The launch of BT Sport changed the UK media landscape, but the technical challenges have changed the company too
Three years ago, BT revealed it had spent £738 million on 38 Premier League matches for three seasons in a move that sent shockwaves across the UK media landscape. A year later it made the headlines again by offering all the matches for free with any of its broadband subscriptions.
The investment was not inconsiderable but it was seen as necessary by BT which wanted to protect its multi-billion pound investment in fibre by preventing its customers from jumping ship to Sky which was looking to expand its broadband base.
BT first offered TV in 2006 and after a lengthy court battle over wholesale agreements was able to offer Sky Sports 1 and 2 to customers, but this offer failed to gain traction. BT decided it needed to get hold of exclusive content and premium sports rights.
“We’re looking at content as a way of maximising broadband,” Howard Watson, CIO of BT Technology Service and Operations, told the Huawei Ultra Broadband Forum in Madrid. “That’s the battleground for us. You’ve got to find some exclusive content for that to happen – hence, the football.”
BT Sport launched in 2013 and it has since attracted 5.2 million customers and BT has enjoyed six consecutive quarters of growth. It has since acquired rugby union, women’s tennis, UFC, Moto GP and UEFA Champions League rights, ending Sky’s stranglehold on many events.
“That’s the unbelievable power of football and it’s worth the premium,” he added.
But launching BT Sport presented a number of technical challenges. The channels are available on satellite, cable and digital terrestrial platforms, but many users watch BT Sport on IPTV, the web and through mobile apps.
Watson said the company was always confident about its network’s ability to deliver the content, but getting the IT systems in place to support the launch was a bigger challenge – one he says that has transformed the company and made its broadband business ‘TV-centric’.
At the time of the Premier League rights purchase, just four people, including Watson, knew BT planned to offer its new sports channels at no extra cost. The company’s attention turned to the technical tasks of delivering the channels and put Watson, an IT guy, in charge.
“That’s quite a responsibility when you need to ensure everyone can watch,” he said.
BT already had a media and broadcast business so had fibre links to all Premier League stadiums, which could transmit feeds to the BT Tower in London. This unit was merged with the IPTV team, and BT Sport became the anchor tenant of the former International Broadcast Centre (IBC) at the Olympic Park in East London.
BT.com was updated to handle the anticipated surge in orders and Watson boasts it handled the demand without increasing the size of its call centres. BT seemed happy, even if the launch caused the number of complaints Ofcom received about the company doubled.
Systems to ‘authenticate’ subscribers also had to be put in place. Viewers on ‘traditional’ TV platforms are validated by their provider, but app and web viewers need to be authenticated by BT, which checks to see if the device is in the UK, if the user is a subscriber and if there is more than two people using a single account.
This, Watson says is quite testing, especially 2-3 minutes before a match when everyone is signing on, and caused numerous problems during the first season when subscribers complained about not being able to watch.
“It’s a scalable IT platform,” he said. “It’s just difficult to forecast.”
BT uses analytics to see how users behave on the apps and scans Twitter to identify any issues: “A good day is when they’re complaining about the commentator. A bad day is when they’re complaining about the app.”
Future of BT Sport
“It is quite difficult to get live TV out to the different platforms,” Watson continued, noting that BT needs 12-16 encoders to cover all channels.
Syncing video and audio is also another area BT is working on. Earlier this season it became the first European broadcaster to transmit a match in 4k ‘UItra High Definition’, but it needs to use two sets of commentators because of the syncing issues.
“I think coding and video coding is a growth industry,” added Watson.
It’s one of the areas its technical teams are working on, along with fast channel switching in time for the Champions League, live TV to VoD and Network PVRs, which store recording programmes in the cloud instead of locally
“We have the technology for that, it’s about getting the copyright sorted,” said Watson. “We’ll get that sorted, it has to. Putting hard drives in set top boxes is not sustainable.”
Two years on from launch, Watson says the impact on the business has been dramatic. BT has had to secure people with the right skills to run a real-time business with new peaks in demand and has had to change some of its practices. For example, it used to run network maintenance on a weekend when fewer orders were likely to be placed – not anymore.
“It’s transforming the business and getting some return on that eye watering investment,” he said.
That investment has become a little more ‘eye watering’. In addition to spending £897 million on the Champions League, it has renewed its deal with the Premier League for £960 million over another three years. At least it has the systems in place this time round.
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