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Project Canvas

BBC’s Project Canvas Faces Sharp Criticism

in Broadband Updates/Broadband's Impact by

LONDON, September 10, 2010 – The United Kingdom’s BBC-led internet television initiative known as Project Canvas is facing complaints and challenges from vested interests threatened by open access to premium video content and others.

The concerns have opened debate over challenges facing the fast-growing online TV and video movement in general, highlighting issues associated with its rapidly increasing consumption of bandwidth as well as standards governing access.

Video is expected to account for 40 percent of all internet traffic by the end of 2010, soaring to at least 90 percent by 2014, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index, an ongoing initiative to track the impact of video networking applications. This highlights the importance of resolving current issues, which fall into two categories – standards and a trend toward download of content by people at work consuming corporate bandwidth.

There are concerns that projects such as Canvas will stifle innovation and hold back online video by setting proscriptive standards that increase costs and impose barriers to entry for both content providers and equipment makers.

Among the more serious Canvas critics is Intellect, the U.K. trade association for the information technology, telecom and electronics industries. It has accused the project of seeking to define a U.K.-specific standard in a global market, running the risk of creating a technological island.

It also accused Canvas of “going beyond simply creating an open environment. It seeks to assert inappropriate control over parts of the market where manufacturers and retailers would usually compete and innovate to the benefit of consumers e.g. the design of Electronic Program Guides.”

Meanwhile, Sky and others have lodged complaints with U.K. telecom regulator Ofcom on competition grounds.

IP Vision, owner of hybrid Freeview/internet service Fetch TV, is a critic. CEO Eddie Abrams has accused the BBC of attempting to dominate the online TV sector in the United Kingdom, arguing this will be bad for consumers as well as vendors of rival Internet TV platforms such as his company’s. “Ofcom are in an enquiry phase now taking allegations and at the end of the month will decide whether to investigate properly,” said Abrams. “Whatever happens, Canvas is in for a rough ride.”

The second area of concern is over patterns of bandwidth consumption. The BBC’s latest third version of its iPlayer, the platform for downloading programs over the internet, has attracted criticism from a different quarter – businesses whose networks may be used by employers for downloads. iPlayer now supports high definition downloads consuming on average 3.2 megabits per second compared with 1.5 mbps for standard definition content.

Perhaps more significantly, it allows consumers for the first time to set their PCs to download future episodes of a TV series automatically at preset times.

This raises an issue that companies will have to address, argued Nigel Hawthorn, a marketing vice president at Blue Coat, a specialist vendor of technology optimizing network performance. Many employees use the same laptop at home and work, and these machines will increasingly start downloading bandwidth intensive TV content at work without either them or their employers being aware of this in many cases.

“IT managers will first notice big peaks of demand but won’t necessarily know what is going on,” said Hawthorn. “They will have to first look at their traffic patterns, and then decide what to do about it.”

Hawthorn urged employers not to ban such downloads altogether, but instead to encourage employees to do it responsibly, deploying traffic management software that will restrict the use of bandwidth and ensure that critical applications actually serving the business have priority.

Hawthorn had a similar message for service providers facing the same issue of increasing bandwidth demand from online TV, urging them not to crack down too heavily on their customers by capping bandwidth. Network capacity will increase and cope with the extra demand over the next few years, and meanwhile both enterprises and service providers need to steer a path that keeps employers or customers happy while giving priority to critical traffic.

BBC Paints a Pretty Canvas, but Will People Buy It?

in Broadband Updates/Broadband's Impact/International by

LONDON, July 9, 2010 – Project Canvas, a bold attempt to make the Internet a major medium for TV distribution, is gathering steam in the United Kingdom led by terrestrial broadcasters BBC and ITV, along with major telecommunication companies including the largest national carrier BT.

The service, which will be launched under a new brand, possibly “YouView,” in early 2011, will allow U.K. consumers to watch broadcast programs including BBC channels as well as its iPlayer catch-up service, from their televisions via the Internet. Much of the content will be free, but consumers will have to buy a set-top box to connect their TVs to a broadband connection for access to the Canvas platform.

A major milestone was met in June 2010 when the BBC was given the final go-ahead to participate in Canvas by its governing trust, under certain conditions ensuring that access is available to all U.K. broadband subscribers and not bundled with content packages.

The next step comes this month with release of the Canvas software development kit, enabling set-top box makers to start building units in time for the 2011 launch. “We think this will deliver significant public value for license fee payers,” said BBC Senior Trustee Diane Coyle. In the United Kingdom, television-set owners pay a compulsory license fee of about $210, which covers most of the budget for the BBC, the world’s largest broadcaster with 2009 operating costs of more than $6 billion.

Project Canvas has been criticized for wasting public money on just another online video service, but if it achieves its objective it will prove critics wrong. It will bring premium broadcast content onto the Internet, and make this the 21st century equivalent of the old terrestrial distribution networks but with the potential to access all digital content, including movies. Some critics have called it a threat to television, but proponents say it will have the opposite effect by broadening content for TV. The real threat is to the existing pay TV providers, notably BSkyB and Virgin Media in the United Kingdom, which have been campaigning against Canvas. 

A spokesperson for BSkyB said: “The BBC’s involvement in Canvas is an unnecessary use of public funds. The BBC Trust’s announcement is a predictable decision from a body that has shown little inclination to think independently or set meaningful boundaries on the BBC’s activities.”

Virgin Media CEO Neil Berkett said, “The BBC Trust’s consultation has been a shameless whitewash that contravenes almost every principle of good regulation. The trust has stubbornly ignored all requests to address our concerns by imposing safeguards to prevent the BBC emerging as de facto gatekeeper of the digital world.”

But such concerns have made little impact with the United Kingdom’s regulators such as Ofcom, largely because they believe consumers should be able to access mainstream content, including the BBC’s, free of charge over all available media platforms to provide as close to universal coverage as possible.

The extent of the threat to pay TV providers will depend on how successful Canvas is in gaining rights for premium content such as movies and major sporting events, currently dominated by BSkyB in the United Kingdom. This in turn will partly depend on whether Canvas can persuade content houses that they can trust the Internet for distribution.

Canvas has deployed the industry standard Digital Rights Management platform called Marlin, developed by a consortium including major electronics companies like Panasonic, Phillips and Sony. It was chosen because it has already been proven to work for Japan’s national IPTV service. It combines flexibility in deployment with security equivalent to current pay TV services, built into the set-top box.

The timing for Canvas is about right, with the launch coming when people are becoming familiar with accessing video content over the Internet via PC. Consumers are already moving beyond YouTube, with other services now growing faster both in the United States and Europe.

In May 2010, 133.7 million people watched online video in the United States, an increase of 1.8 percent from April, with YouTube watched by 101 million, up 4.3 percent, but CNN Digital Network up 20 percent to12.38 million, and Google Video up 50 percent to reach 18.8 million, according to the ratings agency Nielsen.

Accurate figures for Europe are harder to come by, but there is evidence that recently online video viewing has been catching up with the United States. According to Internet market research company ComScore, the number of videos viewed online in the United Kingdom in February 2010 was 5.5 billion, up 37 percent from February 2009, with the BBC’s sites now the second most popular with 140 million views, although still dwarfed by YouTube at 2.5 billion. However people were watching longer form content on the BBC sites, which bodes well for Canvas.

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