Streamlining Video Infrastructure for Operational Efficiency
On a cold Tuesday night in April, as Manchester City and Real Madrid took to the pitch in Etihad Stadium for the UEFA Champions League semi-final match, fifty or so guests of Elemental and BT gathered at Belushi’s Sports Bar in London Bridge to watch the action. Tucked in the basement fondly known as the Dugout, with pints of beer and burgers in their laps, the audience was fully immersed in the viewing experience, both visually and technologically, as they watched the game from kickoff to final whistle on the BT Ultra HD Sports Channel, the first live sports 4K UHD channel in the United Kingdom and Europe.
BT is one of the world’s leading communications services companies, serving customers in the UK and more than 180 countries. The company launched BT Ultra HD Sport as part of BT TV, which offers expanded and enhanced viewing experiences to subscribers. The airing of this premium European football content – or soccer, as it known in the US – was the culmination of the company’s successful bid in July 2015 for exclusive rights to deliver UEFA Champions League and Europa League coverage to audiences across the UK, marking the first time a single UK broadcaster has won exclusive rights to live broadcast.
BT currently holds some of the world’s most valuable content – with a portfolio that also includes Barclay’s Premier League, Bundesliga, Rugby Union, MotoGP and the FA Cup – and the company set itself a hard and fast deadline to deliver the highest quality viewing experience to subscribers regardless of how customers accessed its content. “We were used to offering a game a week,” said Greg McCall, Managing Director of TV Technology at BT. “Now we have 351 UEFA games across a season. At peak, there are twelve concurrent games to deliver to television screens, over the internet and to device-based apps. We had to deliver on budget and on time – because the dates of the Champions League matches would not move.”
From winning the rights to airing the action, BT had nine months to deliver a video architecture to support its goals. And the solution had to power three major innovations: BT Ultra HD Services; BT TV Everywhere, which enables BT customers to watch TV channels on multiple devices once they authenticate; and the BT Sport App, which has been downloaded by 4.8 million users since its launch in 2013 with a viewership that has grown 15 percent year-over-year since then.
How did BT deliver valuable sports content to market on time and offer a seamless viewing experience across multiple display platforms?
- BT AT A GLANCE
- Headquartered in London, England, BT is one of the world’s leading communications services companies
- Serves customers in the UK and over 180 countries
- Founded in 1846, with more than 18,000 employees in 200-plus offices globally
Background: A History of Innovation
Corporate roots run deep at BT. The company, which was founded in 1846 as the Electric Telegraph Company, was the world’s first telecommunications company. Since then, innovation has long been woven into the company culture and business practices. BT measures its success based on how many breakthroughs it enables, whether that means providing faster broadband, improving customer service, expanding global presence or “finding better ways of doing things.”1
The company counts many firsts among its history. The first commercial cellular radio service. The first international optical fiber undersea cable. The first fully digital long-distance network. Always on BT broadband. The fastest data transmission speed over an operational fiber optic link. With the lofty company purpose “to use the power of communications to make a better world,” the company is taking on mobile services, ultra-fast broadband, enterprise services and most recently, the role of broadcaster. BT began pursuing these aspirations three years ago with the purchase of the exclusive rights to broadcast UEFA Champions League games, including the one shown at Belushi’s Dugout, and to date has more than five million subscribers.
This expansion in sport is part of an overall campaign, according to McCall, to build on the BT pedigree as an entertainment brand to keep pace with the growing pay TV market in the UK, which currently has 61 percent penetration.2 BT TV became the first TV service in the UK to offer Netflix in UHD in 2015, the same year the company revamped its popular TV Everywhere offering with the addition of five new channels and a rich new “Entertainment Max” package for existing subscribers.
Launching and delivering UHD sport with interactive capabilities in such a tight time frame, though, was a herculean effort.
Challenge: Glass-to-Glass UHD Video Delivery
Greg McCall understood what this entailed, especially at a time when UHD standards had not solidified. “We had to have a glass-to-glass workflow. This means we needed to build a scanner truck from scratch, communications truck from scratch, all the contribution circuits, a brand new set-top box, a brand new studio. All those efforts had to come together in order for this to work.”
