New Broadcast Technology

Tom Worthington FACS

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University and Director, Tomw Communications Pty Ltd

For the POWER PANEL: "New technological capabilities" of Broadcast World 2002, Wednesday 27th February 2002, Sydney

Extended version* for Faculty of Information Technology, University of Technology, Sydney, 28th February 2002

Also for ACT Filmmakers' Network seminar* 7:30 pm Wednesday 6 March 2002, Canberra Musuem and Art Gallery.
This document is Version 2.1 30 January 2002:
Also available at BROADCASTPAPERS.COM.


Free-to-air and pay-TV operators are making the same mistakes which bankrupted many Internet companies. New technological capabilities do not guarantee a return on investment. Lessons can be learned from the failure of WAP to provide a viable web service on a mobile telephone and the success of the simpler i-mode technology. There are lessons to be learned by the broadcasting industry in middleware development, operational rollout, video-on-demand and storage when implementing Internet based technologies, such as MHP and TeleWeb.

Please note: these are just speaking notes for a just a brief talk in a panel session, not a full formal paper. The other panelists are broadcasting industry members and I feel that I am obliged to stir them up, on behalf of the Internet community. ;-)


Early last year I was reading the newspaper and came across an item reporting that Australian free-to-air broadcasters had adopted something called the Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) as the Australian standard for interactive TV. MHP was said to be based on Internet and web standards. This was interesting as I had previously looked at convergence of the Internet and mobile telephones (Worthington 2001a).

It took several minutes (an eternity in Internet-time) to track down a copy of the MHP standard on-line. This turned out to be a complex document of more than 1440 pages. It was unlikely that many outside the broadcasting field were aware of the document, so I decided to prepare an overview of the main points of the standard, and its compatibility with the Internet and opportunities for convergence of content. This was presented at the 2001 Communications Research Forum:

In theory the use of Internet and web standards for MHP should provide opportunities for convergence. Using common tools to produce content that can be used on the Internet should be possible and with broadcasting. Material used to construct a web site could be streamed for a broadcast. However, the differences in business models and production techniques may make convergence infeasible...

It should not be assumed that MHP will succeed because it is based on Internet standards and has the support of the broadcasting industry. Technical standards, such as WAP, have failed, despite (or perhaps because of) high level support and detailed standards documents. MHP has the potential for success if the standard is simplified, aligned with Internet development and made freely available.

However, the technical details of MHP may prove less relevant to its success that identifying a business model for multimedia content. Do people really want extensive interactive services, or just sit back and watch TV? Integrated PC/TVs have not been marketing successes in the past. Very simple text message services have proved popular on mobile telephones whereas sophisticated WAP applications have not. This aspect of MHP needs further research.

(Worthington 2001b): Internet-TV Convergence with the Multimedia Home Platform, Communications Research Forum, URL:

My presentation on MHP provoked little reaction from the delegates at the Forum, apart from interest from those who had not seen the inside of a digital set-top-box before. However, to my surprise several major european broadcasters and TV manufacturers read the document on-line and objected to what they saw as an attack on their standard. There was an assumption from the european broadcasting industry that I must be criticizing their standard as part of a hidden agenda in support of proprietary systems or some rival standard. There was also the suggestion that I didn't understand "broadcasting" and that MHP was not about integrating the Internet into TV.

WAP Lessons

The broadcasting industry risks failing to learn from history, by dismissing criticism of their adaption of the Internet. Similar questions were asked of the viability of Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) applications for mobile telephony (Worthington 2000) and were similarly dismissed by the mobile telephone industry. WAP proved to be a complex and expensive technology looking for an application.

WAP had the support of the telecommunications industry and it was envisaged that would provide an Internet-like standard on mobile devices and support for m-commerce. But, WAP required implementation of a large and complex set of standards that, while based on existing Internet standards, were not upward compatible. In addition there was an attempt to isolate users of WAP from the real Internet and its free content. The telecommunications industry wanted to lock WAP users into specific content offerings and avoid the "free" Internet model. The result was that WAP failed as a product and the simpler rival i-mode appears likely to succeed.

