit rates and so that brings into discussion a whole new set of coding techniques that you might consider.
Q: So DVB is obviously busy, but have the economic problems that many operators are experiencing impacting what you are able to do at the DVB?
MacAvock: We do specifications and we do a lot of documents about specifications. The difficulty is that as we get into economically difficult times, we are having a number of difficulties with interactive TV and everything else, but that does not diminish the requirement that we continue to do what we do. In fact, in some cases (economic difficulties) make what DVB does even more important, especially if an economic slowdown means that people canít afford to do their own proprietary solutions anymore because they need to ensure they are not wasting research and development efforts and that they are focusing in the same direction as their competitors. So sure, the industry is having a hard time at the moment, all product people are, and is DVB having a hard time? Yes, a little bit, in the sense that we need to ensure that we remain focused on what we are good at and donít try to take over the world, because that is frankly a complete waste of time. The bottom line is we will offer the DVBís opinion on a range of issues and we will provide information on what the DVB standards do, but there is an old phrase in Ireland: you can bring the horse to water but you canít make him drink. If (other countries) wish to adopt DVB standards well and good. If they wish to adopt ATSC or anything else we will respect that because the bottom line is we are all trying to ensure that digital television is successful.