Personal Video Recorders: Ofcom consultation indicates that the BBC wants to make yours obsolete

My attention is drawn to the acronym laden consultation being carried out by Ofcom on behalf of the BBC (pdf).

I’m a big fan of Martin Lewis over at Martin can help you get a bargain on nearly any product or service in the UK. I’ve been keeping an eye out for a Freeview PVR for sometime and turn to Martin for advice. If I read the BBC’s proposals right, it would mean that the impressive looking PVRs listed on Martin’s site, along with millions of other devices will become obsolete.

The proposals show that the BBC wants to encrypt the service information (SI) data of the DVB stream. They will only hand out the decryption keys to trusted set top box manufacturers that will implement copy protection restrictions with a license agreement. They will not encrypt the video and audio stream, but without the service information data it will be difficult to get access to it (though not impossible, as far as I understand the technical aspects). So, if you’re a hard core pirate, you’ll still be able to continue doing what you do but if you just want to watch the latest Eastenders, you’ll have to purchase new stuff.

So, in attempt to satisfy the fears of powerful rightsholders, the BBC will prohibit millions of people from programming their existing set top boxes. If implemented this will make it difficult to view or record HDTV broadcasts with free software. Where’s the consumer interest in that settlement?

I may be reading the consultation the wrong way as it is very difficult for the layman to understand. If I am, I’d be happy to put the Beeb’s side of the argument. I’m certainly going to contact Ofcom on Monday to see if they are prepared to outline the implications for consumers. I’m also going to contact DCMS ministers to see if they are aware of the matter.

Once again, your views would be welcome in the comments section.

UPDATE: I’m kicking myself as I meant to add a clarification to this post a few days back. The Beeb got in touch after reading this post and told me that what they are “proposing is copy protection, which would be introduced only into brand new receivers for Freeview HD, which will be coming into stores early next year.” They go on to say that content holders expect a degree of content management on the Freeview HD platform and therefore have proposed a form of copy protection, though specifically avoiding encryption to ensure that the public service content remains free to air. Make of that what you will.

I’m grateful to the BBC for their courtesy in responding to this story. There is an erudite debate taking place on the merits of their proposal in the comments section below.

I remain concerned that the consultation has been rushed through. I suspect that Ofcom would be as well. As the government has found in the past, failure to properly consult often ends in judicial review.

41 thoughts on “Personal Video Recorders: Ofcom consultation indicates that the BBC wants to make yours obsolete”

  1. Oh rubbish!

    And I thought they’d had DRM sorted with their HD DRM “one copy” system.

    Having intentions to return to a Microsoft Windows Media Centre set-up (which is vastly superior to any DVR out there, except possibly TiVo which is a PVR anyway and is essentially obsolete already in the UK) I worry because it takes Microsoft ages to push updates and improvements out to Media Centre (as it’s an OS component) and even longer for UK updates that will get around this problem (after all the deals have been done). It already took them years to support UK HD H.264 format, whereas the US were enjoying HD Tv content already.

    Some clarity, please, before I make that investment. Also, is it Freesat or Freeview? I have to use Freesat for my complement of channels as the Isle of Man isn’t seen as being good enough for the full digital Freeview service.

  2. This has always been the hole in the BBC’s Internet DRM scheme. Anything you download can only be used for X days – yet they broadcast everything in the clear. Anyone, as you point out, with a PVR or DVD recorder can grab broadcast quality versions of their transmissions.

    Without reading the report, it’s hard to figure out if it’s just the EPG they want restricted or the whole broadcast. I really can’t see the public appetite for purchasing yet another box for no tangible benefit.

  3. So the programme information would be encrypted so that artificial limits can be put on how long recordings can be retained? Sounds like it will negatively impact the average consumer while the tech-savvy will simply find ways around it – people will simply record a copy from their PVR on to DVD/Blur-ray or download a copy online.

    It sounds like a related effort to reduce functionality for the consumers is underway in the States:

  4. This appears to only apply to the new HD multiplex, which current equipment won’t be able to receive anyway (as far as I can remember no DVB-T2/H.264 kit is currently available on the UK market) – so it won’t break existing kit reading from the SD multiplexes.

