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Content Delivery and Consumer Behaviour with BT

Posted on May 18, 2024 by FEED Staff

Future of Content Distribution

During a field trip to BT Tower, FEED went behind the scenes, hearing how the telecoms titan is balancing content delivery with changes in consumer behaviour

Words by Katie Kasperson

On a grey December day, FEED rode to the top of the iconic BT Tower – of course for the stunning views – but also for an exclusive announcement from the broadcasting behemoth.

After a welcome from BT Group, we headed back down to the ground floor, where company directors from various departments discussed the past, present and future of content distribution – and the policy implications involved.

Traffic jam

As one of the world’s largest communications companies, BT Group is responsible for satellites, transmitters, fibre, broadband and mobile services, to name but a few.

According to Chris Bramley, BT’s managing director for network applications, services and group network architecture, around 90% of the UK’s content comes through BT Tower.

In short, BT keeps the country connected – an invaluable aspect of everyday life.

We’re only heading further into the digital age, with online traffic continuing to increase.

Peaks are higher than ever – largely due to live events, video game updates and television releases, which occasionally coincide.

For instance, 6 December – the day before BT’s event – saw a record peak in traffic, with multiple Premier League matches and a major update in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III.

This shows that there are still large audiences for live broadcasts – the royal coronation in 2023, for example, attracted 12 million viewers.

That said, TV is gradually migrating to IP. Content-based traffic will only keep expanding, with BT expecting a dramatic increase (500-600%) between now and 2030.

With new forms of entertainment, like virtual reality, coming to the fore – combined with a growing number of devices and greater demand for high-quality videos and graphics – connectivity will be more essential than ever.

New tech in town

During our discussion, we all landed on the same question: how will communications companies handle this consumer demand technically?

After years of market analysis, engineering and testing, BT Group is launching two new technologies.

The first, called MAUD – short for multicast-assisted unicast delivery – promises to make content distribution more efficient, sending one copy of a live feed per channel rather than one per viewer.

This solution will improve BT’s ability to distribute video streams and support online gaming while reducing network traffic.

According to Maria Cuevas, BT’s networks research director, live content is usually delivered via broadcast, unicast or multicast.

By combining unicast and multicast, BT is providing end users with the benefits of both, preserving the things that matter most: reliability, cost and picture quality.

While MAUD was the main event, BT also introduced its own vCDNs (virtual content-delivery networks). In the interest of flexibility, these software-based networks replace on-site physical servers, instead locating the closest virtual server that can meet a given request. The ‘nearer’ that server, the quicker the content delivery.

Virtual CDNs use less hardware, requiring less transport and thus less energy.

They also ensure consistent quality of experience within operational range, reducing buffer times for end users.

Lastly, they can cope with sudden spikes in traffic, as they can distribute their load across an entire virtualised network. In the era of cloud-based systems and edge computing, vCDNs are the logical next step.

Public policy

BT wrapped its seminar with a note on implications – not only for businesses and governments, but also for individual consumers.

The name Ofcom came up more than once, with Howard Watson, BT’s chief security and networks officer, summarising the organisation’s stance on net neutrality – or an individual’s control over their online activities.

In a post-Brexit world, the UK differs slightly from the EU in terms of public policy.

Ofcom’s guidance on net neutrality seemingly balances the concerns of the individual with those of providers, allowing them to offer ‘premium-quality’ and ‘zero-rating’ packages (unlike in the EU), develop ‘specialised services’ and institute ‘traffic-management’ measures.

Ultimately, the power of choice still lies with the consumer, though the providers play a key role in their protection and satisfaction.

Watson agreed with Bramley; the future will require universal, high-speed, reliable connectivity. “The number that grows slowly is the number of eyeballs in the country; however, the number of places they can look is growing rapidly,” he said. In other words, the rate of content growth is outpacing population growth, and providers need to keep pace.

Behind closed doors

FEED’s day finished with a tour of BT’s media centres, through a separate entrance and up a few floors.

Allowing BT employees to monitor and troubleshoot hundreds of signals in real time, the centres play an integral role in effective, uninterrupted content distribution.

With staff working in split shifts, there will always be someone on hand to ensure Britain stays connected.

Today, telecoms companies like BT are vital.

Connectivity enables almost everything we do, from accessing our bank accounts to communicating with friends and family to calling 999.

More specifically, content enriches both our professional and personal lives, entertaining and informing us. Without a proper distribution system for all this online traffic – one that keeps up with contemporary demands – our lives would look a whole lot different. 

This feature was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of FEED.

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