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Building a Connected Britain

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Erik Huggers Erik Huggers | 16:40 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

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.

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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.


Overcoming Fragmentation

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


  • Comment number 1.

    I don't think the BBC license fee we have to pay if we have a TV should be used for broadband connections.

  • Comment number 2.

    I'm glad to hear that the BBC is on the side of net-neutrality.

  • Comment number 3.

    Maintaining an open and neutral internet is critical. ...plainly, an open and neutral internet is crucial to the growth of our digital economy.

    Given this is your belief, when will you lead by example and stop the practice the BBC has of discriminating between different platforms with your iPlayer service? When will you allow open standard access to iPlayer clients generally? When are you going to stop treating certain vendors favourably, by allowing them access to a less CPU intensive, non-flash, HTML/HTTP based iPlayer, but blocking all other clients?

    Otherwise, if these are your principles, why is it they should apply to others but not the BBC?

  • Comment number 4.

    > What's more, Digital Switchover will be complete by the advent of the games ...

    Cough! I don't think that's quite true. No one in Digital UK is making any public guarantee that Northern Ireland will be switched over mid-year in time for the Olympics. In fact, the opposite is true. Due to the complexity and need for cooperation with Republic of Ireland switchover plans and frequencies, all indications are that switchover will NOT be complete by the advent of the games.

  • Comment number 5.

    Agreed mainly to all this thought leadership but there is one item of contention here around overcoming market landscape fragmentation. The BBC needs to walk a fine line as it is the fragmentation that drives innovation and thus the market. By overcoming it things settle down, alliances are formed and in the worst cases monolopies are formed.

    In fact YouView is a child grown from this fragmentation not asa tool built to remove it.

    To that end the BBC needs to be careful that by solving this fragmentation 'challenge' by solely backing an entity like YouView that you're not actually stilfing the very fragmentation, and thus innvoation, that has driven the connected media market growth to this date.

    In my humble opinion the BBC needs to a facilitator of the market and thus should be backing not only YouView but other initiatives (both private and public) that is driving the integration of IP with Broadcast. What I would like to see? Is the BBC spearhead an industry body that becomes the forum for these initiatives.

    -- Cameron Church

  • Comment number 6.

    Regarding "net neutrality".

    The BBC should stand its ground and refuse to cough up. The first ISP to start throttling iPlayer will be shooting itself in the foot. The BBC merely needs to state that customers of ISPs X, Y, Z will no longer be able to access iPlayer, but customers of ISPs A, B, C will be fine.

    ISPs X, Y and Z cannot do anything about this announcement (because it will be true). The customers will know its the ISPs' fault and migrate to ISP A, B or C.

    It will be a brave ISP to be the first to block its customer's access to iPlayer (as well as BitTorrent, online gaming, YouTube, etc, etc.

  • Comment number 7.

    You mention how the BBC works with the W3C and link to their site saying:

    " 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."

    So one would expect BBC to be fully W3C compliant, YES ??!
    Now lets think about this very blog page. Or what about say the shiny new dazzling Archers site, recently changed because apparently the BBC needs to use its 'barlesque' standard. So using the link you quoted go to the W3C site, then navigate to their compliance checker (Unicorn) https://validator.w3.org/unicorn/

    What do you think happens when the archers message board URL or your Own blog URL are inputted, wait a few minutes when you give it a try, apparently the BBC code is rather complex something to do with the barlesque.
    Having taken part, on the periphery of, some of the discussions about the changes I was not at all surprised; infact I was already aware your BBC code is NOT W3C compliant.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi - I've just been sent these responses from Erik Huggers to some of your comments:

    "@paul jakma: Open standards and open source are different things - I don't see an inconsistency in supporting the principle of open (i.e. shared, common) standards whilst using proprietary technologies. Respect your right to disagree on that, but that's a separate debate.

    @alaninbelfast: Thanks for flagging this point. It’s correct that Digital Switchover in Northern Ireland will take place after the Games but before the end of 2012.

    @Cameron Church: It's easy to forget that whilst IPTV has been talked about for years in tech and media circles, for most people in the UK it's barely on the radar. Connected-TV is in its relative infancy, and outside pay TV (which has around and 80% market share) there's a need for a subscription-free alternative. New markets are dominated by fragmentation before a standard becomes established – either a dominant commercial player or an agreed standard. Clearly, a dominant commercial player in TV is not going to create a competitive market, hence our desire to back choice. Our expectation is that Youview can become a platform of scale and drive an open market – as Freeview has done – resolving the fragmentation problem for audiences and content providers alike.

    @John99: Web standards are a constantly moving target and we're in the process of reviewing our own standards to bring them up to date. This blog is not about where we are, it's where I want us to be. The Senior Technologist, Internet Standards I mention above joins in the New Year and will consider W3C engagement. Keep an eye on this blog for updates."


  • Comment number 11.


    Thanks for that, but my comment had nothing to do with open-source. He has misunderstood my comment.


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