    That, of course, does not mean this is a good idea. Quite the contrary.

  5. The document referred to is talking about DVB-T2. The *current* digital television terrestrial broadcast specification is its predecessor, DVB-T. DVB-T is the standard for current digital terrestrial television broadcasts in the UK.

    To broadcast television digitally in high-definition, however, requires an updated standard. If nothing else, the MPEG2 video encoding spec used by DVB-T isn’t efficient enough when encoding video at HD resolutions. So a new standard was written, DVB-T2, which uses the more modern (and more computationally expensive) H.264.
    (And probably makes other changes; I’m not an expert.)

    What this all means: anyone with an existing DVB-T set-top box will need to replace it at some point in the next few years *anyway* as UK terrestrial transmissions switch from DVB-T to DVB-T2. On the upside, however, they’ll be able to receive digital television in HD.

    – – –

    Now, the OFCOM and BBC letters make clear that rightsholders are pressuring the BBC to implement the optional copy-protection features of DVB-T2 on all their HD broadcasts.

    The BBC, however, are in a bind — the license they have for broadcasting in the UK stipulates that the channels must be free-to-air; that is, unencrypted, without any copy-protection.

    To try to work around this free-to-air requirement, BBC engineers have developed an alternative solution: rather than encrypt the audio and video data in the DVB-T2 transmission, they’re planning to obfuscate the Service Information (which includes the Electronic Programme Guide and, I think, interactive features) using a secret key in a well-understood but non-standard way.

    My understanding — as a lay geek, you understand; I might be wrong — is that anyone with a standard decoder will still be able to pick up (and copy!) the audio and video — but they won’t have access to interactive features (‘press the red button!’) or the electronic programme guide.

    No set-top manufacturer will want to ship a DVB-T2 box which is missing these features; moreover, without a license, they won’t be allowed to use the “Freeview HD” mark or appear on the DTGs list of approved hardware.

    However, to get a copy of the BBC’s secret key, they’ll be required to first sign a license agreement that requires the manufacturer to implement the optional copy-restriction anti-features on their device.

    This arrangement is very similar to that originally used for DVDs by the DVD-CCA; DVD device manufacturers could only get a decryption key to play commercial DVDs if they obtained a license — which stipulated that they must implement copy-protection features, respect region codes, implement no-skip sections, etc.

    – – –

    Personally, I think this is pretty awful: rightsholders (read: US media conglomerates) are pushing the BBC to implement a non-standard protocol hack to try to force hardware manufacturers to implement copy- and playback-protection anti-features that they and their customers do not want.

    I’d need to see if there’s a copy of the D-book specifications publically available anywhere; it would suck if these controls allowed, for example, for broadcasters to mark commercials as non-skippable and non-mutable, or to forbid changing the channel during an ad break, or …

  6. They want to protect their content, but don’t want to use a smart card system.


    Because if they had a smart card system (Sky, top-up etc) people might say that as they don’t have a smart card, they can’t watch the beeb, so they shouldn’t have to pay a license fee.

    The last thing in the world that the lovely beeb want, is to allow people to opt out of their content and thereby avoid the license fee.

    I’d love a BBC smart card system to exist, I’d love not to pay for (or watch) beeb propoganda.

    Let’s give the beeb a taste of a free market, I’m sick of the bbc telly tax.

    We’re forced to pay for property, antique, biased pseudo-science rubbish whether we want to or not


  7. David

    There’s a similar technical issue with DAB – digital radio.

    Technology has moved on, the same frequencies could now carry twice the services that they do now…but a lot of people would find that their current (probably expensive) kit is no longer going to work.

    A tricky problem

  8. My reading of the correspondence is that the BBC is seeking to implement this only in the HD multiplex, which existing PVRs will not be able to receive in any case. So there is not really an issue with obsolescence, nevertheless you raise an important point regarding free software.

    As you say, this is more about controlling the consumer devices than a serious attempt to curtail piracy. I don’t believe the rightsholders are naive enough to think that this scheme will significantly impede people making perfect off-air recordings with a cheap PC and tuner – their objectives are elsewhere.