As an IT professional I look at MHP, and other Internet derived digital technologies, as information technology applications. These applications need to be well thought out from a technical and business point of view. There is an element of the unknown in any new technology. However, the Internet has shown that there are benefits from cooperation, practical testing of standards and of building up advanced services from compatible simpler technologies.

Advocates of digital broadcasting who seek to adapt information technologies and Internet technology in particular, tend to be in a hurry to copy the technology without the process behind it. The Internet is built from years of experimenting with subtle social models of communication and cooperation. The technology on its own will not work without the social and economic models it is built on.

An example of a problem with MHP is the format in which the standard is distributed. The draft was a 1448 page, 19 Mbyte zipped PDF document , making it difficult to use and at odds with the stated aim of using Internet and web standards. The format of the standard may seem a trivial criticism, but part of the success of the Internet and web has come from their standards documents being simple and quick to download, translate and copy.

The Multimedia Home Platform (MHP)

The Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) attempts to adapt existing Internet and web standards for to digital Television (DTV). The aim is to provide interactive digital content that can be viewed on set top boxes and multimedia PCs. MHP is intended to operate with satellite, cable, terrestrial and microwave systems.

MHP was produced by the Digital Video Broadcasting Project (DVB), a European-based consortium of broadcast companies and regulatory bodies. DVB Standards are published by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Work is underway to have MHP adopted in Australia, under the formal Standards Australia processes.

June 28, 2001 First MHP applications for digital TV

First MHP applications for digital TV The first MHP (Multimedia Home Platform) applications for digital TV are now available. Watch a streaming video demonstrating the use of a browser in digital TV. The video was made by recording the video output of a MHP capable set-top-box.

From: Sonera Plaza MediaLab 2001

How is an Internet TV Set-Top Box Built?

Existing standards are used for content, such as PNG, JPEG (still images), MPEG-2 (Video/Audio), HTML (text/web pages) and Java. A tradeoff is required between newer more powerful formats which have been standardised but are not in wide use and older more proven technology which will run on lower cost hardware.

One irony is that Java was originally designed for set-top boxes and then adapted for general computing and the Internet. Processors have only recently recently reduced in price enough to have Java feasible to use on a set-top-box.

MHP is an example of the use of newer more powerful formats. Institut für Rundfunktechnik (IRT), have produced a partial MHP Reference Implementation (IRT’s MHP-RI) available to the MHP community. The MHP-RI is implemented in Java to run under Windows NT 4.0 on at least the equivalent of a 500-MHz Pentium III and 32 to 128 Mbytes of RAM.

IRT Reference Implementation Model

Diagram from: MHP Reference Implementation, Institut für Rundfunktechnik (IRT), 2001

While not needing the fastest PC available, MHP will still require more hardware than in the current typical set-top-box. Also MHP uses new Internet standards which means that content may not display on existing software used for the Internet.

TeleWeb is similar to Multimedia Home Platform (MHP) in that it is a European produced standard with an awful web site <>. As the URL suggests, the idea is to create super Teletext, by transmitting web pages in Teletext packets on analogue TV or MPEG-2/DVB packets for digital TV. It is much more modest standard than MHP, using proven web technology such as HTML 3.2 and GIF images.

There are some demonstration TeleWeb pages on the web site which display successfully on a normal web browser. It should be possible to upgrade Teletext TVs and tuner card software inexpensively for TeleWeb, in comparison to MHP. If TeleWeb can provide a standard electronic program guide it might be the killer application for digital TV, or delay digital TV by enhancing analogue TV.

TeleWeb and similar Internet TV devices target a screen of around VGA resolution (640 x 480 pixels), but the effective screen size is less because the viewer sits much further from a TV set than a computer. Web designers may be able to target both internet TV and Pocket Digital Assistants (PDAs) with the same content.