In addition to offering the highest quality video, McCall explains that the goal of the effort was to increase interactivity by “bringing life to the red button” on the remote control to provide viewers all the capabilities they were accustomed to and more. This included live-to-VOD capabilities to replay a penalty kick or a goal, enabling subscribers to choose to watch a game rather than a channel, added features such as live scores, match statistics and team line-ups for every UEFA game in progress, an interactive timeline, and pop-up goal alerts to accommodate those fans following one game on their television and a second game via the BT Sport App, so they could see all the critical plays in multiple match ups.
“This was,” according to Sam Blackman, CEO and Co-founder of Elemental, “an enormous challenge to deploy a world-class workflow to deliver BT’s premium content to any device for millions of consumers in a tight time frame.”
Solution: A Unified Headend Powers It All
In working with Elemental, BT was able to streamline and simplify the company’s video operations. BT went from a heterogeneous environment with a specific set of hardware-based compression systems for set-top box delivery, and a second set of specialized systems for multiscreen video delivery, to a unified infrastructure enabling BT to operate, manage and maintain video processing for BT TV Everywhere, the BT Sport App and the BT Sport Ultra HD Channel. By collapsing the company’s video architecture using solutions from Elemental, BT increased cost savings and boosted operational efficiency, all while providing subscribers with a consistent viewing experience across platforms – emphasizing the strength and service of the BT brand.
“We chose Elemental as a partner because its solutions are software-based,” said McCall. “We know standards are going to change, and our needs are going to change – as they did right up until we launched. The beauty of our two parties working together was instrumental in bringing this service to life.”
In the BT workflow, software-based solutions from Elemental served to unify traditional and multiscreen video processing in a single architecture. As with any pay TV provider, BT receives contribution feeds via satellite, antennae or fiber downlinks. For content destined for over-the-top multiscreen delivery, Elemental Live video processing creates H.264 adaptive bitrate outputs that feed Elemental Delta, which enables just-in-time packaging and digital rights management and integrates with storage to manage live-to-VOD content. Multiple CDNs ensure delivery of HLS and Smooth Streaming profiles to multiscreen devices.
In the IPTV workflow, the same Elemental Live systems output standard and high definition H.264 streams for delivery over the managed BT fiber network to IPTV set-top boxes in UK homes. And finally, in the 4K/UHD workflow, Elemental Live units take four SDI input signals and create 4K/HEVC outputs to deliver live video content to the BT UHD set-top box, like the one used for playback of the match between Manchester City and Real Madrid in April at Belushi’s Dugout. Elemental Conductor serves as the overall workflow manager, providing a unified view of encoder activities and performance.
Overall, this unified video architecture supports the highest quality live, on-demand and time-shifted TV services to subscribers while simultaneously offering BT the flexibility to modify and expand its services or mix and match offerings in a rapidly changing marketplace.
"We chose Elemental as a partner because its solutions are software-based. We know standards are going to change, and our needs are going to change – as they did right up until we launched. The beauty of our two parties working together was instrumental in bringing this service to life." Greg McCall
Managing Director of TV Technology, BT
Benefit: Flawless Execution for the Most Valuable Content
Professional sports content is some of the most valuable property in the world, and Elemental video processing and delivery solutions needed to run flawlessly within the BT workflow – with across-the-board redundancy and high availability. With solutions from Elemental in place, the BT Sport App has performed without a hitch, with digital viewership reaching a peak of more than 214,000 on key soccer match nights during the 2015-16 season.
“The UK is one of the only places in the world where you can watch a world-class soccer match in 4K,” said Blackman. “BT is at least year ahead development-wise of what pay TV operators in the US are currently able to offer.”
The flexibility of a unified headend built on software-defined video solutions provides the UK broadcaster with the opportunity to continue its momentum. Already, BT has been able to seamlessly scale from 90 channels at launch to hundreds of channels, and offers an easy and unified user experience regardless of device to successfully promote the BT brand.