BT goes multi-cast – awkward for TopUpTV?

A story on The Register today says that BT is planning upgrades to its network that will support multi-cast, which is good news for digital TV, but buried away in the middle is a comment that may be less good for those who are presently subscribing to Sky Sports via Freeview, and specifically via TopUpTV.

BT’s Steve White is quoted as saying

“It’s too expensive renting DVB-T multiplex space to deliver Sky Sports to BT Vision customers, so we want to send it multicast.”

For the less technical, that means that the capacity on Freeview which is used to broadcast Sky Sports is proving pretty expensive. What’s that got to do with TopUpTV, when this is a chap talking about BT Vision?

Well, BT Vision is the phone company’s TV on demand service, which works with a BT broadband connection, and has a receiver that includes a Freeview tuner. As an add-on to the service, you can subscribe to TopUp TV. But, because it’s hard to send live TV over the internet without multicast, which BT’s network doesn’t support yet, the Sky Sports streams are broadcast on Freeview, at considerable expense.

Those streams aren’t just used by BT vision, though – TopUp TV uses them too, and sells access to their own customers. I don’t know the details of the commercial arrangements, but it seems obvious that by sharing the streams, with two sets of customers paying for them – some paying BT, some paying TopUp TV – the costs are spread between the two.

And now BT is considering a network upgrade that will enable them to deliver the streams to their customers over the internet, at a lower cost. That, potentially, is going to mean less income from subscribers to cover the costs of the Freeview capacity. And I can’t see how that can be anything other than awkward for TopUp TV. If no one else is going to be reselling the streams for Sky Sports, they’ll have to make sure they have sufficient revenue to cover the costs themselves.

I’ll be asking TopUp TV for a comment on this, but it’s a bank holiday today, so likely to be later in the week before I know any more.

What is multicast anyway?

Although it could be awkward for TopUp TV, BT’s upgrade to multicast is good news for everyone else – even if you’re not a BT broadband customer, you will probably rely on part of their network for your service, and a move by the biggest player to support multicast is should prompt others to do the same.

You can already watch live TV on the internet, via sites like iPlayer, so what’s the big deal? Well, the standard internet is what’s called ‘unicast’ which means that each connection between a server and client is a one to one link, like an ordinary phone call. So, when you watch BBC News live via iPlayer, a dedicated connection between your PC and the BBC server is created. If someone else comes along and watches the same channel, there’s another dedicated channel created for them, even though the information is exactly the same. If 300 people in your area happen to be watching BBC News live via iPlayer at the same time, 300 identical copies of the same data will all be being sent down the link to your telephone exchange at the same time. And the same will be happening all over the country.

So, you can see that traditional broadcasting is going to clog up the internet pretty quickly like that, which is why it’s simply not practical for people like BT Internet to deliver Sky Sports over the internet. As more and more people watched, the quality would drop dramatically, and people would be asking for their money back.

Multicast solves that. It’s an enhancement to the traditional internet technologies that allows information to be sent to more than one destination at the same time. Instead of there being a separate connection to each person who’s receiving the broadcast, there’s one data stream, and multiple computers can connect to it.

It’s not exactly new technology – the ‘MBONE’ project to provide multicast over the internet dates back around 20 years, most famously with a Rolling Stones concert transmitted using the technology in 1994.

With the example I mentioned above, if 300 people were watching the same thing, all connected to your local phone exchange, the amount of data being sent would be exactly the same as if one person were watching.

That’s much more efficient, which in turn means more channels can potentially be offered that way too. Upgrading their network to multi-cast can save BT money on the broadcasting of Sky Sports, without compromising the quality – it may even increase it, given how squeezed pictures are on Freeview at times. And it also makes it much easier for them to offer extra live channels too, so they can fight harder against Virgin and Sky, which may bring increased competition in pay TV around the UK.

That’s a good thing for pretty much everyone, with the possible exception of TopUp TV.

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