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What is HbbTV?

Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV is on its way to Australia in the form of FreeviewPlus, but what is it, how do you get it, and why should you care?

You might have been hearing a lot recently about HbbTV — especially in relation to FreeviewPlus — but what does the service actually do and how will you get it?
FreeviewPlus uses the HbbTV standard.(Screenshot by CNET Australia)

What is it?

HbbTV stands for Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV and it's the standard that FreeviewPlus is based on. What it means in practical terms is that you can get both standard broadcast free-to-air (FTA) TV and IPTV services all in one place. By IPTV services we mean — for the moment — specifically catch-up TV, such as iView and SBS on Demand, which are delivered via the internet.

What will it do for me?

Using HbbTV, you'll not only be able to browse an EPG (electronic program guide) for the week ahead to see what shows are coming up, you'll be able to browse backwards, see what shows you missed and watch them without needing to open up the individual catch-up TV apps for the channels.

According to the FreeviewPlus press release, you'll also get highlights of the day's "big shows" on both catch-up and FTA, the ability to search the 7-day EPG and you can favourite shows to get reminders about when they're on. Whether or not that's useful to you depends on how you like to watch your TV.

Will it work on my TV?

This is the part where things get tricky. As we said before, HbbTV is a standard for delivering this style of television. FreeviewPlus is built around HbbTV version 1.5.

At the moment, it doesn't look like any products on the market will support HbbTV 1.5 and that seems to include any current device that's Freeview certified. According to Freeview itself, Freeview Plus will only be available through "new connected receivers carrying the FreeviewPlus logo including panel TVs, set top boxes and recording devices".

We're starting to see a few companies touting HbbTV functionality, with TCL Australia recently showing off a HbbTV-ready TV at a Melbourne press conference, although without any specifics about pricing or availability.

What's not clear is if HbbTV 1.5 compatibility can be addressed through software changes or if it's built in to the hardware. If it's just software, then it's possible that some current smart devices could end up offering the service through a firmware upgrade.

So I'll need to buy a new set-top box?

At the moment that looks like a 'yes' — or a new smart TV or PVR or connected Blu-ray player or whatever device you're planning on using for a FTA receiver.

But this isn't a simple scenario either. Check the wording of Freeview's statement from before: available on "new connected receivers carrying the FreeviewPlus logo". HbbTV 1.5 is an open standard, so — in theory — any device that has HbbTV 1.5 built in should work with FreeviewPlus. But this may not be the case.

Over on the SMH, home entertainment journalist Adam Turner did some digging. He was initially told by Liz Ross, head of Freeview Australia, that the FreeviewPlus logo would mean that manufacturers had "gone through an approved test house to assure that all the HbbTV 1.5 features work". Following that, the manufacturers would need to send the device to Freeview to "ensure it works with all of the apps from Australian networks".

In that scenario, the FreeviewPlus logo was a guarantee of compatibility, but Ross told Turner that "someone else could still build HbbTV into their box — we just wouldn't be able to guarantee that everything will work smoothly".

However, after Turner's initial report, Freeview issued a press release that included the following statement:

If a consumer buys a non certified product, in other words equipment not featuring the FreeviewPlus logo, there is no guarantee of the performance of that equipment to deliver FreeviewPlus properly — or even at all.

It went on to conclude "reports that FreeviewPlus certification is somehow unnecessary are irresponsible, and send an entirely misleading message to the Australian consumer".

So in regards to whether you'll need a FreeviewPlus certification to enjoy FreeviewPlus, the answer appears to be a very definite "maybe".

So where were we again?

If you need the TL;DR version, here it is:

Hybrid Broadcast Broadband TV is on its way to Australia. It's coming in the form of FreeviewPlus, possibly as early as next month. It'll let you watch both FTA TV and some catch-up TV, along with having an expanded EPG. And you'll almost definitely need new hardware to get it, possibly only stuff with a FreeviewPlus logo on it.