Building a Connected Britain
This is a summary of the keynote presentation that I gave this morning at the FT World Telecoms Conference 2010.
BBC's Six Public Purposes
Today I want to tell you about what the BBC is doing to help build a 'connected' Britain. The BBC's sixth public purpose is to deliver to the public the benefits of emerging communications technologies and services. Pioneering technologies and platform innovation is enshrined in the BBC's Charter. Our Research & Development department has been instrumental in the development of digital television, DVBT-2, HD, DAB Radio and much more. I'm proud of the great content and services that the BBC produces and delivers, and our mission to help get people online. But there are problems that we need to overcome in order to realise the potential of a fully-connected Britain; the state of networks (a lack of investment and demand driving that investment), and device fragmentation (a lack of common standards). We all must work together to confront these challenges and to protect the open, neutral internet.
The 2012 Digital Opportunity
London 2012 provides a huge digital opportunity. The BBC holds digital media rights for the Olympics and is committed to collaborating with internet service providers (ISPs) and mobile networks to ensure the Olympics are the most inclusive and connected yet. What's more, Digital Switchover will be complete by the advent of the games so everybody should be able to follow, participate in, and contribute to one of the greatest national celebrations in living memory. However, there are challenges to overcome on the route to a fully-connected Olympics.
Building better, and better used networks
While substantial private investment is needed to roll-out out networks that are faster, and more widely available, public investment will make an important contribution. From 2013, there will be a ring-fence in the licence fee of £150 million for broadband, consistent with the BBC's public purpose to promote the benefits of emerging technologies. The roll-out of superfast broadband is a Government priority. It could help to tackle the UK's 'notspots' where there is currently no internet access and would encourage organisations like the BBC to develop the services of tomorrow. We believe that new content and services which are unique to the medium - and awareness of those services - will play an equally important role in driving broad consumer adoption.
Helping People Get Online
Building a connected Britain will mean breaking down barriers to involvement. There are 7 million unconnected homes in the UK and 9.2 million people have never been online. It means that many people don't yet have access to BBC services like BBC iPlayer, nor to a vast range of other content, such as Government services online. There are a number of reasons for this - these people may be uninterested, but they may also be in need of support and information to help them get started. In common with the population as a whole, they may not have access to superfast networks nor a compelling reason to want to use them.
The BBC is already involved in exciting campaigns promoting the benefits of broadband. Take, for example, the recent BBC First Click campaign which helped people take the first steps to getting connected within the nationwide Get Online Week. We were delighted with the results - we received thousands of calls to the advice line in the first few weeks, and many people booked themselves onto courses to take the first steps to getting connected (you can see one of the on-air trails below). It's great to see the industry pulling together to give people confidence to get online and I hope we see many more initiatives like this in the near future.
Creating focused Internet Services
By focusing our digital presence we'll be able to offer more compelling online experiences to new and existing users. In March of this year we announced a new strategy - Putting Quality First. Central to this strategy is a proposal to transform BBC Online by doing 'fewer things better'. BBC Online (which receives c.32 million unique users a week and is rated 4th in the UK) started life as a text publishing medium which, as the web matured, continued to grow. To help us rationalise this collection of sites and pages we'll be refining our editorial scope and will focus on five key product portfolios. I have outlined this proposal in more detail elsewhere. Our ambition is to deliver great digital products that drive consumer demand for quality online services. We have a great heritage in doing this. For instance, when BBC iPlayer was launched in 2007 the market for online catch-up TV was negligible, which is hard to imagine based on record results of October when there were 139 million requests for programmes.
Fragmentation and competing technologies threaten to stifle digital innovation and cause higher costs. We live in a crazy world where every manufacturer or software company has their own proprietary system. It's been necessary for us to build more than 40 different variants of BBC iPlayer for different platforms and devices. It would be a great shame if fragmentation of the mobile and TV market stifled the development of online services for UK audiences, so I'm pleased that by supporting Youview the BBC can contribute to striking a balance in the market dominated by pay TV options. Open standards are critical to the growth of our creative economy, foster simplicity for the market, and broaden consumer choice.
I've previously talked about HTML5. Let me be clear: the BBC fully supports HTML5 and we will adopt it where appropriate. We are in the process of appointing a Senior Technologist, Internet Standards to work with the W3C and other standards bodies to move this forward because we believe it can help overcome the fragmentation I talked about earlier.
Maintaining an Open, Neutral Internet
Maintaining an open and neutral internet is critical. It's very easy to take the internet for granted but in reality it's transformed the way we communicate and is the lens through which so many of us see the world. So, it's critical that there's continued investment in next-generation networks to cope with the growth of and demand for compelling content and digital services. In the meantime, I'm concerned by recent developments whereby ISPs discriminate in favour of certain traffic based on who provides it. In an era of fierce competition, it's understandable that some network operators might look to gain commercial advantage by charging for content distribution. I've blogged previously about my thoughts on traffic management but plainly, an open and neutral internet is crucial to the growth of our digital economy. Further, there is a need for consumers to know what sort of broadband package they are buying - or switching to - and the level of service they can expect. The market is not yet sufficiently competitive to make switching easy.
To this end, our R&D team are developing a prototype meter to show consumers in real-time how efficiently BBC iPlayer is being delivered by their ISP - with a simple red, amber, green indicator. In addition, we propose to work with the industry to discuss the possibility of a "kitemark" to denote levels of different broadband package capability in simple, easy-to-understand language.
Furthermore, we are ready to engage with ISPs to help reduce network congestion by introducing adaptive bitrate streaming technologies which use the HTTP protocol and can be cached on the ISP networks. We also believe that the industry should embrace and enable multicasting delivery, something we have been championing for many years because it would dramatically reduce congestion for live streaming.
A Track Record in Driving Digital Media Adoption
The BBC can play an important role in driving digital media adoption and working with partners to develop technologies and services that really work and allow fantastic competition. Digital TV has been a huge success. Freeview is found in 18.7 million homes and you can buy a box now for as little as £30. It has brought the benefits of interactivity and paved the way for next-generation IPTV services. It was the open standards which the BBC, in partnership with the industry, helped develop that broadened manufacturing options and hastened adoption of the medium.
I hope that we can bring this experience to bear for broadband.
Erik Huggers is Director of BBC Future Media & Technology