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Virgin complains to Ofcom over openness in Canvas

The ISP and media provider says the web-connected TV platform will not, as promised by the BBC and others, be built on open standards
Written by David Meyer, Contributor on

Virgin Media has made a formal complaint to Ofcom about a lack of open standards in Project Canvas, a scheme to create a multichannel, web-connected TV platform.

The Canvas partners — the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Arqiva, Talk Talk and BT — had "significantly exceeded their original claims to be creating a common set of open standards which could have been improved upon by others and are now intent on controlling every aspect of how people watch TV," Virgin said in a statement accompanying the complaint, which was delivered to Ofcom on Monday.

"The BBC Trust has already acknowledged, but then completely ignored, the impact that Canvas will have on so many different organisations; from consumer electronics firms to software developers and enterprising new technology manufacturers to independent programme makers," the statement read. "We strongly urge Ofcom, supported by the [Office of Fair Trading], to thoroughly examine Project Canvas and its clear anti-competitive behaviour."

The Canvas partners themselves have already referred the project to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), leading the OFT to greenlight the scheme on the basis that it did not break merger laws. However, at the time the OFT noted that other competition law could come into play.

Virgin's complaints about Canvas are wide-ranging. In a document entitled "Canvas myths", the ISP and media provider explains that the scheme would be expensive for consumers because they would be paying for content twice — once through the licence fee and once through their broadband subscription. Virgin also said in the document that Canvas could lead to a rise in online video usage, negatively affecting people's broadband connections.

The biggest objection, however, is over the actual openness of Project Canvas to outside development and customisation. According to Virgin, the idea of rival companies adopting a single set of technological standards in itself raises competition concerns. The company is particularly concerned about the fact that all Canvas implementations must have a common user interface — a move that it said makes the project not open enough.

"There is evidence that the success of truly open standards over others has led to greater innovation and consumer choice," Virgin said in the Canvas Myths document. "Google's Android operating system is the fastest growing segment of the mobile smart-phone market. Yet the HTC Legend handset is very different from the Samsung Galaxy, even though both use the Android operating system."

"Around 20 different manufacturers currently build upon these open specifications, meaning consumer choice has increased. Canvas will prevent this differentiation by mandating the user interface and experience," it added.

The BBC's Canvas spokesperson, Alia Ilyas, told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that the project will discuss Virgin's complaint with Ofcom. However, he did not expect any changes to arise out of it. "Our proposals remain unchanged and will create an open standards-based internet connected TV environment within which competition and innovation can flourish," Ilyas said.

Project Canvas is expected to launch next year, albeit under a different name that has not been announced. Ofcom takes two months to evaluate complaints such as that submitted by Virgin on Monday, after which it will say whether or not it will take the complaint forward.

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