  9. David McBride hits this on the head. Violates the fundamental principles of open broadcasting standards, replaces “regulation and consumer standards” with self-serving licensing regimes (see also: Project Canvas).

    Demanding non-disclosure as part of an “open” broadcast architecture is the antithesis of the basis on which PSBs operate.

    I’d be amazed if this doesn’t raise serious regulatory questions, if not in Ofcom’s regime, then from a potential competition perspective.

    Do the BBC really want to bring this on in light of James Murdoch’s keynote, as specious as it was?

  10. This seems like a cynical ploy to bypass the spirit of the Free-to-Air requirement, and we shouldn’t let them get away with it.

    The two-week consultation timeframe is too short for serious evaluation and response. The BBC submission attempts to present the chosen implementation as a fait accompli, backed by the threat that they won’t be able to broadcast the World Cup on Freeview HD unless they get their way.

    What is the role of the DTLA? Why do they get to determine how broadcasting operates in the UK?

    By the BBC’s own admission, the proposed implementation will not “provide a complete deterrent to determined hackers”. All it will do is to make it harder for viewers to watch what they have recorded and to harm the development of open-source viewing platforms. The BBC should use its weight to stand up to the demands of the DRM lobby, not use it to force onerous restrictions onto every TV receiver in the country.

  11. Re: Paul @10:

    On the contrary, I strongly suspect the BBC doesn’t want to do this.

    It would be manifestly foolish to do so; it would make BBC service demonstrably worse; it would effectively cede authority over technical broadcasting standards in the UK; and it would create for the BBC new obligations and liabilities to already-powerful rightsholders groups.

    They’ve clearly pushed back on demands to encrypt content over-the-air: they’ve had good ammunition, in the form of the ‘free-to-air’ requirements in their broadcasting license.

    But they’ve under enormous pressure — and non-trivial time constraints; so much so that they’ve developed this rather more hackish proposal to create artificial incentives for all manufacturers to implement new anti-features “voluntarily”.

    However, the BBC have to ask for permission, and OFCOM have dutifully opened a consultation on the subject. Note carefully the wording used in the consultation document:

    “The BBC has indicated that third party content owners are seeking to ensure that reception equipment will implement the content management (copy protection) arrangements specified in the DTG D-Book.”

    It’s not the BBC asking for this. They’re being held over a barrel by third-party rightsholders, from whom they’re obligated under their charter to obtain a substantial proportion of their programming!

    I suspect the best thing that could happen would be for OFCOM to unambiguously refuse that permission. Doing so would substantially strengthen the BBC’s negotiating position with rightsholders; “Well, we would do as you ask, but we think it’s would be a violation of long-standing principle and contrary to the public interest. More to the point, our regulator agrees with us.”

    Indeed, I suspect this is exactly the response that the BBC is privately hoping for. They don’t want to do this.

  12. The BBC has been forced into a corner here. They have been left with no choice: they can’t produce 100% own-brand content, because John Birt, who was foisted on the Beeb by the Tories in the early ’90s, effectively cripple the corporation. So they have to buy in a certain amount of programming and broadcast it. But this externally-produced stuff comes with the usual contractual strings attached dictating how, when and where it can be broadcast. The BBC has very little control over that.

    We’re not the only country that has a national TV licensing system: Italians pay more than we do for their license fee, and they still have to deal with adverts. (If you thought British TV had dumbed-down, you really don’t want to watch the RAI TV channels.)

    To a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. There’s a similar rule in politics: too many MPs today are (or were) either lawyers or accountants. To a lawyer, every problem can be solved by adding yet more new laws; to an accountant, every problem can be solved using a sufficiently complex spreadsheet.

    IP Law needs to be stripped right out and rebuilt from scratch. End of. That’s the ONLY sensible course of action. (I’d go so far as to suggest our entire legal system desperately needs to be wiped and a new, modern, national operating system installed. But that’s another rant!)


    Step 1 is to tell the Murdoch family to stop telling the government—and OFCOM in particular—what to do. Last time I checked, none of them were elected to Westminster.

    Step 2 is to radically reform OFCOM, give it a fully open, transparent, and easily understood mandate, with the teeth to enforce it, and—most importantly—a *suitably educated* staff.