Broadcast Industry's Worst Nightmare

At CRF2001 I displayed this photograph of a TiVo digital video recorder and described it as the broadcast industry's worst nightmare. The TiVo is a Linux based TV device and the potential of such devices to be expanded, was demonstrated in Hacking the TiVo by Andrew Tridgell at 2001:

Modified Tivo

I got truly amazed when I found out that Tridge and friends, not satisfied with adding more hard drive space, soldering memory on the motherboard, reverse engineering the proprietary connector on the motherboard and turning it into an ISA bus, turning a Tivo entirely into a PAL capable device, they reversed engineered the video format, got video from the Tivo to play over the network on outside computers, figured out the TV guide database format and wrote programs to make their own database feeding for Australia through information automatically gathered by scripts on a web TV guide. I mean these people created a new Tivo product from the existing one before Tivo, and with no technical help or docs from Tivo whatesoever.

From: Inside Tivo, Marc Merlin, 2001

The nightmare is not that a few gifted individuals will modify their digital devices, but that if the industry does not provide devices which do what the customer wants, then someone else will. A digital set top box is just a small computer. The Linux community has shown that an informal cooperative effort can produce good quality software for such devices. The Internet has shown that complex standards from formal bodies will not necessarily succeed over simpler standards. If the broadcasting industry does not produce useful products, then the PC industry, with overcapacity and a hunger for new products may step in. This may not be confined to hardware for supporting existing broadcasting models, but new content formats and business models as well.

MHP is sufficiently different to the Internet that convergence of content may not be possible. MHP has not adopted SMIL, the web's approach to multimedia. It could be argued that SMIL has not been widely supported and a standard backed by the TV industry will be more successful. However, experience with Internet standards has shown this approach does not necessarily work.

It is possible that simple alternatives to MHP may emerge, in the same way i-mode emerged from the shadow of WAP. As an example it would be feasible to carry multimedia content using the existing Teletext data channel of analog TV. This would provide many of the features of MHP, but at a lower cost and while maintaining compatibility with existing TV standards. Creating an Electronic Programme Guide format that could be used by MHP should be possible, in particular, web and Teletext services.

It is not clear which services consumers will want. It is not even clear if consumers want to remain consumers of broadcasting at all, or if they want to take a more active role in content development and in person-to-person interactivity, as they do with the Internet and SMS digital telephones.

One technology which Bob Edwards at the Australian National University is experimenting with is low cost set-top-box Internet TV appliances. Units such as those of Neon Technology's line of set-top boxes provide a continuum from low cost e-mail and web products, starting at US$79.00 retail, to more powerful video capable units. What is of interest to Bob is if the units can be reprogrammed to become capable network workstations, rather than simple consumer products. These can then be linked to low cost super computers, such as the Australian Bunyip, built from PC components.

While academic research interests are in building Linux workstations for scientific work, once reprogrammed, the units can then take on more capabilities as consumer products. The same techniques for building low cost super computer servers can also be used to build audio, video and multimedia on-demand servers.

Broadcasting is Non-interactive Data Transmission

A digital set-top-box is a computer with limited programming to mimic a TV tuner. In the same way "broadcasting" is a limited form of one way communication. Digital content for broadcasting is similarly a form of multimedia which has been limited to operate on a broadcast network. Rather than seeking to limit digital technology so it can be used within the restrictions of broadcasting, the industry needs to look at the new expanded possibilities. As an example technology is now available to transform content so it is usable on hand held devices with limited Internet access.

Middleware development

A revolution is now taking place in software development. Technology developed for web applications is now being applied to conventional software devotement for business applications. Sophisticated applications which used to take years of development by hundreds of programmers can now be done by a handful of people. The Extensible Markup Language (XML) was originally intended for advanced formatting of documents. XML may not displace HTML for designing simple web pages, due to XML's greater complexity. However, through technologies such as XML Schema, it is possible to build simple applications which carry out complex transformations on data. These transformations can be carried out in middleware software, to allow information to be automatically converted into a format to suit the user.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Web Content Accessibility Guidelines allow content to be prepared in a generalized format and then converted for the display device. While developed with static web pages and reading by disabled people in mind, these techniques can be used for multimedia documents, one limited form of which is video.

Metadata: The Killer Application for Digital Media?

