TVNZ edges nearer to set-top box announcement

TVNZ's announcement this week of a broadband digital network made no mention of plans for the consumer side of a digital TV strategy - but there are strong hints that the broadcaster has made its decisions there too.

TVNZ's announcement this week of a broadband digital network made no mention of plans for the consumer side of a digital TV strategy - but there are strong hints that the broadcaster has made its decisions there too.

The $30 million trunking network to be built by TVNZ subsidiary BCL will carry data to transmission sites around the country. Any plans for the TV and interactive services are to be transmitted to and received by consumers has yet to be revealed.

Simon Aimer, TVNZ's general manager of strategy and marketing, who has been at the centre of the broadcaster's digital TV strategy, will only say that TVNZ is looking at "a much better [set-top] box than Sky's."

Aimer also won't comment on reports that TVNZ's technology will allow most customers to receive digital broadcasts with their existing TV aerials, but says the aerial implications of TVNZ's plans are also "much more promising than Sky's".

Meanwhile, TVNZ spokesman Liam Jeory says the company "is dying to get close to the stage of being able to talk about [set-top box plans], but what you can see now is the beginning of the digital backbone."

TVNZ Internet chief John Marks has also welcomed the BCL move as an extension to "the rise of fast Internet. Any expansion of digital capability up and down the New Zealand backbone and into homes is going to improve my potential to deliver the Internet. But anything beyond that would be going into areas I can't talk about at this stage."

As TVNZ and Sky leave their former relationship behind and go head-to-head, an intriguing duel between satellite broadcast (Sky) and digital terrestrial transmission (TVNZ and propective BCL customer Ihug) is shaping up.

A key element will be the relative benefits of Sky's push for early market share in digital TV and TVNZ later entry with more advanced technology.

While Sky's Pace Micro decoders are effectively first-generation technology, current set-top boxes are now regarded as entering a third phase, with enhanced Internet functionality and the capability for picture-in-picture, so two channels can be watched simultaneously, or data or alternative angles can be displayed along with sporting event coverage.

Although TVNZ has given no clues on its preferences, it is a sound bet that it will choose a box based on OpenTV software. The fruit of a joint venture between Thomson Multimedia and Sun Microsystems, OpenTV has been widely adopted in Europe, including by the Murdoch-owned BSkyB.

It is also expensive - and was rejected on that basis by Ihug, which has spent a mere $2.5 million on its digital TV service and its putting heavy emphasis on in-house development.

OpenTV is a licensee of Sun's PersonalJava technology and recently announced a partnership with Satellite Music Australia Australia’s largest supplier of satellite music services, to produce an interactive television version of its music service for potential deployment with digital satellite, cable and terrestrial broadcasters.

OpenTV, whose software allows access to features like e-mail and e-commerce purchases via TV, says it is also in discussion with "the main pay TV operators and terrestrial broadcasters in Australia".

A wide range of hardware manufacturers - including Sony, Philips, Matsushita, Sanyo, Daewoo and Pace Micro - have signed up to produce set-top boxes and televisions using OpenTV software.

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