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How the BBC’s connectivity strategy keeps us switched on

Wed 23 Jan 2019 | Ross Kemp

The way in which we consume television and radio continues to change, as John Bensalhia discovers in a discussion with the BBC’s Ross Kemp

Founded in 1922, and credited as being the world’s oldest national broadcasting organisation, the BBC is an institution with nearly a century of notable achievements. But it’s not resting on its laurels, as head of connectivity architecture, Ross Kemp explains.

“Throughout the BBC’s history, we’ve had a reputation for harnessing the latest technologies and mediums to inform, educate and entertain our licence-fee paying audience in the UK, as well as radio, television and online audiences across the world.”

Ross works in the technology strategy and architecture group, whose mission is to transform the BBC’s technology for the future. He is mandated to define and deliver a connectivity strategy that enables the BBC to be ready for an online-first audience whilst overseeing the exacting demands of a traditional broadcast network.

The days of the nation sitting down as one to watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special are behind us. There are more channels and more ways of consuming content. The BBC’s audience has more choices and is much more discerning than in the days of yore.

There’s also the challenge of Netflix, Amazon and Apple, who have lured away many of the younger audience that the BBC needs to engage with. How has the BBC adapted to meet these challenges? Its stated aim is online first – get the BBC’s key content available over the internet (and therefore to internet devices) as soon as possible.

Channel crossing

The rate of change over the BBC’s first century has been exponential.

“The last 20 years have seen more significant change in how content is made and published by the BBC and consumed by its audience than in the previous 80,” Ross explains.

In addition to the world-class television and radio programmes produced by the BBC, technology plays a key role in, what used to be called, new media.

The BBC dipped its toes in the new media world about 20 years ago and rapidly became indispensable with the launch of the BBC’s website (http://www.bbc.co.uk) in 1997.

“In just a few years, this became a stand-out, go-to destination for news and current affairs,” says Ross.

“The days of the nation sitting down as one to watch the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special are behind us”

A decade later saw the launch of BBC iPlayer, which, according to Ross ‘became the de facto, gold standard for content-rich internet streaming and catch-up viewing’.

Advances in technology transform traditional television and radio into multimedia experiences, which can enrich viewing and listening. These include audio description, which makes video accessible to blind or partially sighted viewers.

Another advance is subtitled programming, making the consumption of live television more appealing for the hard of hearing, and bringing convenience for mobile audiences where speakers or headphones aren’t practical.

Meanwhile, second screens enhance and personalise the audience experience. Imagine watching the big event on your main screen whilst statistics and additional material tailored to you appear on your phone.

This is the new world the BBC wishes to live in.

“New technology, and in particular, improved networks and the quality of mobile devices, mean that audiences now have more choice of how and when they consume video and audio than ever before,” says Ross.

Welcome to our network

Ross’ challenge was to deliver a network capable of serving the BBC and its audience for the next decade. The result is a sophisticated network world’s apart from conventional communications service providers

“Recognising the pace of change and the likely ambitions of content makers and consumers for increasingly higher quality whether that’s picture definition or frame-rate, multi-speaker audio or increased colour depth, we needed a network of sufficient capacity and flexibility.”

Another challenge was the transition from old to new.

“We also needed to deliver it without taking any of our services off-air. Success would be defined by no one noticing the changes we were making underneath at the time!”

The new network builds on the many positives of its predecessors and adapts to pinch-points and challenges. Adapting ethernet as the ubiquitous transport layer, the new network uses the established standards for audio and video encapsulation via a common infrastructure.

Ross believes that, with the establishment of the new network, the BBC is well placed to embrace an audience-led future.

“We’ve a good idea of what audience-led means, but if the reality doesn’t match our current understanding, we can adapt quickly to meet new and unforeseen trends and appetites.”

Video encapsulation: For multimedia data streams to be useful in stored or transmitted form, they must be encapsulated together in a container format. File formats (e.g .mov, .mp4) are the containers that hold all this information

Time and again, the BBC has proven itself adept at adapting as to its audience’s continually evolving expectations. It’s not just changes in the way its audience consumes. The BBC is currently building a new and technologically pioneering home for BBC Wales in the heart of Cardiff, which will feature the BBC’s first fully IP-cored production facility.

“When programme-making staff begin to occupy the facility later this year, it will mark the culmination of around seven years of work since the original concepts were drafted, and at a time when being fully IP was seen as truly pioneering,” says Ross.

Mission (IP)possible

It is not a venture for the faint-hearted. The precision of timing required for an IP core is still a matter of debate among practitioners and academics, and Ross notes that the interoperability between different manufacturers’ equipment remains a constant challenge.

While radio has always been mobile, a static television set was once the only way to enjoy your favourite programmes. But times have changed. Television’s content can be enjoyed on the go, thanks to advances in technology and network connectivity.

Ross believes the way forward for video and audio consumption is mobile first. He’s not alone in this view: television manufacturers are already building emergent 5G standards into their ‘sets’. Whilst internet first is the BBC’s mantra, mobile is not far behind.

Ross also feels that there is room for both the mobile device and the big screen – the role currently performed by the TV – in the home. 

“As the mobile device increasingly lives alongside traditional television and radio, I believe that as platforms mature and network connectivity becomes ubiquitous, of more significant capacity, and more reliable, traditional devices will be replaced with screens and speakers which can play out content on demand.”

“I believe that the unique place held, particularly by radio, as a friend in the room will persist”

Ross notes other emerging technologies that will also affect the audience experience. One of these is voice interaction – an environment where radio and podcast content can be readily consumed, but which offers a more personalised, conversational model that traditional broadcast.

“The BBC’s working on this,” says Ross. “If you’re familiar with Alexa, I’d recommend experimenting with the BBC Skill.”

Watch when you wish, not when you must

Other burgeoning technologies include 5G connectivity and hugely improved coverage and bandwidth which will be the key to ‘ubiquity’; and connected autonomous vehicles which will increasingly diversify the spaces in which the audience can access content.

“You could be sharing a UHD movie with the family in the car in a few years.”

But what role is left for good old-fashioned traditional broadcasting? Ross says its too premature to disregard it just yet.

“I do not believe the ‘channel’ and linear television and radio will have gone away. Far from it. I believe that the unique place held, particularly by radio, as a friend in the room will persist. We will all still want a mix of content curated for us.

“Machine learning can track our activity and the application of AI can recommend what, courtesy of what we’ve already consumed, we might also like. But the broadcasting industry of tomorrow, just like the music halls of past generations, will still have a unique place in entertaining our audiences.”

The BBC will keep families watching at home on their big screens, whilst meeting the needs of the ‘I’ll watch it if and when I want’ generation.

Join me at Cloud Expo Europe.

Ross is presenting at this year’s Cloud Expo Europe, taking place at the ExCeL London March 12-13th. CEE and its colocated events attract over 20,000 IT industry professionals.

Experts featured:

Ross Kemp

Head of Connectivity Architecture


BBC Cloud connectivity
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