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Streaming Forum Keynote: BT Brings OTT and Broadcast Together
The war between over-the-top and broadcast video is over, and both sides won. In its Streaming Forum opening day keynote, BT explains the strategy and challenges of creating a multi-screen experience.

The broadcast and OTT worlds are colliding at pace across the globe, and if any company can be said to be the epitome of this it is U.K. telco BT.

“It is much better to think of OTT and broadcast holistically,” said Dr. Mike Rizzo, head of IPTV Solutions for BT TV and BT Sport, in today's opening keynote address at Streaming Forum 2017 in London.

“This applies at the back-end in terms of sharing technology as much as at the customer presentation level, and results in more cost-efficient overall delivery and much better customer experience.

“OTT and traditional STB are coming together and it doesn’t make sense to see them as two different things,” he said.

Rizzo admitted, though, that OTT—typified by Netflix—had been seen as a threat by BT and other telcos in previous years.

“Here was a company with very low upfront costs, no networks cost, playing the net neutrality card and the real kicker was that if there was a problem with the service it was the ISP and operator who got the blame,” Rizzo said.  “If you are playing in both camps, as BT does, you can’t push the customer back to the network operator because we are the network.”

While there was tension between OTT and broadcast, Rizzo claimed this is no longer the case at BT.

“We realised that adopting an approach which pitted broadcast against OTT was not conducive to the customer experience, so we set about bringing the two together.”

It wasn’t obvious, though, what an OTT service provided by a telco should look like.

BT built its strategy around four tenants:

  • Multi network—meaning BT (and, by extension, any telco) should be “network aware” and able to do things differently for the consumer by exerting some control over a third-party network or partnering with an operator
  • Multi-screen—which includes looking to deliver to fixed devices like connected TVs and game consoles, as well as mobile devices
  • Multi retail—by making certain advanced features available to selected customers (Rizzo pointed out that BT resells Netflix and Netflix is paid through BT’s billing system, so the relationship is between OTT and pay TV is blurring here, too.)
  • First and second screen—there should be no differentiation since, as far as a customer is concerned, they only bought on service (“You need an OTT offer that is consistent and seamless with second screen as it is with the STB,” Rizzo said.)

BT put this philosophy into action in the summer of 2013 when it launched the BT Sport app across iOS, Android, and desktop.

The only hiccup, Rizzo admitted, was a failure to correctly forecast the volume of uptake around sports (particularly soccer) events.

Mike Rizzo BT Sport BT TV“In the run-up to a game we’d see a sudden massive spike of people logging in (via authentication protocol BT ID). While the cloud really worked in terms of scale and elasticity, the on-premises authentication was a bottleneck that gave us grief," Rizzo said. "We addressed this by adding vertical capacity on the premises side but it will be an area we will continue to watch closely as we grow because it may happen again.”

After landing the rights to show a raft of UEFA Champions League and Europa League games for the 2015 season, BT took another leap forward.

“We needed more channels to cover 350 matches a season, 12 of them on certain match days being concurrent.”

BT launched BT Sport Europe (now BT Sport 3), a number of "pop-up" channels, and introduced the world’s first live UHD channel.

Arguably the highlight was a revamped interactive service which was not limited to OTT. Since BT couldn’t cover 12 matches simultaneously over traditional IPTV multicast to a set-top box, it used the OTT player to show all the available games. Working with digital specialists Deltatre, BT enhanced the player with interactive features including a timeline of events, line-ups, tactics, text commentary, and a user-selectable multicam view.

“This was about taking full advantage of direct connectivity with the customer when working in a pure OTT environment," Rizzo said.

BT transitioned the same interactive presentation (minus multi-cam) to customers with a set-top box via the connected Red Button. BT accomplished this with an HTML5 layer running in a browser on top of the broadcast video.

Feedback was positive and showed audiences for UEFA matches rising 45 percent year-on-year between August 2015 and March 2016.

