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Can Telcos Get Ahead of Immersion?

By Joe Kelly

Huawei Talks Telco 4K Challenges

Telcos have struggled to cope with monetizing the media content & services they carry over their pipes for quite a while. And just as they now start to get a handle on things like basic video, they face the spectre of immersive technologies, which represent a generational leap in terms of network burden over what came before. Can they cope? BT infrastructure chief Karl Penaluna and BBC CTO Matthew Postgate offer some perspective.

Looking to score with 4K

Earlier this summer, British Telecom (BT) announced that it would launch Europe’s first dedicated television channel to broadcast content created exclusively in 4K. The channel, called BT Sport Ultra HD, will require customers to acquire a special 4K set-top box (STB). Once installed, subscribers will be able to watch a range of premium football and rugby games, including matches from the Champions League, Europe’s leading football club competition – filmed, distributed and enjoyed in ultra-high-definition (Ultra-HD). The service will go live to BT customers in the U.K. later this year.

Of course, falling prices for 4K-enabled sets, available now for less than USD1,000, are driving this increased demand as much as consumer demand for 4K content, which remains relatively rare. But that is changing, too.

In the blink of an eye

When broadcasters, Internet service providers and consumer electronics industries align, it creates a better-than-even chance that a more immersive experience of Ultra-HD content is on its way. Unlike the advent of television, this next immersive revolution will see telcos as a core part of the ecosystem. But Ultra-HD is about more than the number of pixels on a screen. The increased definition offers the promise of fully-immersive virtual reality (VR) services. The improved immersive and interactive nature of such content lends itself to a range of new services that telcos could offer if the broadband connections they provide offer more synchronous upload and download speeds.

BT has identified a number of VR applications it believes will change the world. The first, unsurprisingly, is gaming, and the second is film & television. The telco also believes that virtual travel will also become At the BBC, home of iPlayer, one of the most successful on-demand Internet catch-up TV and radio services in the world, Matthew Postgate, the broadcaster’s Chief Technology Officer, says the organization is taking “a new structure and approach” to be able to respond to how the Internet is changing the distribution and consumption of broadcast TV, including a future he believes may well be characterized by immersive media. “We live in a time of unprecedented technological change. The last major media revolution before the web was TV, over 80 years ago. In a relative blink of an eye, we’ve seen the on-demand, mobile and social media industries become well established, with a wide range of others showing huge potential. This opens the door to entirely new forms of content that are much more data-intensive than audio or video – things like Ultra-HD or virtual reality, for example.”

a key application, including virtual voyages into space, while also expecting virtual education and remote surgery to drive social change. However, a major question remains – can telcos find a way to monetize these immersive applications over & above the revenue they receive for distributing digital content to and from subscribers?

Hard to get ahead

So far, the average telco has seen the operational cost of supporting bandwidth-intensive services grow as fast or slightly ahead of the associated revenue they receive in return. Over-the-top (OTT) and social media players have arguably benefitted more. For telecoms to succeed, new business models must be devised, and it is also feasible that OTT providers and network providers will need to find collaboration models where both parties can benefit commercially from these potential services.

The shift away from traditional broadcasting over airwaves to a schedule pre-determined by the broadcaster is well established. Today, televised content is consumed increasingly online, on demand. The growth of services such as Netflix and BBC’s iPlayer have added significant pressure to telco infrastructure, and consumers are impatient with networks that pause to buffer in the middle of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. And with Ultra-HD, network interruptions during the Champions League final are unthinkable.

Recognizing a need

An Ultra-HD world presents a challenge for telcos. How can they provide subscribers with broadband connections fast enough to allow customers to enjoy the benefits, and do so cost-effectively. A single 4K content stream requires an uninterrupted flow of data of around 30Mbps, and many homes today consume multiple streams at one time.

According to Karl Penaluna, President of 21C Global Networks and Computing Infrastructure at BT, “We recognize the rising demand for ever-faster broadband speeds. In fact, it’s an issue BT has had to deal with every year since the early days of broadband. We’re investing to deliver the future, and we’ve focused on finding innovative ways to deliver the broadband experience that people want today and ensure we continue to do so in the future.”

BT is digging in

BT’s fiber broadband rollout is well-advanced across the U.K. today, providing customers with connections at up to 330Mbps. “In parallel,” Penaluna says, “our plans to deploy G.fast technology will increase the access speeds possible across our installed copper plant. G.fast is a key approach to squeezing ever-faster speeds (Gbps-range in theory) out of existing cables to meet our customers’ speed needs of the future. Core and metro networks also need to be dimensioned appropriately. If G.fast is an innovation designed to generate additional speed from our existing copper access infrastructure, 400G routers are designed to do the same for our long-haul fiber links.”

In an award-winning field trial in December 2014, BT achieved speeds of up to 3Tbps, the fastest speeds using commercial-grade hardware in a real-world environment, on fiber links in Ireland, an achievement equivalent to transmitting roughly a dozen uncompressed Ultra-HD films in one second, and more than enough for streaming VR to hundreds of homes. Huawei was BT’s technology partner on the trial, and BT is now considering deploying this technology across its core U.K. network.

Today, 4K cameras are inexpensive, and telcos are starting to see the benefits of a 4K service, and how it can be a route to more mainstream applications. Broadband has transformed the telco industry in less than two decades. It has also transformed the way people live and work. In the near future, 4K and VR will do the same.

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