Light Reading's Big Communications Event (BCE) in Austin last week brought together some of the best minds in telecom to share perspectives and provide insight into future industry trends. One of those was Neil McRae, BT's MD of architecture and technology and BT Group chief architect.
McRae is responsible for the entire group's architecture and technology strategy. Essentially, he is involved with technology decision-making across the board for the operator's products and services. As he says, "If it's got a flashing light, I was probably involved."
Among his numerous responsibilities, McRae has been closely involved with the rollout of BT Sport, the operator's sports broadcasting business. BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) has invested heavily in winning valuable soccer sports rights for the UK, and McRae has also been keen to push technical boundaries on the TV production and distribution front.
McRae discussed BT's rollout of its soccer coverage during his keynote at the event. Telco Transformation was able to catch up with him afterwards and get a little more insight into the strategy and thinking behind BT's sports initiative.
Telco Transformation: How did BT's decision to become a sports broadcaster come about?
Neil McRae: It started with the Olympics. The UK was bidding to host the Olympics in 2012. Once London won, it needed to prepare for the event. BT, as the incumbent telco, began to work with the Olympic committee and organizers. We had to build [connect fiber] to the venues: Stratford, of course [London's Olympic Park where the main events were held], but also other venues, such as Lord's [cricket ground], football stadiums, the area where they were holding the rowing competition… we needed to provide connectivity and facilities for media. Also [robust] mobile connectivity was required, and WiFi for the venues.
In a sense, the Olympics were also unifying for the company. Everyone wanted to do a good job, do it right. It's the power of sports -- has a positive impact on staff. But also, we wanted to think about the Olympic legacy -- what we would do that would remain after the games were over.
We built the studio at Olympic Park where the media center was. The Olympics gave us confidence. We felt this was worth investing in, valuable. In a sense, BT Sport is the legacy [of BT's Olympic efforts].
TT: Why did you end up doing 4K? Surely at that point it would have been easier to just do it in HD, with more mature, easily available technology?
NM: Why climb the highest mountain? (Laughs.) Not normally a fan of Kennedy quotes, but I like that one. It was important to us to be an innovator. We wanted to push boundaries.
It was when we won the rights to the [European] Champions League -- that was the start. We had bid for -- and won -- rights to the English Premier League earlier, and we had run some experiments in 4K. But getting the rights to the Champions League really got us into 4K. We also launched our companion app for smartphones and tablets, to help drive viewership and interest in 4K.
[For details on the service and the challenges rolling it out, please see How BT Learned to Love 4K.]
TT: BT just announced that it will be offering both European finals (Champions League and Europa League) finals in 360-degree virtual reality. What is driving your interest in VR?
NM: VR is one of those recurring tech things. I can remember VR arcade games in the nineties. It's been at the edge of our consciousness -- we've been trying to understand how to do it. But now, with more bandwidth, more processing power, higher quality VR can take off.
It's also seen as a 5G use-case, but actually I don't think you need it. Sony proved that with its PlayStation headset.
VR for us is … we want to be innovative. We want to add value, allow users to consume content in different ways -- and respond to feedback. We need to understand how they use it, what they like. It's too early to say if we will launch [a VR service] but we won't know unless we try.
So we're offering the [Champions and Europa Leagues] finals available to everyone, it's not just BT subscribers -- it's free to watch. We'll be broadcasting it in 4K UHD with Dolby Atmos sound and it's going to be available on YouTube too. But we're also offering a 360-degree stream via BT Sport's VR app and on YouTube for the Champions League final. This will allow viewers to choose between a 360-degree produced program with commentary and graphics, or select their own camera viewpoint.
TT: On another front, BT has helped wire a number of Formula One racetracks for Williams Martini. Can you talk to us about that initiative?
NM: Our partnership with Williams started sometime back … I think we started talking about three years ago. It's a great engineering company, also a British company, a great partner. With them we first worked to understand their overall telecom needs -- their mobile needs, their office connectivity requirements. But also their design facility, and in particular, connecting their engineers to tracks worldwide.
We used BT Connect to provide a high-performance VPN service, and connected them to tracks around the world. I think it was initially 21 tracks worldwide, but it changes -- some venues change over the years. This gave them considerably more bandwidth than they had previously, and allowed real-time decision-making by linking the track to their headquarters. So, for example, if it was raining, they can run simulations and better understand how to set up the car for the race. (See Williams Martini Uses BT in Winning Formula.)
We also got them on to the BT One mobile solution. The team spends a lot of time on the phone with their design facility and headquarters. This helped them manage costs better across 20 countries.
TT: What are your expectations moving forward, for change in the TV/video business?
NM: I see a lot of momentum in 4K, I think that's moving forward. We are evaluating HDR. We will get to 4K HDR but we need to better understand bandwidth requirements and ensure we can meet them before.
I think overall being close to the customer is really critical. We try to do that -- try to listen and then give them what they want. This is what our focus on BT Sport has been all about. And we want to be in front -- innovating on service, innovating on technology, innovating on service experience.
— Aditya Kishore, Practice Leader, Video Transformation, Telco Transformation