    Step 3 is the really hard part: formally separating public service content creation—i.e. programme-making—from the way it’s distributed.

    This means splitting the content production part of the BBC away from the parts that get it from the editing suite to your TV, radio, phone or computer screen. This means a new, publicly-funded “British Media Corporation” taking over the present BBC’s studios and production facilities.

    (What remains of the BBC itself could continue as an archive and library responsible for all the BBC’s publicly funded content to date, providing a kind of publicly-owned media museum, archive and educational resource. This might help sell the reform to the traditionalists who don’t want to see such an famous institution disappear entirely.)

    Step 5 is to create a public service distributor covering every major medium—broadcast TV and radio, internet, satellite, cable.

    The “BBC Enterprises” arm, which deals with DVDs, merchandising, overseas sales and the like, is trickier to deal with. DVDs, Audio CDs and the like are distribution. Merchandising rights should probably stay with the content creation side.

    Commercial enterprises could use the public service distributor’s infrastructure, most likely by leasing bits of it at a reasonable cost.

    (Come to think of it, BT’s existing—mostly publicly funded—network might be best rolled-up into this new infrastructure company too, reducing the interfaces and effectively releasing the privatised BT of its remaining public service duties.)

  13. I presume this is freeview HD Only. I hope so, because I bought a HD recorder for freesat, to watcg BBC HD…

    This is the point – It is getting to the stage that FEW PEOPLE will want to invest in such equipment, especially expensive recorder boxes, and equipment integrated into costly large screen television sets for fear of them becoming obsolete very quickly, and as you know there is already a problem with electronic junk.

    Already there are problems with older freeview equipment for other reasons including the much hailed (at the time) Pace “Wedge” freeview adapter.

    Therefore whatever system is necessary, really should be implemented in a way which will GUARANTEE upgradeability, and broadcasts should not be ALLOWED to start until that had been sorted out.

    It seems that the culture now is to dump complex electronic boxes simply as a convenience for the broadcaster and rights owners and to blazes with those who spend their hard earned cash. To protect consumers and the environment we should go back to a system where equipment is not rendered obsolete for 10 years or more.

    In any case, who actually watches television any more ?

    In many cases it is people who don’t have the money to do much else, that’s who. They are the ones who cannot afford to buy expensive soon to be obsolete white elephants. We owe it to them, to ensure that their purchases aren’t made out of date too soon.

    What would have happened if the 1967 colour service had been scrapped after a couple of years when people paid the equivalent of many thousands of pounds in today’s money just to watch one colour channel ? Such a set would still work today and I in fact own one, (Bush CTV 167 dual standard) and will do so, with many of the current digital boxes.

    The broadcasters and rights owners have simply lost the plot here.

  14. Sean @12:

    Your multi-step plan doesn’t sound like an (effective) way for stripping out and replacing IP laws. (By which I presume you primarily refer to copyright; patents, trademarks, and the like don’t seem to be relevant in this dicussion.) It also sounds immensely disruptive.

    However, I do agree that there are issues with the modern implementation of copyright. If nothing else, having large media corporations suing teenagers, single mothers, and network-connected laser printers for hundreds of thousands of pounds just won’t do.

    However, fundamentally changing the nature of copyright is difficult; it’s encoded in quite specific detail into a number of laws and international treaties.

    Personally, I’m quite enamoured with an idea for copyright reform recently espoused by Charlie Stross:

    Personally I’d like to wrap copyright up in a compulsory licensing system based on a bandwidth tax, disbursed via a PLR-like mechanism direct to content creators (as established by anonymously monitoring network traffic) — combined with a blanket indemnity against prosecution for copyright violation to folks paying their tax. In other words: we accept copyright exists, and agree to ignore it and provide a different mechanism for paying creators.

    The devil will be in the details; I’m not sure whether a simple flat allocation of monies would work equally well for books and music as it would for computer games and movies — simply because the relative cost of creation (at present) tends to be much higher.

    But I think the notion is exciting: it allows content creators to get paid, corrects one of the major failure modes of current copyright legislation — suing fans — whilst acknowledging that one of the current principles of copyright — that a creator can or should be able to control how and to whom their works are distributed — is no-longer realistic.

