The Streaming Tsunami: Securing Universal Service Delivery For Public Service Broadcasters (Part 1)

One of the biggest challenges for national Public Service Broadcasters is how to maintain their obligation for universal service in a future landscape where audiences have migrated to streaming as their primary method of media access.

Public Service Broadcasters, like the BBC in the UK and NRK in Norway, have a requirement to provide a universal service. This requires the media they produce to be for, and available to, everyone in the country or region in which they operate. The BBC’s mission statement captures this concept precisely – “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate, and entertain”. As consumer habits and media delivery technologies change, what do public service broadcasters consider as they look towards a streaming future?

Universal Service

Universal Service Obligation (USO) applies to many of today’s nationwide enterprises. The concept of the USO was a cornerstone of the UK’s postal service when it was formed in 1837. Postal rates became uniform throughout the nation and were reduced to be affordable to most people and the UK’s General Post Office was given a monopoly on mail delivery. These principles were quickly adopted by postal services worldwide. The term Universal Service was used in 1907 by Theodore Vail, president of American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) with the slogan “One Policy, One System, Universal Service”. Vail argued that an interconnected phone system operated by one company, with rates regulated by the government, would be both superior to the dual technology system in place at the time and would produce important social benefits. Between 1910 and 1913, the US government implemented legislation to make AT&T a monopoly telephony service provider. This included specific measures to avoid antitrust action, such as required interconnection between AT&T and non-competing independent phone service providers.

Universal service principles were part of the BBC’s original Charter, created in 1927. Almost 100 years later, the BBC is still a universal service, paid for and owned by the UK public. Over 90% of UK adults use the BBC on a weekly basis. Most UK adults turn to the BBC for the largest moments in public life, from government announcements during pandemics to royal weddings and funerals. And for local content production there is no serious competition – public service broadcasters in the UK invest in tens of thousands of hours of original content per year compared to hundreds of hours by Netflix and Amazon Prime combined. There is high demand from the public for content that resonates with their lives and their culture, which public service broadcasters are mandated to deliver.

Clarifying further the reason for public service broadcasters are the BBC’s stated public purposes:

  • Sustaining citizenship and civil society.
  • Promoting education and learning.
  • Stimulating creativity and cultural excellence.
  • Representing the UK, its nations, regions, and communities.
  • Bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK.

As Public Service Broadcasters (PSBs) look towards a streaming future, they must look at who could be left behind in a full streaming switchover. The switchover is from traditional radio and TV services to the online world of streaming audio and video. This requires a broadband connection, the right devices, and whatever fee is levied for the PSB. Direct-to-consumer streaming creates a new social contract between the PSB and the public.

To manage this social contract requires a new way of working. PSBs must cooperate more closely with internet service providers that own and operate the distribution network to consumers. Net neutrality comes under scrutiny to determine how to allow high-performance video to pass uninterrupted to viewers. Preventing excessive costs of delivery as services migrate from traditional RF infrastructure to fixed and mobile IP infrastructure becomes business-critical. Prominence of PSB services to viewers in new streaming user interfaces becomes a subject for regulators to closely consider. New service partnerships are required to manage technology and guarantee service delivery performance to the viewer.

The PSB Perspective Of The Streaming Supply Chain

After much debate over many years about the future of PSB content delivery, the future streaming supply chain for PSBs is becoming clearer. This clarity is accelerating their transition to full-scale streaming.

The first principle remains: universality, or full audience reach, is required. Streaming delivery supply chains used by the top PSBs in most countries must support the delivery of content to most of a country’s households each day. On some occasions, the supply chain must reach over 80% of the population. In a country like the UK, that means about 45 million people, as was witnessed during the COVID pandemic.

The streaming delivery supply chain is comprised of 5 key components – devices, ISPs, CDN providers, Cloud providers, and media technology providers. Broadcasters are the content producers and acquirers, and the overseers of their customers’ experience. Regulators are important, providing policy frameworks at industry level. The impact of the general PSB transition to streaming primarily affects the 5 supply chain components. They need to be brought together for each PSB, to deliver the service they must universally supply. The level of supply chain efficiency – in terms of both cost efficiency and energy efficiency - is one of the most critical subjects for PSBs to collectively address as they switch to streaming delivery.

The Role Of ISPs

Until now, the internet has generally scaled to cope with the demand of its users, supported by CDNs to provide faster delivery of content. ISPs have been commercially motivated to support this scale-out, selling consumers more broadband and mobile services to support increased data consumption and upgrading technologies along the way to move from dial-up to DSL to Fiber. Major global content providers have invested billions of dollars in CDN infrastructure and services to deliver their content. But so far Broadcasters have served relatively small percentages of their total audiences via streaming services, and while they already spend significant sums of money on streaming delivery it is a small amount of spend compared to traditional TV and radio delivery using terrestrial towers and satellite. So, what happens next when the majority of PSB content is consumed on streaming services?

ISPs and CDNs have a high level of influence over what happens next. This is where the capacity needs to scale out in order to serve the large audiences that today are served across a mix of satellite, DTT, IPTV, CableTV and streaming. Is a specific intervention needed to change the way that CDNs and ISPs work to underpin this growth?

While we are in a period of continuous growth of streaming, the main specific intervention required by broadcasters is when streaming capacity expansion needs to move faster than general CDN capacity in a market. While VOD consumption is fairly predictable and manageable over time with incremental capacity growth, the challenge for broadcasters comes from live events. The issue of Peak to Mean capacity usage is significant, with normal daily peaks often exceeding 3 times the average capacity required, and special event peaks (e.g., major sports events or highly significant news events) driving >10 times the average for short periods of time. Broadcasters need to have confidence that streaming and computing capacity can be available in time for their big events. If it isn’t available, there is a high probability that viewers will experience poor video playback quality, and perhaps disruptions to the normal functioning of the PSB’s application. But knowing if capacity is truly available throughout the entire media delivery supply chain is not easy. This problem needs a robust and transparent solution in which capacity is known in order to protect the viewer experience for broadcasters.

Full-Scale Streaming For A Single PSB

Whatever the target “full-scale streaming” capacity figure is for a single PSB – maybe it will be 80% of the national population on a few occasions per year, as it often is in a multi-platform delivery model today – the point is that the PSBs share a large audience on a normal viewing day and across special events.

Thinking ahead to when the majority of PSB viewing is via streaming delivery, a single PSB will need to plan their delivery capacity for very large audiences on an occasional basis. Paying a high premium for this special-use capacity does not make sense when the capacity is being used more frequently by multiple broadcasters, and other content providers such as pure-play streamers and gaming companies.

PSBs see the need to work with their streaming delivery supply chain to alleviate pressure in the delivery networks and assure video delivery quality at scale. There are a mixture of solutions that could form part of a long-term architecture for PSBs, but which architecture will win out in the long-term relies on the right commercial agreements being reached between technology providers and service providers. PSBs have particularly demanding requirements due to the overarching need to provide a universal service in their own domain. They will be the biggest nationwide streaming organizations in the future. Solving for PSB needs is where streaming delivery supply chains will undergo the most transformative changes in the years ahead.

Part 2 of this article will consider the media delivery supply chain elements that are changing, and what this means for PSBs as their audiences migrate to streaming services. 

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