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HbbTV to Virtualize Set-Top Functions

Aditya Kishore

The Hybrid broadcast broadband TV (HbbTV) Association, an industry initiative set up to provide an open standards-based approach for delivering broadcast and broadband TV services, has published a new specification for enabling set-top box functions within a connected TV app.

Apps based on the spec will allow pay-TV providers to work with TV manufacturers and offer an app-based, operator-branded experience comparable to a set-top box. This would allow them to significantly cut costs associated with buying, installing and maintaining set-top boxes today.

Operators have already been exploring cloud-based set-top box functions, trying to shift trying to shift a growing load from legacy set-top boxes to the cloud so they can offer advanced TV features and services without incurring the cost of a new, advanced set-top box.

The first trials for the Operator Apps (OpApps) are scheduled for 2018 in multiple countries.

The specification defines how the HbbTV browser can run both HbbTV broadcaster applications and operator applications. It also specifies how operator applications are discovered, installed and how they supplant the TV's native UI, including the remote control keys.

According to the HbbTV Association, this would require a "bilateral agreement" between the operator and the TV manufacturers.

HbbTV OpApps can be used with any connected TV regardless of network technology (cable satellite, IPTV, terrestrial) and uses elements of widely used existing specifications from bodies such as the CEA, DVB, MPEG-DASH and W3C.

An industry group originally formed by the 2009 merger of the French H4TV and the German HTML profil projects, HbbTV has added several other members over the years. Most notably, the Open IPTV Forum, a group aimed at standardizing IPTV service delivery, merged with HbbTV in 2014. It has been an important contributor to the HbbTV standard in the area of browser and media specifications for connected televisions and set-top boxes.

Today, HbbTV boasts 70 members, and has developed and deployed 300 apps across 32 countries in 43 million powered devices.

Even the UK has decided to support this European standard. In 2011 the Digital TV Group (DTG) in the UK published a UK HbbTV-based connected TV specification, after years of parallel development. The DTG is a group of 125 companies, with a mandate to develop interoperability and collaboration in the UK digital TV industry. It worked with the BBC and terrestrial broadcast service Freeview to transition from MHEG-based interactive applications widely used in the UK, to Hbb-compatible ones. HbbTV uses more current web technologies such as HTML5 and CCS3, which simplifies development by allowing the use of familiar tools for developers. (See BBC Adopts European HbbTV Standard as UK Leaves EU.)

Last year the Freeview Play platform was launched, with an HbbTV 2.0 catch-up service on DVB-T/T2. And Freesat, the free-to-air satellite TV service will also be using HbbTV for its second generation receivers.

While pay-TV operators have partnered with electronics manufacturers in the past, these have been individual arrangements between the two. The development of a standard provides a "standard foundation that many operators can use, and that can be implemented by many TV manufacturers," according to the association.

Details on the specification can be found here.

— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation

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