Andrew Harrison: Broadband strategy reaches overload as TV goes online

Andrew%20H_120Three stories in the past week serve to emphasise how online and offline broadcasters are re-inventing their offerings for the digital age.

First, there are two major plays in online – for Yahoo! and Bebo. The higher-profile story is Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo!. This has all the possible big players in the future digital world drawn into the sale process, to a greater or lesser extent – including Google and News Corp (which owns My Space). The lower profile, but perhaps no less significant, of the two is Bebo, which has begun the process of calling in advisors to look at a possible valuation of its growing social networking business. These two seemingly disconnected moves are all related: it is all about Web 2.0 – the second phase of the internet – when consumers move from information and search activity only (dominated by Google, with a minority hold from Yahoo!) to content and user-generated interactivity.

Secondly, we saw the first user numbers for the BBC iPlayer. A million consumers downloaded 3.5 million programmes in the holiday fortnight after Christmas. While some of this will be down to the novelty and trial of early adopters, it’s still a cracking start and highlights the potential of the player. Viewers clearly value the opportunity to stream live or download current BBC content (or its extensive archives) to their PCs. Watch out for the debate that will follow: how do you justify a television licence fee when your content is viewed online?

Next, new GCap chief Fru Hazlitt unveiled her strategy to unlock sufficient hidden value for shareholders to support her re-structuring plan, rather than taking the cash on offer from rival Global Media. The plan involves a withdrawal from costly DAB transmission and instead bets on broadband as the digital medium to best complement GCap’s analogue stations.

So, the largest US-based internet players, the UK’s largest public service broadcaster and its largest commercial radio group each re-invent their offerings around broadband as the digital platform of choice for future growth.

There’s no doubt, this is a trend with significant implications for 2008 and beyond. What’s not yet been fully costed or understood is the capacity required to deliver these content offers via broadband – and who should pay.

Broadband has many strengths, but it is not a broadcast technology – one transmitter projecting to millions of receiving devices. It is narrowcast: one to one; peer to peer. That’s a strength for individual (text-based) information searches – but a weakness for mass media video-based content delivery. So, it’s not yet clear how this will work. When you switch on the telly or the radio, it just works. You never lose an analogue TV or radio station and only very rarely lose the picture or the signal via satellite on DTV. But, most of us in the office expect our PCs to crash every week: servers fail, websites crash with high demand, messages move slowly, files are slow to download. So, how will broadband cope with millions of consumers simultaneously trying to access the same live streams from either BBC TV or Classic FM?

We’ve all been somewhat seduced by the attractions of download-and-listen-again. What’s neat about those applications is that they spread out the peaks of consumption to times of the day when server activity is more quiet. But live streaming to millions is unproven. No one knows what would happen if the millions of listeners to Radio 2 or Virgin Radio each morning all simultaneously went online to listen – but it’s pretty obvious the current broadband pipe and speeds would fail. And that’s for radio – which requires nowhere near the bandwidth of video. Mass broadcast of live streaming will require a massive investment in server capacity and robustness to get anywhere near the reliability of broadcast transmission. And that doesn’t come free.

These new entertainment offers will gobble up bandwidth hungrily. The so-called “Net neutrality” debate, which has been rumbling in the US, will be played out among Britain’s ISPs – companies like BT, Carphone Warehouse, Virgin and Sky – which are also content providers in their own right. The debate is straightforward: internet protocol (IP) determines how files – video, e-mail, pictures – move between sender and receiver, so will they allow the new services?

In the early years of the Web, when most content was text based and not time-sensitive, nobody really cared which files were prioritised. It all arrived at acceptable speed and with a lot less paper than via the post. But, the richer content offerings, like those from the Beeb and IPTV change the rules. If you’re watching live video or listening to live radio, you don’t want the stream to crash or be constantly interrupted to re-buffer.

In this context, who pays for the server capacity and bandwidth is the next big question for commercial and free-to-air broadcasters alike .

Andrew Harrison is chief executive of the RadioCentre

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