IPTV UK: failure to launch?
Rivals fear YouView. They may not need to
Britain's broadcasters are struggling with the internet. Efforts to design a single, consistent IPTV platform have become mired by the need to accomodate participants' existing services - some with commercial agendas, others without - and mud slung by competitors is beginning to stick.
At the centre of IPTV unification is YouView, a would-be standard platform for the delivery of on-demand and catch-up services into the home through an internet connection. YouView is backed by some powerful names, in particular the BBC, which defined catch-up internet viewing with its iPlayer, launched in 2007.
The BBC is accompanied by the state-owned Channel 4, along with ITV and Five, all of whom will deliver their catch-up and on-demand services through YouView.
The service is a delivery platform for pay TV offerings too, and is supported by both ISP TalkTalk and telco BT, both of whom have pay-to-view services they are keen to push. YouView is also supported Arqiva which, apart from owning the UK terrestrial TV transmitter network, runs SeeSaw, a pay-to-view video website.
Presenting a single, unified front end for such services is undoubtedly a good notion. Equipment manufacturers can deliver all these services to their customers by implementing one YouView app. Today, they are struggling to create separate apps for each service. A number of set-top boxes and TVs can provide access to BBC iPlayer apps, but few if any present ITV Player.
For that very reason, the YouView content companies see the platform as a way of getting their material in front of many more British eyeballs than the currently do. Some undoubtedly see it as a stepping stone to the delivery of parallel pay-to-view services, if not for Brits then certainly for overseas viewers who are not obliged to buy a TV licence, a television tax, every year.
But not every UK IPTV stakeholder is keen on YouView. Cable TV company Virgin Media, for example, is unhappy with what it calls the closed nature of YouView - the development process is currently open to members only - and believes the platform will mandate content delivery over broadband internet.
Virgin currently sends YouView content providers' video-on-demand and catch-up services over its DVB-C cable TV system, an approach that makes for better picture quality and, Virgin argues, eliminates the problems encountered when a broadband connection used for video is simultaneously used for web browsing, email and downloading software: dropped frames and/or reduced video bit-rates.
Virgin portrays its beef with YouView as an attempt to stand up for consumer choice, but it is clearly motivated by self-interest too. If catch-up services remain separate and incompatible, Virgin's ability to combine them for a price is more attractive than it would be if there were an alternative, free-to-access unified service.
All for one, one for all
An observer might reasonably suggest that companies which disapprove of YouView should simply leave its content providers to their own devices and instead compete on the strength of their own channel offerings and technical advantages.
Unfortunately, the output of the BBC and ITV remain among the most-watched programming in the country, and the cable and satellite companies are unwilling to lose that material, for which they currently pay handsomely.
Virgin's logical course of action would be to join YouView and thereby influence the development of the platform and prevent its public-service content from being limited to internet distribution. The BBC Trust, the Corporation's governing body, recently said it believes syndicated BBC material should go solely through iPlayer, which appears to mean the web, YouView and nothing else.
Virgin isn't the only company concerned about competition. Sources close to the company allege that the company has been discouraged from joining YouView by members who want to both keep their syndication fee cake and eat it too, and by those who fear the presence of Virgin, BSkyB or both will hinder their ability to steer consumers toward their own pay TV offerings.
YouView participants deny this, and paint a picture of universal IPTV harmony that competition-averse rivals want to scupper.
Ofcom has been asked to investigate YouView, but the UK broadcasting and communications regulator has refused to do so, saying that until YouView's platform is complete, the technical specifications, access provisions and the commercial terms defined, it has nothing to judge.
It may not need to, in any case. Arqiva this week all but put a 'for sale' sign over SeeSaw, which risks becoming redundant when YouView launches, unless it can licence a lot more content from sources other than the UK's terrestrial broadcasters, all fellow YouView members. Arqiva's need to find "an investment partner" for the project suggests it's unwilling to bankroll such acquisitions alone.
Separately, insiders have claimed YouView's mid-2011 launch date is over-optimistic because it's proving too hard to integrate participants' existing systems. They suggest it could be a further six months before the organisation is ready to tell content providers and equipment makers how they can use its technology. With consumer interest in online content increasing rapidly - BBC iPlayer had 145m view requests in 2010, up from almost 90m in 2009 - they may choose not to wait. ®