    Indeed, a bandwidth tax would be a logical successor to the UK TV license; given that a lot of television content is obtained via downloads anyway, it seems manifestly unfair that content providers other than the BBC can’t also generate funding in this way.

  15. (I’m a bit late with this, but what the hell…)

    @David McBride: “Your multi-step plan doesn’t sound like an (effective) way for stripping out and replacing IP laws. (By which I presume you primarily refer to copyright; patents, trademarks, and the like don’t seem to be relevant in this dicussion.) It also sounds immensely disruptive.”

    Er, yes. So? The very introduction of copyright and IP laws was itself disruptive. Fear of causing some short-term disruption should never be the only reason for not doing something. Besides, that disruption is *already* happening—witness the whole “Pirate Bay” farce, file-sharing and the constant foot-shooting of those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

    (And yes, I am referring to *all* IP laws. I work in IT and the issue of “Software Patents” is a thorny one. Patents simply aren’t working the way they’re supposed to. But as you say, this isn’t the forum for that debate.)

    Re. Charles Stross’ proposals: I’m not convinced about this proposal. It sounds fine in theory, but the statistics don’t support the BPI, RIAA and MPAA arguments in favour of draconian legislation and DRM, so why should the Stross alternative be any more sensible? The reason CD and video sales have fallen isn’t because everyone’s downloading them instead. It’s because these corporations primarily target the lower age groups. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Baby Boomers are ageing; the 30- and 40-somethings aren’t being particularly well served by Corporate Entertainment, Inc., so why *would* they buy CDs and DVDs?

    (Another point is that people tend to have less time to themselves as they get older. This also impacts sales.)

    Sales of entertainment are only falling in certain areas. Games—a field the UK does very well in, considering it’s the only country left that doesn’t offer any useful tax breaks (the US, France and Canada do)—have been selling in ever higher numbers for years. Today’s kids have more forms of entertainment competing for their free time, and CDs and movies aren’t as dominant as they once were.

    To hell with the BPI. They’re dinosaurs. Extinctions are *normal* in the world of commerce when new technologies change the game. The worst thing any government can do is try and prop up such lumbering beasts at the public’s expense. No music label or movie studio is “too big to fail”.

  16. Sean @17:

    Your main argument, as I understood it, was that we need to incorporate a single organisation responsible for the distribution of all content in the UK. Books, video, music, software, games, everything — in effect, nationalising all bit-distribution activities, and indeed, the UK Internet itself. IP laws would presumably be updated to mandate the use of this corporation for all such activities, distribute the monies earned to rightsholders, and to forbid competition.

    This is a terrible idea. You’re arguing for the consolidation of all distribution rights into a single, monolithic entity, thus requiring that all content be distributed using British Distribution Corporation services.

    Firstly: Nationalising the entire UK Internet? Seriously?

    Secondly, this doesn’t address the original problem: why would the BDC be more able to collect revenues than current rightsholders should the citizenry decide to bypass them and exchange content directly between themselves instead?

    Secondly, we already have an extremely efficient, very effective, very fast decentralised bit distribution system — called the Internet. In a very real sense, the Internet is already the very public service distributor that you were arguing needed to be created.

    Remember the problems we’re trying to solve: content creators don’t get paid when people redistribute copies of their work directly between each other; conventional legal remedies to the problem don’t scale; changing the law to make them scale will result in widespread abuse and injustice.

    The BBC has been able to survive as a special case: it gets tax revenues from TV licenses. So it doesn’t have to worry about content redistribution in the UK; everyone here has already paid for it anyway.

    Hence why I find the notion of generalising this notion and charging a fixed Bandwidth License so appealing: content creators get paid; more popular content creators get paid more; injustice — in the form of summary disconnection or crippling legal judgements — is avoided; respect for the rule of law will stop being eroded by the current habitual disregard of existing regulations.

    (Content creators are also used to being in control of the means of distribution, and don’t want to lose it — if nothing else, it exposes them to competition. I think they’re ultimately going to lose that battle, but it won’t matter — they’ll either adapt or die.)

