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issue: December 2003 APPLIANCE Magazine

European Report
Small Steps for MHP Set-Top Box Standard

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by Paul Roggema, European correspondent, APPLIANCE magazine

While Americans usually watch TV through a set-top box (STB) from a cable company and enjoy a wide variety of channels (usually more than 50), many European homes still have a basic coax connection (without STB).

A combination of public and private TV stations usually covers most of the viewer's needs for rates as low as 10 Euros (U.S. $11). Outside of the UK, pay-TV, pay-per-view, movie channels, and interactive TV enjoy limited success.

One of the problems for the STB industry is lack of standardization. Happily, the European MHP standard (Multimedia Home Platform) is slowly catching on. In Germany, public and private broadcasters agreed to use MHP and are thus looking forward to the large 2004 sports events (Olympics, Tour de France, and European Soccer Championship) to serve as startup applications. Not good for MHP acceptance is that Germany's largest pay-TV channel, Premiere, is restructuring and is currently not considering a switch to MHP (even if its current digital STBs would allow so).

Interactive TV includes services such as EPG (Electronic Program Guide), super teletext, video synchronized content (game shows, sports information), E-commerce, and restricted TV access for pay-TV and pay-per-view. MHP uses the DVB (Digital Video Broadcasting) standard, and is fully compatible with terrestrial, cable, and satellite transmission methods. The current MHP standard is version 1.02, which includes one-way local interaction. The next versions are 1.1 (two-way interaction through phone lines) and 1.2 (Internet access). By using Java as the programming environment (connecting the hardware to the applications), MHP joins the common standards in the Internet community, and applications can be used on all STB platforms and brands.

What is the position from the manufacturers? Philips Electronics is the European TV market leader. The company's Digital STB Group is based in Paris, France. Strategic Technologist Paul Bristow tells APPLIANCE, "Philips is a strong supporter of MHP, and we offer a wide range of MHP products (STBs as well as TV sets). Of course, we support the German initiatives, and we are proud to present the first large-scale E-commerce project. It involves our cooperation with German mail-order firm OTTO; using our DSR 5600 MHP receiver with a phone-based return line. This concept allows for ordering from the OTTO catalog, directly from the TV set."

"In other countries, several projects are testing the waters," he continues. "In Barcelona and in Italy, digital terrestrial television (DTT) projects (using MHP) have recently begun. In the UK, (Europe's most innovative market) the situation is different. There, the older MHEG-5 standard for interactive TV has been used for a long time. This standard was 'before Internet.' With this experience, the UK is clearly a test market for the industry, so everyone watches the developments to find out what customers actually want. A key factor for interactive TV seems to be availability of a wide spectrum of services ('wide' means hundreds). Key applications are gaming and betting, and chat boxes using SMS (mobile phone text messages)."

So MHP appears to be a reality now, but what are the future trends? Mr. Bristow says, "First, we need a good return channel, and a phone line is an intermediate solution. In the Philips long-term perspective, Connected Planet, a permanent TCP-IP connection, is foreseen. Second, a very important area not yet addressed is video-on-demand; it saves consumers the trip to Blockbuster video stores. Huge revenues are expected here. Test projects, using DSL connections, are under way. The third trend is connectivity: connect a second TV set to a DVD player, connect the STB to the PC and the DSL line, and connect the video camera, preferably a wireless version. Everyone, including my company, is working on these products."


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