By Dave Lee
Co-editor, BBC Internet Blog
Television transmission could be set to make another giant leap.
In early March, the BBC Trust set about the task of debating the public value of Project Canvas.
Should the plans put forward by the BBC executive get the go-ahead, it might mean that Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) becomes a staple feature in UK homes as early as 2010.
As its name suggests IPTV is all about getting the shows you like via the net rather than through the air.
Project Canvas will bring together content from some of the UK's biggest channels, including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Five. Viewers will be able to watch on-demand content through their television via a special set top box, expected to cost between £100-£200.
It is being described as Freeview Mark 2. The BBC's director general Mark Thompson called it "potentially the holy grail of future public service broadcasting provision in the UK".
The service will run in addition to existing on-demand efforts such as BBC iPlayer and 4oD, and content on Canvas will require no extra subscription - just an existing broadband connection.
In January, a similar project (codenamed "Kangaroo") was blocked by the Competition Commission which ruled that it "would be too much of a threat to competition in this developing market and has to be stopped".
So what makes Canvas different, and can it succeed where Kangaroo failed?
Kangaroo was set to offer content from BBC Worldwide, Channel 4, and ITV all through one on-demand portal, and crucially over the open net to computers and without a set-top box.
Canvas, however, is touted as a platform, or a standard, allowing other broadcasters to jump on board. This may be the key difference. In simpler terms, where Kangaroo acted as a shop with selected products, Canvas will represent a shopping centre, with other outlets able to get involved.
"This proposal is founded upon partnership, and comes at a time when commercial public service broadcasters are facing unprecedented challenges," says the BBC's Erik Huggers, director of future media and technology.
Canvas could mean more net video stars make the leap to mainstream TV
"With our funding model and great content, we're in a unique position to innovate for the benefit of everyone. By converging the flexibility of the internet with the simplicity and reach of TV we can bring the power of the internet to a far wider audience," he adds.
In the US, a service named Hulu features content from the likes of Fox, Comedy Central and E! Entertainment in one single place. So, rather than having to get to each individual broadcaster's on-demand service to catch-up, users simply log on to Hulu.
Project Canvas will provide a similar experience - although through a set-top box connected to our televisions.
Net and TV
Interestingly, Hulu also provides an outlet for specific brands to offer content, such as the World Wrestling Entertainment channel, as well as web TV shows from the likes of Gamespot and CNet.
Web-only shows are not part of Project Canvas just yet, but should IPTV take off at the same rate as web-based on-demand catch-up, we could soon see YouTube stars gracing the living room.
Like Hulu, all Canvas programmes - with the obvious exception of BBC content - will be able to support their content with advertising. Channels could also offer premium content or subscriptions for a fee.
Critics say that the BBC should not be channelling licence fee funds into something which will also be used by other commercial channels. Others say that broadband speeds in the country may not be high enough to use the service to its full potential. However, plans to upgrade the UK's broadband infrastructure have recently been given the go-ahead.
Canvas could suffer without Sky's input, say market experts.
TalkTalk, which provides broadband to more than two million users in the UK, said that it has a "potentially unique role to play in the Canvas partnership," adding: "We are working on understanding the implications of the proposed Canvas IPTV proposition."
Brian Turner, editor of Techwatch.co.uk, believes the potential of Canvas is huge - but crucial commercial hurdles need to be overcome if it is to succeed. Notably, he says getting Sky involved in funding is the "800-pound gorilla in the room".
"Sky would need to be on board in some way," he says, adding that he believes Sky is likely to object after making considerable investment in IPTV and on-demand with its own Sky Player and Sky+ services.
If these boundaries can be overcome, Mr Turner also thinks the opportunity to have a better understanding of viewing habits would be a tremendous opportunity for targeted advertising.
"At the moment TV suffers from basically just blasting advertising across all the channels," he says. "It's not targeted at all. I could be watching hard rock music videos and I'll get an advert for soap."
The IPTV revolution could see a dramatic change in how the country enjoys its television. Gone will be set routines and running to the toilet during the adverts. In its place: a television schedule individually tailored to every single viewer.
The BBC Trust is set to announce its final decision on Project Canvas by 24 July 2009.