    It sounds fine in theory, but the statistics don’t support the BPI, RIAA and MPAA arguments in favour of draconian legislation and DRM, so why should the Stross alternative be any more sensible?

    I’m sorry, I don’t follow your argument. Why would bad statistics produced by the current incumbents invalidate this kind of alternative?

    Spotify is a good, recent example that shows how taxed all-you-can-eat services can work really, really well, whether you’re charging a flat rate, or taxing users via advertising. Why not generalize the solution that has worked so well for both the BBC and Spotify the idea to the entire Internet, and remove at a stroke the motivation for legal injustices and invasive DRM?

  17. I read the consultation exactly the way you do – an attempt by third party rightholders to grab control over a previously free market.
    This isn’t about copy protection (it wouldn’t work for that anyway), this is about the big media companies being able to control what kinds of devices the customer is allowed to buy.

    Thanks for being one of the far-too-few MPs paying attention to this.

  18. This sounds a lot like it will annoy people who just want to watch and record TV (which, I might add, we’ve already paid for through the licence fee), but have no effect on people who produce pirate DVDs and the like, who will find ways around it as they always have with every attempt to cut them off (DVD encryption etc.).

  19. How about the BBC gets rid of all the expensive clutter (bbc 3, specialist radio, website) and goes back to >90% produced content? Regarding US content, the providers pushed for a similar system over there and failed. They’ll still sell if we say no.

  20. I have used free and open source software to crack the DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) of different media whenever I have had desire to exercise my fair use rights. An example for the BBC’s iPlayer:

    Since I use Linux and MythTV to watch DVB & Freesat TV I’m sure that these proposals will affect me – right up until someone cracks the DRM. Then as a license payer I’ll have no moral issues over removing the blockage to me consuming the content that I have paid for.

    Since the “Don’t copy that floppy” campaign of the 80s copy protection has continued to damage the paying customer, yet the Pirates always seem to get around it. How is that fair?

    This proposal will only continue to affect everyday consumers and drive them to learn how to use the more devious techniques to access the same content. They might even get used to consuming all of their media in this way.

  21. Once again, the proposed technical changes will overrule existing copyright licensing arrangements, like the one offered by the CLA to all schools and universities to use for education all over-the-air broadcasts forever.

  22. So Tom is delving into things he does not understand…

    PVRs will record BBC HD, it just won’t be possible to output HD to something else.

    Nothing becomes obsolete.

  23. This proposed scheme, as I understand it, seems trivial to get around but will cause a lot of misery for users who just want to watch the programmes they’ve paid for via the license fee. It effectively places a tax on developing PVR software for FreeView HD. I think the BBC perfectly understand that this is ineffective, but need to be seen to do something to satisfy the content owners. Ofcom should throw it out and stop such a hack being deployed on the British public.

    The service information which they intend to encrypt is carried as part of the stream of data transmitted on each digital frequency. It’s present on current standard definition broadcasts and an updated (DVB-T2) version will be included with high definition. The BBC plan to encrypt the latter. As the packets of audio and video data that are transmitted will still be perfectly readable, anyone who wants to will be able to copy the stream. What they won’t be able to do (if they really intend to encode all PSI data) is match up a particular video stream, audio stream and subtitles as, say, BBC ONE. Further, it also includes all the other interesting metadata in there such as the EPG. So it will still be possible for the stream to be captured. But it won’t be possible to provide the service of identifying certain streams as a television channel and the necessary mapping that says, for example, that programme X is on at 19:00-20:00. In the original standard for DVB-T, it explicitly said that the stream to channel mapping part of the service information couldn’t be encrypted (you can still identify the video and audio that make up the paid channels on current Freeview), but I haven’t looked at the standards for DVBT-2.

    So it only hurts those who want to develop a PVR for end users, not someone who wants to just grab the streams and upload them onto some file downloading service. Allowing someone to make copies is pretty much unstoppable (if you intend it to be watchable at all) without breaking the laws of physics; in the worst case, you could playback the programme and film it with your video camera. It’s not going to be great quality but many people don’t seem to care. The scheme proposed by the BBC doesn’t even need to be broken; you can just ignore the service information, capture all the video and audio streams, then pair them up yourself. It’s the automation of this process that is prevented.

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