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Serving content to those who serve

British Forces Broadcasting Services gives the UK’s service men and women around the world a taste of home

Production – Case Study //images// IMG_2412.JPG Caption: Content is repackaged before being sent around the world IMG_2416.jpg Caption: BFBS runs 18 radio stations worldwide IMG_2424.JPG Caption: 

British Forces Broadcasting Services is part of Services Sound and Vision Corporation, a non-profit charity tasked with providing British military personnel around the world with entertainment and information. Last year BFBS entirely refurbished its studios, located in the countryside outside London.

With the motto “To serve those who serve”, the broadcaster delivers TV and radio around the clock on 15 channels which are broadcast via encrypted satellite to an audience of 25,000 in 24 countries and to Royal Navy ships at sea. The charity also provides 18 radio channels, which operate from Gibraltar to the Falklands.

In 2013, a ten-year contract with the UK’s Ministry of Defence, allowed for a facilities upgrade. Systems integrator dB Broadcast rebuilt the BFBS playout workflow from the ground up. The new facilities feature SAM ICE channel-in-a-box with Morpheus automation, a Provys traffic system and IPV’s Curator Media Asset Management based on Cisco hardware, as well as Axon Synapse signal processing, Arbor mass ingest recording and NetApp storage.

Axon Digital Design’s Cerebrum monitoring and control platform link up the broadcast equipment using either SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) or third party protocols.

Acquiring content

BFBS content is acquired from a number of different sources, principally via the live feeds of British broadcasters. You could say that BFBS are the country’s only authorised content pirates. Feeds from the major UK broadcasters are captured and edited, before being transmitted. A team at BFBS edits out interstitial voice overs, time-sensitive calls to action and commericals and repackages the content for consumption. The troops get a “best of” the home programming.

“What we do is reverse engineer it and mark all the points of interest,” explains Hunter Adair, head of technology services at BFBS.

“We have relationships with the copyright holders. We have a rights department where we have two people working on that. Because of who we are, we have some special arrangements. Therefore sometimes companies will provide the content for almost nothing. Especially sporting events. We’re a not-for-profit organisation and we’re here to provide welfare for British military personnel overseas.”

Occasionally material is sent to BFBS via FTP or even removable media. Old episodes of the classic US series M*A*S*H, for example, still come on tape. And BFBS produces its own content too, including news.

“For capturing the dirty feeds from broadcasters, we use satellite receivers. We have 10 receivers that are tuneable. We also have a mass ingest unite which allows us to ingest 24 channels simultaneously. It’s a piece of kit called Arbor Media Logdepot. It’s like a VCR on steroids, and it keeps the content for 10 days. It’s first in, first out.”

“We compile a lot of premium kids content too – primarily for people in Cyprus. The young audience in Cyprus is quite important. We’ve asked them what kind of content they want and they always say: it’s kids programmes.”

A virtual studio produces original BFBS news and sports content

Reaching remote locations

“We always have to think of various innovative ways of getting the media to the soldiers,” says Adair. “Some would say, just get your iPad out or your mobile device. But that’s not so easy when you’re in the middle of a desert.”

In some locations BFBS will put up a DTT transmitter, which will receives and distributes all the BFBS channels. Troops in the area can then plug a USB DTT dongle into a laptop to watch television in their bed space.

BFBS uses DTH as well and uses four satellites which cover a large part of the globe. The DTH services are provided usingBFBS-branded set-top boxes, provided by Technosat, with BFBS’s own middleware inside.

BFBS also provides gimbal dishes on British ships and some ships can use the bespoke BFBS Player which allows sailors to download to a device, like a laptop, from a menu of content while the device is charging.

At the end of the day, we want to provide the same services as you’d get in the UK

20,000 DVD’s under the sea

The very nature of military deployment often means the audience is separated from a broadcast or streaming signal. How do you get caught up on the news when you’re in a submarine for weeks on end? Or in an isolated detachment that’s far from any telecommunications link or outside the satellite footprint?

To that end, BFBS has a huge DVD pressing service. The organisation authors and ships about 25,000 DVD’s per year and the time from it being captured on air to its arrival with a unit can be as low as week.

“At the end of the day, we want to provide the same services as you’d get in the UK. That is the future,” says Adair. “But how we provide that is always a technological challenge.”

Like any organisation in the technology sector, BFBS is currently undergoing change, especially with the majority of British troops increasingly based in the UK. The new types of deployment present new opportunities for reaching military stakeholders.

The BFBS R&D department is continuously working on new solutions, including the potential of cloud and streaming technologies, which could offer military personnel and their families media services beyond radio and television. Whatever the military’s media needs may be, BFBS is ready to deploy.