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Virgin sets Ofcom on Project Canvas

'Controlling every aspect of how people watch TV'

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Virgin Media has formally requested that Ofcom investigate the BBC-led Project Canvas set-top-box venture, arguing it is anti-competitive, reduces consumer choice, and stifles future development of next-generation telly.

"The Canvas partners have significantly exceeded their original claims to be creating a common set of open standards which could have been improved upon by others and are now intent on controlling every aspect of how people watch TV," said Virgin in a statement.

Canvas brings many of the features of subscription pay-TV into a box - but it won't be cheap, Canvas boxes are expected to retail for between £150 and £300 when they go sometime next Spring, but TalkTalk has suggested it may subsidise them. And Canvas services will require a healthy broadband connection.

Virgin points out that the broadcasters behind Canvas (BBC, ITV and C4) account for 75 per cent of TV watched, while BT and TalkTalk control over the 50 per cent of the broadband market.

From the Canvas point of view, the lack of open standards justifies the project. Despite the European-backed HbbTV initiative, based on Open TV - the industry can't agree on DRM or technical necessities such as an adaptive bit rate streaming.

The BBC Trust formally approved the £130m spin-out but demanded that:

“Entry controls in terms of technical and content standards will be minimal, access will not be bundled with other products or services, listing on the electronic programme guide will be awarded in a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory manner, and quality standards for ISPs delivering Canvas will be set at a minimum level and applied in a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory manner.”

However, Virgin sources suggest that Canvas' iron grip on the user interface, particularly the EPG, make partnership impossible. Although Canvas will allow third party web widgets to run, and will feature an App Store for web developers, it won't allow the UI to be rebranded. Virgin would prefer an Android-like licensing regime - licensees can stick their own UI on top of their Canvas-compatible boxes.

In May the Office of Fair Trading said it couldn't investigate Canvas, because the start-up wasn't the result of a merger,and so fell outside its remit. ®

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