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UK telco BT is banking on the YouView project to turn its BT Vision hybrid IPTV/digital terrestrial service into a major Pay TV force alongside BSkyB and Virgin Media. Currently BT Vision, with just over 500,000 subscribers, lies a distant third in the UK pay market compared with 3.8 million for Virgin Media and 10.1 million for BSkyB. The hybrid nature of the service and the inability of the BT infrastructure at this stage to deliver on-demand HD services, along with mixed fortunes securing attractive content deals, have held back BT Vision’s progress against its two strong competitors.
But now BT is aligning its television service with YouView, which launches next year. BT Vision will be one of the options on YouView after its launch, accessed through a portal alongside the BBC iPlayer catch-up TV service and others, but will still initially be available only as a walled garden IPTV service, like today.
The difference will be that subscribers will access the service via the YouView set-top box and portal, with the option of other YouView services including paid ones if they sign up. Consumers will still have to subscribe to BT’s broadband service to obtain access to BT Vision, with BT aiming to compete against YouView rivals, and indeed other IPTV or over-the-top (OTT) providers, through Quality of Service (QoS).
“We will align QoS through a good broadband offering with our BT Vision portfolio on YouView,” Steve White, BT’s Head of Information Systems and Technology for IPTV, told Videonet. “We hope customers will get a better experience using our broadband service than other peoples’.”
YouView then, is really a sales and marketing platform for BT designed to give BT Vision exposure at a time when its network infrastructure is coming of age for delivery of a full broadcast HD line-up. Many YouView users, except those subscribing to TalkTalk, will be BT broadband subscribers anyway and so will present rather a captive audience, as White hints.
“Because we are in the joint YouView venture, that helps, and we then have advantages other ISPs do not have. We have our own CDN (Content Delivery Network), we are upgrading our [core] network and rolling out multicast, so we have a pretty good start at delivering better quality video.”
BT Vision transmits linear TV over DTT using a Freeview decoder, with on-demand content including movies delivered by progressive download over the broadband connection. At the current average bit rate of around 4 Mbps, the progressive download requires 10 minutes of buffering to ensure smooth playout at SD quality.
According to White, the service will still not be ready to deliver on-demand HD by the time YouView launches. This will require a more or less guaranteed minimum bit rate of 7.5 Mbps to deliver by progressive download without excessive buffering, and this will become available to most subscribers as a result of fibre build-out in the year or so after the YouView launch. BT will either provide Fibre To The Home (FTTH), which will be available to 270,000 homes by September 2011, or will service everyone else with Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC), which shortens the length of the final copper loop. FTTC will provide access at speeds up to 40 Mbps and be capable of multichannel HD services.
Equally important for BT Vision ambitions are the upgrade of the core network infrastructure and the extension of BT’s CDN to link up with the access network so that end-to-end QoS can be guaranteed. BT’s wholesale division will be offering several grades of CDN service both internally to BT Vision and to external customers including rival ISPs and IPTV providers. The top end version called BT WCCA (Wholesale Content Connect Assured) will guarantee QoS and most likely be incorporated in BT Vision.
The question then, is when BT Vision will be offered as an OTT service accessible over the Internet, still via the YouView portal but without having to subscribe to BT’s broadband package. The plan is for this to follow later once YouView is well established. “At the moment our OTT strategy is for day two, because we want to roll out the existing infrastructure and guarantee QoS over our own infrastructure,” says White. “It is much more difficult with OTT, but possible with adaptive bit rate coding.”
This leaves two questions for BT Vision. There is little doubt that BT will deliver on QoS, even for the OTT version given time, but the uncertainty must be whether given this leisurely deployment schedule, other OTT providers will get there first. Secondly, there must also be some doubt whether the IPTV version of BT Vision can seriously close the gap on Virgin Media in its second incarnation. Almost another year will have elapsed before the YouView launch, during which Virgin Media will have proceeded further with its own OTT strategy centred on its new TiVo-based platform.
YouView, formerly known as project Canvas, is a hybrid broadcast broadband TV platform that will provide a set-top box allowing access to third-party content served over the Internet and accessed via a portal within a framework that, in principle, is open to all content providers. YouView, a joint project between BT, broadband/phone provider TalkTalk and UK commercial broadcasters ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and broadcast infrastructure provider Arqiva, announced its technical specifications in April, providing a technical framework for set-top box makers to develop products for the service.
If you want to learn more about BT’s television strategy including the role of YouView and connected TV generally, do not miss the Connected TV Summit 2011 where you can hear from: Andrew Heselwood, Head of Media & Entertainment, BT (Panel: ‘Can Pay TV keep winning in a connected world?); Steve White, Head of Information Systems and Technnology IPTV, BT (Panel: ‘Making the Pay TV model work across multiple screens’); and Darren Dadpour, User Experience & Technical Lead, BT Vision (Panel: ‘The role of content discovery in next-generation TV experiences).