There may be a lot of technology available, but where is the business case for it? How do we make money out of this? The ability to transform content using XML will lower the cost of creation and delivery and the accessibility guidelines will allow it to be delivered to a wide range of devices, but how do you get people to pay for it?

One approach is to sell the meta-data and give the content away. While the Tivo video recorder is designed to work with free-to-air TV, the customer must pay for the on-line TV guide to make the unit most effective. The TV guide is metadata.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is planning a new Internet based service called DIG planned to start pilot broadcasts early this year:

"... Some planned services are available on request for each individual listener at all times, but the casual listener who 'tunes in' – in fact, the listener will get on the internet, open a browser, type in, and continue to the DIG site – is most likely to listen to a 24-hour stream of unannounced music while using the computer. The listener who wants to know the name of the tune being played at any given time can read the name of the tune and the performers on screen after a single mouse click. The music- and other arts-orientated station won't be live, and won't carry news and current events. These are already available from other parts of ABC Online..." From: New radio for you to dig, originally published in The Weekend Australian, December 8 - 9, 2001.

While the ABC doesn't appear to be planning to charge for DIG, it would be feasible to create different free, fee-for-service and advertising supported services using the same technology. Some programs could be free, with charging could be for specially tailored programs featuring particular styles of music, exploiting the metadata. The same streamed program could be provided with advertisements (with not charge to the listener) or without advertisements for a fee. News bullies and video could be blended, tailored to the user's requirements.

Operational rollout

Use of Internet-like digital broadcasting technology challenges many of the assumptions of rollout for broadcasting. The consumers can play a more active role in the operation and there can be a loss of control by the broadcaster. On the positive side many of the costs of the broadcaster can be passed on to the consumer.

There is a very high cost to rollout of hardware and field upgrades of equipment. The incorporation of Java into MHP may make it feasible to add new capabilities to set-top-boxes via the network. However, it is not clear if there will be sufficient standardization of platforms. It should be possible to run the same Java applications on set-top box and a mobile telephone, but will there sufficient standardization to make this possible? It should be remembered that after decades of use computers and telephones still have different numeric keypads (telephones: 1,2,3,4,5,6... Computers: 7,8,9,4,5,6...).


As effective digital networks become available, video-on-demand will cease to be a major issue. Internet users assume that any document is available on demand. The idea that some content is only available a set scheduled times will become an anachronism. Where broadcasting is still used, simulated video-on-demand can be provided with local digital storage in the set-top-box or the consumer's local network.


Technology developed for low cost supercomputers can be applied to provide network storage and also additional processing to transform the stored content.


Free-to-air and pay-TV operators can learn from the mistakes which bankrupted many Internet companies. Profitable business models for digital broadcasting need to be based on engaging and useful services, not new technological capabilities. One lesson from the failure of WAP is that a simpler service, such as i-mode providing more content is more appealing. Text-only communication via e-mail, chat programs and mobile phone SMS has been remarkably popular as compared to graphs rich applications which do not have human interaction. Middleware development will undergo a revolution as technology, particularly XML, developed for web applications is applied to broadcast content. The cost of operational rollout can be reduced and speed increased with more open technology and a more active role by customers. Video-on-demand and storage will benefit from developments with low cost Linux super computers. The major less is that people want open interaction, over and above high definition content. Being able to retrieve a few old moves does not provide a satisfying interactive experience, nor does choosing from a half dozen camera angles during a sporting match.


About the Author

Tom Worthington Tom Worthington is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University. He is an independent electronic business consultant and author of the book Net Traveller. Tom is one of the architects of the Commonwealth Government's Internet and web strategy. The first Web Master for the Australian Department of Defence, in 1999 he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Computer Society for his contribution to the development of public Internet policy. Tom is a director and past President of the Australian Computer Society and a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery.

Request for Comments

The text of this presentation will be refined here. Comments, corrections and suggestions would be welcome. Thanks to: Luke Naismith, Deputy Manager, Strategy and Analysis, National Office for the Information Economy; Bob Edwards, Chief IT Officer, Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, The Australian National University; and Marghanita da Cruz, Ramin Communications; for their comments.


