In a strategic partnership, BT’s media and broadcast division (M&B) and Digital 3&4 (D3&4) (the organisation responsible for the encoding, multiplexing and terrestrial broadcasting of ITV and Channel 4 [C4] services) combined innovation, collaboration, and a wealth of expertise to overhaul the Freeview network.
Turning it into a dynamic, all-IP, high bandwidth, software-defined platform, the evolution is empowering public service broadcasters (PSBs) with greater control, via encoding and multiplexing at a national scale, enhanced ability to support more channels and at a higher quality, richer reporting, deeper diagnostics, as well as regional scalability.
The cornerstone of UK programming
Still accounting for the majority of television viewing in UK households, PSBs have long been a cornerstone of programming content creation and delivery. In Q3 2020, 17 million households viewed terrestrial services, compared to the 15 million that accessed Netflix. The coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted their importance to society too. In April 2020, households watched 3 hours 46 minutes a day, on average, of broadcast television (an increase of 32 minutes from April 2019), with most of the increase due to news viewing.
They must keep evolving, though. The Freeview network is relied on by tens of millions of us – Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) – it has been truly reliable but changing consumer habits and the growth of over-the-top (OTT) players means PSBs must look at how they can deliver greater value. This means investment and, crucially, a new approach to network management.
But upgrading is no simple task because when it comes to updating and modernising broadcasters’ workflows, that strength and reliability can also be the hurdle. The sheer complexity and scale of these systems can’t be overstated, and their importance means PSBs have absolutely no room for mistakes within their technology stack. Nor do they have time to go off-air to work on any upgrades; their output must be constant. Even just a few seconds of downtime is enough to trigger complaints from viewers and raise concerns around meeting Ofcom’s reliability requirements. Compare this with buffering on streaming platforms, where viewers will happily wait a few seconds for their favourite show to load.
Faced with such a daunting, complex minefield and needing to evolve to give greater abilities to ITV and C4, D3&4 moved early and began a planning process that consisted of comprehensive market analysis. Developing a new platform that is future-proof and able to grow along with PSBs requires an in-depth understanding of what technologies are available now and also in the future, so that any new innovation can be incorporated seamlessly.
D3&4 needed a strategic partner and BT Media & Broadcast, which had been prepping in the background for such an evolution of the Freeview network, rose to the challenge.
Every use case considered to create an inclusive platform
BT M&B has underpinned the current Freeview network to date. Its network and expertise have been supporting D3&4 for decades with it consistently pushing the boundaries of innovation and service to ensure reliability remained high. As such, it was the perfect partner to help D3&4 discover the value from a new platform and ability to integrate wider services.
The two organisations have developed a tailor-made solution and collaboration and openness were key to the entire procurement process. D3&4 communicated with each stakeholder – from vendors and broadcasters to the end-consumers themselves – to allow for every single use case to be catered for, meaning a solution which benefits the entire ecosystem, not simply one party. BT’s IP platform is an inclusive network that brings organisations together to deliver powerful content and brilliant experiences.
Moreover, all stakeholders needed richer reporting with deeper diagnostics to better understand the health of their workflows, which will be supported by the new platform.
To enhance capabilities further, BT M&B added even more expertise to the project by collaborating with video delivery specialist Ateme. The latter’s knowledge will enable PSBs with encoding and multiplexing for distribution straight to consumers, giving them greater control over how they provide for audiences. When this capability is combined with BT’s evolved network, the two brands are developing a powerful offering to a new market area.
What is also imperative is that BT M&B continue to maintain the current network the entire time the new one is being developed and delivered. No drop-outs in channels or quality, no impact to the viewer experience. This reliability is critical to the future platform as it provides the stable foundations the enhanced coding and multiplexing services are built on.
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Empowering PSBs to deliver brilliant experiences
The new network and baseband encoding services means D3&4 will no longer be restricted to expensive, proprietary broadcasting compression equipment, which are more challenging and require vast expertise to tweak and evolve. Simply put, BT M&B has removed the shackles of legacy tech through a cloud-based all-IP approach.
By introducing modernised software-defined encoding and multiplexing, the new network is empowering it with much greater management and cost efficiency. It can now use more readily available computer hardware which can be configured to match exactly what they need and more easily upgraded so that compressors can be constantly enhanced. The PSBs can also make use of common data centre technology stacks, using standard racks and virtualising. This means the cloud – both public and private – can be used as the delivery mechanism, adding untold flexibility and scalability to the mix.
Moreover, greater bandwidth efficiency will enable D3&4 to support further channels on top of the 12
the older network could, and at the existing performance level in MPEG-2 SD. New channels allow for new content and revenue streams. Business flexibility is also provided in the ability to scale in specific regions and more targeted advertising down to individual transmitter site.
All of these benefits combine to provide PSBs with greater cost efficiencies which gives them increased resources to invest back into operations. Whether that means investing in enhancing services, infrastructure, or content, it’s the viewer that benefits.
Ultimately, for PSBs globally to keep delivering the service that much of the UK depends on, they must upgrade the networks they rely on. The task is fraught with complexities, but the project between BT M&B and D3&4 shows that it can be done. Unparalleled expertise alongside a desire to innovate has resulted in the development of a new modern Freeview network. Able to evolve and grow as ITV and C4 do, it’s empowering them to deliver brilliant experiences for viewers whose habits are forever changing.