Dublin, Ireland -- A Java-based application programming interface designed to bring interactivity to digital-TV broadcasts and set-top boxes is being proclaimed dead on arrival in Europe, a casualty of mishandled procedures for disclosing intellectual-property rights (IPR) related to the standard.
The broadcaster backlash against the IPR terms for the Digital Video Broadcast Multimedia Home Platform could signal deeper problems for its creator, the Digital Video Broadcasting Project, as that consortium positions its open DVB-Handheld mobile-TV
standard against Qualcomm Inc.'s proprietary MediaFLO. That has some calling for an overhaul of the DVB Project's IPR policy--and others questioning whether the industry's rising preoccupation with IP protection may prove irreconcilable with the concept of open standards.
MHP's patent-pooling negotiators certainly had time to get it right; the DVB Project completed the technical specs for the standard seven years ago. But the final IPR terms and conditions were not made available until last month, and the hefty price tag--$1.75 per MHP device and 25 cents per subscriber per year--prompted outcries. The likely upshot is that the detailed MHP specs, reflecting the work of literally hundreds of engineers, will be mothballed.
"The patent holders got greedy to the point that they killed MHP," said Philip Laven, technical director of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Many broadcasters in Europe are now saying that they will "punish" MHP patent holders by not implementing it. The exception may be Italy, where the government has mandated MHP's use and the installed based of MHP set-tops already numbers in the millions.
Because DVB-MHP is a delivery mechanism for supplementary services rather than a core broadcast technology, there has been little gnashing of teeth over the failed spec itself. What's more worrisome for many in the industry is whether the MHP tempest will have implications for the mobile-TV turf war between DVB-H and MediaFLO.
At a time when Qualcomm is said to be promising "written indemnification" for MediaFLO licensees, the IPR structure for DVB-H has yet to come together. Those planning to implement DVB-H today don't know how much it will cost them or when patent pooling will become available. And in light of the DVB-MHP fiasco, DVB Project members are forewarned that the consortium may offer no immunity against patent ambushes by IP owners either outside or inside the group.
At the DVB World forum in Dublin last week, EBU's Laven posed a question that went to the heart of the matter: "Is there a future for open standards?"
Such a question would have been "unthinkable" just two years ago in a cordial, technologist-friendly forum like DVB, Laven said. DVB's engineering members value the economies of scale made possible by open standards, and they look to "avoid lock-in to monopoly supplies of proprietary systems," he said.
Although the DVB Project stipulates that IPRs should become available within two years after the completion of a standard, DVB-MHP miserably failed to meet that requirement. After the successful adoption of many of the DTV standards engineered by the DVB Project, DVB-MHP "disrupted the trust" among the consortium's membership of broadcasters, technology companies and network operators, said Laven. There is a future for open standards, he said, but "only if they are implemented and followed through."
DVB Project chairman Theo Peek acknowledged MHP's problems in his opening remarks at DVB World. MHP's patent-pooling procedure, he said, was not "directly in line with the original mission of DVB, which is to provide the best technical solution to commercial guidelines, regardless of IP issues."