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BBC Online - our mobile future

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Erik Huggers Erik Huggers | 11:45 UK time, Wednesday, 17 February 2010

As Director of Future Media and Technology, I'm responsible for future-proofing the BBC in many respects - delivering technologies to serve the public in a fragmented digital age and keeping our output online and on air.

Today I gave a keynote address at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. This event brings together the mobile industry, and I shared our plans to make BBC Online even more accessible on mobiles, and what the industry can do collectively to further open up the huge potential of mobile for the benefit of the audience. I've given an outline of my presentation below, and would be keen to hear any feedback.


The BBC's R&D division has been at the heart of the global broadcast engineering industry for more than sixty years. From the Home Service, one service on one platform, to the multiple services on multiple platforms we run today, we've both innovated in technology to enable us to deliver public services free at the point of use, and innovated in content creation accordingly.

Evolution takes time. Early TV programmes were essentially visual recordings of radio programmes, but programme makers grew to understand the medium and TV took its rightful place alongside radio as a second platform.

We are at a similar turning point in the internet age. We still, in the most part, define our digital agenda through the lens of broadcast output, and rightly so. But times are changing, and the internet is taking its place alongside TV and radio as a third platform in its own right.


BBC Online has evolved throughout its 12 year history. The service licence allows us offer mobile access to BBC Online, bringing increased public value to audiences. Ten years ago, we launched BBC Online's first WAP site. Later, we added graphics and after that audio/ video. This has helped BBC Online to establish itself as the second most-visited mobile website in the UK.


Usage grew fast in mid-2008, as this graph shows - driven by the uptake in smartphones, and developments to user-experience. We expect growth to continue.

Major events create usage spikes. The UK's heavy snowfall in early 2009 and the shock death of Michael Jackson promoted spikes in traffic across all our digital platforms - but particularly mobile. With 2.5 million users on the day of Michael Jackson's death, this was more than twice the previous record level of traffic. Traffic peaks too on Saturday afternoons, as people looking up sports results - particularly football.

Of course, it's the immediacy and accessibility of mobile that delivers real value to our audience.


The geographical distribution is interesting too. Usage, by location for BBC Online on the web (on the left), and BBC Online on the mobile (on the right) differs most strongly because of the popularity of our services in Africa, with Nigeria accounting for 5% of all usage. African countries often have higher internet access via mobile than on fixed lines.

With more languages than any other service, BBC World Service has made good use of mobile.

This slide shows a BBC World Service project in Northern Nigeria. Six villages were given mobile phones, to access our Hausa service. The man in the middle is the village's "mobile keeper" - giving them a window on the world and the ability to report on community life.


I find this mix of social, interactive and location-based services incredibly compelling - and a strong sign of how content you'd receive on your computer - or the TV for that matter - can be reversioned for mobiles and add real value to people's lives in the process.

So back to the UK, who accesses our services over mobiles? Long term, mobile could become the primary point of internet access for the majority. The potential is stronger for the younger digital natives of today who become the licence payers of tomorrow.

But today's mobile audience primarily falls into four groups. "Mobile first" - people who use mobile as their primary access point to the internet. "Mobile lifestyle" - those who love the convenience of mobile services when they're on the move. "Addicted devotees" - the gadget lovers on their phones all the time, even in the internet connected home, and "social animals" - people particularly driven by social networking.

It's with these people in mind we focus on today's mobile propositions.


This year, we intend to move mobile forward by repurposing our core, distinctive BBC Online services for a range of mobiles and smartphones over coming months.

BBC News and BBC Sport applications are already planned, starting with BBC News on the iPhone in April.


The BBC Sport application will follow shortly after, in time for the 2010 World Cup, again across a wide range of platforms and devices. (Ed's note: Read about the Sport app on the 5live blog (PM))

I gave a short demonstration of how we expect the News and Sport applications to work - each is designed specifically to focus on what the audience most wants from the mobile device, taking the BBC's audio-visual content to audiences on the move.

My colleagues Pete Clifton in BBC News and David Madden from the BBC Mobile team go into more details on the product features on the News Editors blog and BBC Internet blog. There's also a flash demo of the BBC News application within David's blog.

These applications of course will complement our existing presence on web-based platforms. The news and sport applications will initially be made on iPhone and will follow on Blackberry and Android platforms and a range of other devices later in the year: of course the BBC will work with all companies in this market.


