John Linwood CTO, BBC

The eyes of the world will be on the United Kingdom and the BBC during the next few months as the summer Olympics begin in London. The BBC, one of the world’s largest broadcasters, is set for a huge year because of this and they are ready for the enormous media interest that comes with it. John Linwood, the BBC’s CTO, is responsible for shaping the broadcaster’s technology strategy and making sure the BBC has everything in place when covering these large events. Beyond the immediate challenges, Linwood talks about how the broadcaster aims to use satellite technology to make its operations more efficient. 

VIA SATELLITE: How is the way people/households want to view content changing the dynamics of broadcasting? How would you describe the pace of change?

Linwood: It is a question we spend a lot of time thinking about. We think about what a broadcaster will be in 2016 and what a broadcaster will be in 2020. I think that we are clearly seeing a significant increase in the amount of content that is consumed online. If you look at the overall statistics, 86 percent of TV is still linear. So, consumption of TV is still linear. 1.5 percent is online, and the rest is time shifted. The mass switchover to online hasn’t happened.

We are seeing phenomenal growth in mobile and online, but not yet a decline in terms of linear broadcasting. It is anybody’s guess when the tipping point might happen. With interactive television coming out and broadband connections, more content will be consumed online, and we have to assume that people will consume more and more of their linear content online. In 2016, we think it will be a lot further ahead than it is today. But four or five years ago, we thought now people would be getting 80 percent of their content online, we are now much more cautious in our view. We still think by 2020 linear broadcasting will be the predominant method in which people access content. 

VIA SATELLITE: What are the major technology/infrastructure challenges facing the BBC this year? What major projects/initiatives are you working on?

Linwood: We are rolling out our digital production platform this year and making big investments online. We are upgrading all of our online capacity and bringing in additional router and bandwidth capacity to support the fantastic growth in mobile and satellite.

VIA SATELLITE: In a broadcasters panel we did at SATELLITE 2012, there was a lot of talk about providing content in different formats and being able to push this content out in a more flexible way. Where are your plans regarding this?

Linwood: We are doing a lot of work here. With the digital production systems, the big change is that we have a single pipe through the BBC in terms of our content commissioning, scheduling and production, whether it is going out to traditional linear networks or to an on-demand world. That is a fundamental change of where we have been in the past and how we produce and deliver our content. Now we are moving to file-based and going to linear playout. This allows us to transcode the content and push it all to different devices, as well as our digital playout. iPlayer is on multiple devices and every week that goes by new devices come into the market on which we have to make the iPlayer available. As we extend the iPlayer window, we must think about transcoding.

The recent challenge is, we have one week’s worth of content, and when a new device comes along, there isn’t a massive amount of content that you have to transcode for a new device. If you start to extend that window, you end up with massive amounts of content, and if a new device comes along, do you go back and reformat all of that content to the new device, or do you do it on-demand? We haven’t decided on how we are going to do that, but one of the things we are looking at is mezzanine formats and formats of digital content. These are in harshly transcoded form, but when a new device comes along, we can transcode from that format to support the new device. We also look at what we do in terms of dynamic transcoding. We have different models in terms of on-demand and how we cache content. As devices get less and less used, we don’t want to have to hold all that content in the new formats. We are moving to a new model where the most frequently hit content will already be transcoded and the fringe content will be on-demand. 

VIA SATELLITE: How do you see satellite technology fitting into the broadcast landscape? Do you see your demands for satellite capacity going up, or are you moving more towards fiber?

Linwood: Satellite is very important to us for content distribution. It reaches a large number of homes in the United Kingdom. For many homes, it is the only way they can get television. The BBC will continue to deliver its content on satellite, as long as satellite remains a primary way for people to consume content.

There are several challenges, of course. Regional and local programming is very expensive because, unlike DTT where we can put a different signal out in each region, finding a footprint that covers the United Kingdom is challenging. So, if I want to have regional versions of all of our TV channels, then it becomes very expensive on satellite. One of the things we are looking at is whether we can sustain the number of red button channels that we have. Clearly, we are looking at HD and SD, and we have to examine all of the regional variations of that. There are a large number of different channels that we have to put out on satellite and the costs for satellite are not going down, they are going up. We live in a fixed-price revenue economy, and we are looking at this myriad of channels that we have to provide over satellite and the fact that costs are increasing is a real challenge. But for the time being, we are committed to satellite. Clearly, we are always looking at whether we can pack in more to the transponder. We rolled out DVB-S2 technology, and that allows us to compress more channels in HD for SD type capacity. We will continue to look at compression technologies and how we can pack more channels in the amount of bandwidth we have on the satellite.

Satellite acquisition remains critical to us, whether on BGAN or on other platforms, and we are doing a lot of VSAT on mobile vehicles. We are a global news organization and we report from areas that don’t have fixed infrastructure, so satellite is critical for us, and increasingly so in this area. It is not going away at all.

VIA SATELLITE: Have you been satisfied with the development of compression technologies?

Linwood: Everybody thinks that compression follows Moore’s Law and that the industry will continue to get better compression. The bottom line is you can’t. If you want to have a quality signal, there is a finite limit in terms of what you can do and where you can go from this. While we are interested in this and always trialing new compression technologies, I am also very cautious. The reality is where you have multiple dynamic streams, particularly when you have live streams, there is a limit to how much compression you can do in terms of the time it takes to compress, as well as the reality of what you can compress without losing the signal. We are continuing to invest time and effort in looking at new compression technologies, but I am also realistic. We are not going to see 20 channels going down a single multiplex in the future. 

VIA SATELLITE: What other technology changes are you looking for to make your jobs easier?

Linwood: Multi-cast on the Web is critical for us. If you look at the U.K. infrastructure, it is in danger of melting down. Certainly with the Olympics coming up, we are deeply concerned with the amount of digital data that will be going across the Internet. We are interested in IPTV connectivity and potentially satellite mixed with IPTV connectivity, allowing viewers to watch content using a satellite feed, but having the ability to pause live TV using a broadband link. We are also really interested in synchronizing interactive content with broadcast content. It is relatively easy in terms of linear broadcast or a live broadcast. It becomes much harder in terms of an iPlayer experience or a time shifted experience because, suddenly, you don’t know when people are going to be watching that content, and you have to work out how to keep it in sync with their mobile device, for example.

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