Notes for seminar Faculty of Information Technology, University of Technology, Sydney, 28th February 2002:

  1. Wireless local loop: Media reports indicate that the Federal Government is now considering using wireless technology for delivering broadband services to the home:

    The Minister for Communications has ordered an investigation into the merits of wireless LANs as a possible solution to the 'last mile' problem. A spokesperson for Senator Richard Alston has confirmed the department is preparing a report into the potential of the international IEEE 802.11 wireless standard. The report will investigate the usefulness of the technology for regional and rural areas throughout Australia as well as SMEs and home users. Govt looks at wireless to solve 'last mile' issues, By Kelly Mills, Computerworld 26 February, 2002 8:15, Sydney, Australia

    This is a technology worth considering, but will have difficult regulatory implications. It could deliver low cost Internet and digital TV-like service to the home, but if not introduced carefully may result in the collapse of the Australian broadcasting industry.

  2. New Government Web Site Substandard: The Australian Government has released a new "Government Services for Australians" web site:

    We've created this site to help you find the government services you need without needing to know which government agency to go to. It represents the entry point in providing you with easy access to government information and services. About This Site, National Office for the Information Economy, 2001-08-01

    Unfortunately it has not been competently designed and fails web site accessibility tests required under Australia law for access by the disabled. The home page passes many of the automated "Bobby" accessibility tests, but the design appears to have been done by someone mechanically following the accessibility guideline or cynically doing the minimum required to pass the test without intending to help with accessibility. As an example all images on the home page have ALT text, but the text does not aid use of the web site. Examples of the text used include "space holder" and "Yellow line that fades out", which are literal descriptions of the images, but not relevant or of use to the disabled reader. In other cases the ALT does not match what is said in the image, for example an image of the the Commonwealth Arms has under it "A Commonwealth Government Initiative", but the ALT text just says "Commonwealth Government of Australia crest".

  3. Broadcast Australian Web sites: Australians Governments have the opportunity to provide a useful new service to the community. With a minimal investment Government web sites could be made compliant with accessibility standards and at the same time be made suitable for use on digital set-top boxes and hand held Internet devices. Government information could be provided to more Australians and Australia could be placed in the forefront of on-line information services. I will be teaching my web design students how to do this at the Australian National University this year.

Additional comments for ACT Filmmakers' Network seminar

Transact could provide a low cost platform for distribution of experimental work by Canberra filmmakers. Those formats which prove popular could then have a business model built for them and become commercial services. Filmmakers should mot limit themselves to conventions linear video, but consider interactive multimedia and multiple formats, for different bandwidth networks and display devices (such as PDAs).

A costly and complex broadcasting infrastructure is not needed for delivering content. The same model as used for creating and distributing web sites can be used: content is prepared on a PC and then uploaded to a server for delivery. Community programs, including news, could be created by individuals shooting material and uploading it from home to a server where others could select material for a program. The server and network can then deliver content on-demand or at preset times. If some content becomes very popular, then larger servers may be required, similar to the ANU's Bunyip super-computer.

The content creators needs just a digital camera and a PC with video editing software. This can be used to create content and then upload it. Some real-time transmission may also be possible, such as live coverage of local sporting events.

Multimedia is currently poorly served by video editing software, which is designed to simulate the analogue film editing process. It should be possible to produce hybrid software, perhaps based on Open Office, which added to the existing word processing, spreadsheet and graphics features, with the creation of storyboard and animation.

Integrated software would allow imported text to be marked up as a film script. The script could then have a storyboard added and this played back with text displayed on screen or spoken by a synthetic voice. The video could then be shot and automatically edited to a rough cut. This would allow multi-media work, with print, web, audio, video and interactive versions to produced in one work. XML markup should allow easy exchange of the information between different products. This concept will be discussed in "Metadata: the ‘killer application’ for digital broadcasting?" at the Australian Broadcasting Authority 2002 Conference "What Will Australian Audiences Want?", 29-30 April 2002, Canberra.

Further Information

Comments and corrections to:

Copyright © Tom Worthington. 2001