A BBC iPlayer application is already available in the Nokia Ovi store, and we are looking at the possibilities around further BBC iPlayer applications, for release later in the year.

But of course, mobile is one part of a bigger picture. With a service like BBC Online, we can deliver rich, interactive content to the web, to mobile and to TVs - with a user-experience tailored to the platform that carries it to the device.

For mobile, read location-based, simple and personalised user experiences. The web, a rich experience that navigates through the breadth of content. And TV, augmenting a passive experience with the power of on-demand services.


By adding social functionality and the seamless integration of your BBC experience across all your devices, we start to imagine what BBC Online can be. But that's the future.

So how do we get there? We have a real opportunity to improve what we offer younger audiences in particular, those traditionally underserved by the BBC but often use mobile devices to access the internet. Today's audiences expect us to go to them, not come to us.

For us, the 2012 Olympics in London will be the most connected, most digital event we've ever been involved in - and the potential is huge. But the industry needs to change if we are to deliver on this potential.


First, we exist in a fragmented market, that's not easy for content providers and developers to operate in and we must embrace common standardisation of platforms, handset features, and performance.

Second, increased usage and higher quality content puts increased pressure on the networks we rely on for delivery to audiences.. Compression solutions won't be enough and investment in mobile networks will continue to be necessary.

I was very pleased to hear news at the start of the week that two of these issues are beginning to be addressed. The announcement that 24 of the world's largest mobile operators have joined forces to launch an open international applications platform is a great move toward standardisation. In addition AT&T CTO John Donovan's interview with Mobile World Congress Daily suggests that they are taking steps to upgrade their networks to reduce congestion and ease data traffic which is also an excellent step forward.

And finally, network operators and content providers need to overcome location problems. If a network reports a UK customer as being in Canada or Germany, because that's where the traffic is routed, we can't the deliver that content to the consumer - no good for either of us.

I don't pretend these problems are easy to fix, or look to any one sector of this industry to solve them. But I do believe the opportunity is there, and by working in partnership we can go a long way toward unlocking mobile's vast potential - and I hope that this is the first step on this journey.

Erik Huggers is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology.


  • Comment number 1.

    How does the BBC feel about the currently awesome BeepPlayer app on Android?

  • Comment number 2.

    The network infrastructure investment issue is a significant success factor that I would hope partnership would answer. Your post prompted me to think in broad terms what the ratio is between the BBC's cost-to-serve an internet based customer (fixed or mobile) and the cost-to-serve a customer enjoying the traditional terrestrial broadcast TV and Radio services.
    I would conclude that as well as direction to network infrastructure providers to expand reach and bandwidth capacity there may need to be a concession from significant content providers such as the BBC that working together may also mean investing in infrastructure together.

  • Comment number 3.

    This is great news and I'm looking forward to the Android versions of these applications this year!

  • Comment number 4.

    From a consumer perspective i can understand the appeal of BBC mobile whether it be limited access to fixed line or TV services, or simply a great complimentary service. The issue I still see and one which Mobile World Congress didn't really clear up, is the incentivisation of network operators to invest in higher bandwidth and capacity in order to provide users with content it can't monetise. Additionally Digital Britain's focus on ensuring investment in NGN focuses on fixed access yet your view of the world is one where primary access is more likely via mobile. Has the government missed something here?

  • Comment number 5.

    "As Director of Future Media and Technology, I'm responsible for future-proofing the BBC in many respects - delivering technologies to serve the public in a fragmented digital age and keeping our output online and on air."

    In which case, I'd be interested to hear your explanation for why the BBC wants to force the public to adopt the 20-year-old DAB system, which delivers poor audio quality, and is now 2 technology generations behind the latest mobile digital broadcasting system, DVB-T2, which is 950% more efficient than DAB at delivering digital radio.

    Also, why is Mark Friend, the BBC Controller in charge of digital radio, so desperate to get Nokia to include DAB on its mobile phones, yet the BBC blocks access to the BBC's live Internet radio streams (apart from a minuscule number of handsets that are allowed to receive the live streams):

    "Please note that we [the BBC] do not currently stream radio over mobile networks (GPRS/3G)."

    And that message isn't even correct, because the BBC does currently stream radio over mobile networks, but that message appears to be there simply to put people off trying to do so.

  • Comment number 6.

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  • Comment number 8.

    So when will I be able to read this and other BBC blogs on a mobile device?

  • Comment number 9.