“We learned several key lessons from this work,” Rizzo explained. “Using cloud, we were quickly able to add in the interactive features and launch new channels. We were able to launch confidently because we had already engaged with groups of customers prior to launch in the development process.”

Rizzo emphasized that it pays to take a holistic view of the customer experience.

“We don’t see OTT as one and broadcast as another. We looked at them together including sharing assets like using the same source of data for events for feeding timeline and stats for both applications.”

Rizzo also stressed the importance of user-centric navigation.

“The user doesn’t care about channels—they care about matches. Or, to put it another way, they care about content. The experience should reflect that.”

BT’s approach suggests that OTT technology can be used in broadcast workflows. “Don’t pigeonhole technology,” Rizzo said. “The idea that HTML5 is just an OTT tech is no longer the case.”

The telco is now in the process of extending these platform ideas to its wider TV proposition.

BT has begun rolling out a next-generation customer experience (CX) on STBs (including YouView, the digital terrestrial television (DTT) service it shares with other UK broadcasters including the BBC), to be followed by a TV app in July. The CX is built on a carousel model, surfacing additional rental and electronic sell-through content.

“In the process of building this we continue to apply learnings from sport,” Rizzo explained. “For example, customers have a range of different viewing options, but at the end of the day it’s all content so if you’re going to recommend content it doesn’t matter if it's broadcast or on-demand. The carousel will contain references to programming on live TV as well as on-demand."

The CX is also designed to offer a seamless experience across all devices, with the navigation structure fed to all devices simultaneously including the STB.

The back-end solutions also share resources. They are API-driven which, Rizzo said, helps deliver a consistent experience across devices and lowers operational costs. BT also relies on a common head-end for encoding and packaging for all platforms.

“We are starting to look at multicast and conversion," Rizzo said. "At the moment, pure unicast is OTT-only, but we could deliver more efficiently by converting to ABR at the network edge and unicast from there.

“We don’t have multi-cam on the STB today, but there’s no reason not to do it. We could have PiP with one stream from traditional broadcast and another coming over the net delivered by ABR.”

Like many telcos, BT is starting from a legacy platform which is challenging to evolve and sluggish with experimentation. BT has started moving toward micro-services which, over time, will replace what Rizzo dubbed the legacy “monolith.”

“Embrace cloud where appropriate to be able to spin up an environment at any time and for continuous, agile delivery,” Rizzo urged.

“We’re starting to do more A/B testing showing some customers certain features and seeing how their responses compare with those that don’t get the features.

“It is surprising how much common technology can be reused across the traditional broadcast and OTT world,” Rizzo said. “This includes using HTML5 code across STB and other devices, a common format for content protection based on DASH (with HLS for Apple) and common VOD workflows.”

Other services that gain from convergence include Restart TV and Network PVR (“It makes no sense to operate them as separate services whether it’s carried over OTT or not.”), and social TV (where a live TV clip could be shared on a user’s social media).

Further down the line, the boundaries will blur to be non-existent for concepts like object-based broadcasting where components of the broadcast stream—graphics, audio—would be transmitted separately and turned on or off according to the end-users' screen device or context.

BT is part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 2-IMMERSE project examining object-based broadcasting, and has trialed the concept around statistically-laden motorsport MotoGP.

Rizzo revealed one feature BT is prototyping is the ability to "throw" a stream from a multicast view on a second screen to the main screen. The key challenge here is matching latency so the OTT and broadcast feeds, as well as all metadata about objects, are synchronous.

With the EU about to legislate the ability for customers to "carry" their video subscriptions across boundaries within the European Union, Rizzo said BT was prepared.

“We use Akamai and Limelight CDNs to deliver video so we could easily open up the current geo-restrictions on content rights to the whole of Europe if we need to. The plan is we will do that, but we need to work through the exact legal ruling. We think initially this will only be of benefit to our customers who are resident in the U.K. (and who wish to stream content when in rest of Europe).”

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