    Here in the States, public broadcasting is placing a bet on mobile digital television, with early trials already starting to run in DC. Some companies, such as Samsung and AT&T have been doing promotion around mobile dtv with the Olympic games.

    (Full disclosure, I am the VP for Digital Media Strategies at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting)

    Our thinking is that mobile broadcast will fit not only a growing market of netbooks (iPad maybe...someday?), mobile phones, but also seat-back devices. PBS Kids is already demoing some limited functionality/VOD being developed on top of the interim standards to make the content more engaging and richer for the user. We see this as a strong complement to a general broadcast strategy.

    Where does mobile dtv fit within BBC's mobile strategy?

  • Comment number 10.

    Erik, you have made two very significant points at the end of your presentation:

    1 "we must embrace common standardisation of platforms"

    And as far as that is concerned, the BBC must always work in close cooperation with standards bodies, and must avoid trying to be a pioneer. The correct route to market must be to provide program and support streams, not end user applications. Other broadcasters must be encouraged also to adopt those standards so that we can have a "News.app" not a "BBC.app" aggregating many suppliers. We do not buy into brands, but into news. We do not buy into BBC SAport, we buy into Sport.

    2 "content providers need to overcome location problems"

    This is a very serious problem. Many many media companies are still exploiting the micro-division of copyrights dividing the market and the delivery medium. This has to stop. At least the BBC could be stronger in opposing rights holders and pushing for "world wide rights or the BBC doesn't carry it". I, like many others that want to view the BBC, want to receive it no matter our location. We would be willing to pay.

    As for the rest of your presentation, I think it is a waste of time, and the BBC should concentrate on program making, not app making. You should develop standards and let the viewing platforms adapt to your standards, not you to them.

  • Comment number 11.

    Doge - comment 10 - you may be interested in this comment on David Madden's blog post about mobile apps.

  • Comment number 12.

    I do hope that the Android versions of BBC apps will be available as soon as possible especially with a large number of new Android handsets out in the next few weeks with HTC Desire,Nexus one and Sony Erricson Xperia X10 all looking like being big sellers in early 2010 so hopefully BBC will keep up with this wave and embrace the android platform

  • Comment number 13.

    Cant wait for the iphone app to be ready.

  • Comment number 14.

    Hulu in the US have the clout to have their ISPs close down blocks of IP addresses on VPNs that are set up to circumvent access outside the US.

    Likewise BBC iPlayer has restrictions outside the UK.

    Interestingly Europa here in Spain has FTA UK content (Freeview) rebroadcast as multicast from a dish in Madrid https://www.europa-network.com/tv

    This UK Freeview content is free to ADSL subscribers with a 3 mb Europa subscription.

    Here is their legal page:-

    Europa are approved and licensed by the Spanish Telecommunications Regulator.

    Europa TV is approved by Spanish lawyers.

    We do not charge clients anything to view our TV Service — ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

    We do not transmit ANY un-encrypted content that has been delivered encrypted (for example, no SKY content will be available).
    We do not change or “alter” the content or add advertising. The content is delivered EXACTLY as it is in the UK.

    We pay copyright fees to the relevant organisations in Spain - (SGAE and EGEDA).

    Television without Frontiers Directive (TVFD) becomes AVMS which fully supports our business model.

    All great stuff. No wonder Sky do not want anything to do with Spain as the 760,000 British expats are well serviced by pirated signals rebroadcast as microwave or direct from the satellite.

    With the Sky satellite geostationary problems here in Spain ( BBC2 goes at 4.00 pm) and Europa providing the content free 24/7 any churn away from the traditional 2.4 meter dish installer is the beginning of the end for Sky satellite operators in Spain.

    I would be interested on your take on this regarding the future of the BBC iPlayer outside the UK

    So if we can get legal UK Freeview from Europa why can't we enjoy the BBC iPlayer here in Spain without having to "do a Hulu" by masking IPs and VPNs.

    I will look forward to following your input to the Changing Media Summit in March https://www.guardian.co.uk/changingmediasummit

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  • Comment number 19.

    Hi read with interest the proposal to roll out more BBC content to mobile phones but will there be restrictions on areas of usage as is the case with BBC programmes on digital which are sent out from Astra on a narrow beam width and therefore are only really receiveable in the UK. Surely if you want to keep your viewers then it would make sense to make some or all of BBC TV programmes available in mainland europe.

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