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How BBC R&D is laying the foundations for the broadcasting future

Interview: Controller of BBC Research and Development, Matthew Postgate
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor on

Interview: Controller of BBC Research and Development, Matthew Postgate

The BBC's controller of R&D, Matthew Postgate, lifts the lid on the role his department plays, its main priorities for the future and the changing broadcast landscape.

From the creation of Ceefax and helping to kick start the use of PCs in schools, to the early days of the web and iPlayer - the BBC has been no slouch when it comes to technology.

With telly already leaving behind its analogue roots as programming is consumed over an ever-wider array of devices, platforms and channels, the Beeb's R&D department - charged with keeping the BBC on top of tech developments - has its work cut out for it.

According to the controller of BBC R&D, Matthew Postgate, the department has seen its stock soar as the UK's appetite for digital programming grows.

"From my perspective, the BBC's always been half an engineering organisation and half an editorial organisation. I think we've come through a period where the influence of the engineering aspects on our output had stabilised for so long that we'd almost forgotten how important that was. [With] the advent of digital technologies and convergence, suddenly the importance of that aspect of what we do became incredibly relevant again," Postgate told silicon.com.

Postgate became controller of BBC R&D in autumn 2008 as part of a shake-up of the Future Media and Technology (FM&T) division by incoming director Erik Huggers who, on taking over the role, realised the division needed to change the way it worked to better deal with the rapidly changing broadcast environment.

There was also a recognition of the need for a strengthened R&D capability to contribute more to technology development within the BBC, as well as the wider broadcast industry.

Today, the BBC's R&D department serves a number of functions: the first is to spot technology trends before they happen, to make sure the BBC can be up to speed with technological developments coming down the track.

"We sit out there at the vanguard. We are tasked with making sure we act as an early warning system so the corporation knows the kind of challenges that it's likely to be facing well ahead of time," Postgate said.

Once a technology that is likely to become more important in the next few years has been identified, the R&D team works on how to be best placed to take advantage of it when it becomes more mainstream.

An example of this was when the R&D department registered the bbc.co.uk domain name back in 1991 when using the web was still a long way off from becoming an everyday experience for most Britons.

More generally, the R&D team works to solve problems around emerging technologies - which could include how to scale a technology for a large number of users or how to overcome a technical issue that may have hindered take-up in the past - to allow the BBC as a whole to use them more effectively.

"We tend to recruit engineers who exhibit specific problem-solving abilities and then they will develop very specialist skills over quite long career trajectories, so you end up with almost like a standing army of problem solvers that can be applied to those challenges as they come towards the BBC, often working alongside in the wider FM&T division and the editorial areas of the BBC," Postgate said.

While the R&D department has to keep its eyes trained on the technological horizon, a proportion of its efforts is still very much focused on the near term - on development work that can feed into the rest of the BBC within the next year, such as work around the Digital Switchover, when the UK moves to all-digital broadcasting in 2012.

Strategic research, which takes around 10 per cent of the department's efforts, looks at tech that could become significant in a timeframe of five or more years.

Applied research, meanwhile, looks at technology likely to be relevant in the next one to five years. It takes up around 45 per cent of the department's time and resources and can cover work such as...

...developing code which could feed into upcoming projects, filing patents or examining new production techniques.

One of the potential beneficiaries of the applied research is the proposed IPTV platform, Project Canvas - a collaboration between the BBC, BT, ITV and others.

"You could say we've been working on elements that the Canvas proposals would benefit from for many years. I mean we were very, very active in the definition of the digital television standard, DVB-T [Digital Video Broadcasting - Terrestrial] and we're in the process of essentially standardising and producing silicon for DVB-T2. Now the Canvas proposal said it should bring that broadcast technology together with an internet technology so arguably that work will be useful," Postgate said.

"Whilst the work R&D have done over the years has been instrumental in shaping Project Canvas, we didn't ask R&D to go and build an IPTV platform. That's not what they are there for. But the whole point about having an R&D group is that when the time comes and someone comes along and asks us to build something like that, we're in a position to say, 'yeah OK, we can put this together'," he added.

However, the biggest technical challenge for BBC R&D at the moment is how to improve accessibility to archived material - something Postgate feels could have as big a cultural and industrial impact as iPlayer.

"When I'm talking about the archive I'm really talking about that much larger challenge which is about a society being able to retain its collective memory and hopefully benefit from it more than it has in the past - rather than being a society that is ascribed the same fate of those societies that relied on an aural tradition to maintain their identity. It's an order of magnitude above and beyond the iterative development of BBC iPlayer."

The BBC Archive website is gradually being added to - with recent additions including the 1939 radio broadcast in which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain tells the nation that it's at war with German and early episodes of Tomorrow's World - but the content remains the tip of the iceberg compared to the BBC's programming output over the last 75 years.

As well as specific tech projects, the R&D team has also contributed to the government's Digital Britain report which will determine the UK's digital future, from changes to the broadband landscape to the development of the country's creative industries and digital participation among Britain's internet refuseniks.

"For us Digital Britain isn't a report, it's a core objective, a core purpose - certainly for the BBC's FM&T division. We've got a number of teams looking at different areas that could drive that agenda," Postgate said.

One of these areas is how to use 'white space' spectrum that will become available once the analogue TV signal has been turned off. This unlicensed spectrum could be used to deliver new wireless services such as broadband that could contribute to the Digital Britain agenda of making 2Mbps broadband accessible to every UK home and business.

As a publicly funded organisation, the BBC needs to take an active role in helping to develop the broadcasting industry in the UK and as such, the corporation contributes to the creation of standards around broadcasting technology with bodies such as the Digital Video Broadcasting Project, an industry consortium aimed at creating open technical standards for digital TV and data services.

"Unless an organisation has an R&D function, they're not really in a position to contribute to the technical bodies on which those standards are set. So the BBC R&D performs a role both on behalf of the BBC and on behalf of UK plc to make sure our interests are represented there," Postgate said.

BBC R&D also works with organisations such as Ofcom and the European Broadcasting Union to provide technical opinion and help in defining strategy around communications and broadcasting.

"It's almost like having a seat on the media industry's security council as it were, and to qualify you don't need nuclear weapons but you do need a pretty decent R&D function," he added.

With BBC R&D currently with 43 different projects - such as bringing HD to Freeview, creating the DVB-T2 standard, investigating white space spectrum, and green technology - on its work plan, with "another 40" that the team would like to be working on, the department may not have nuclear weapons but there's no doubt it's among the BBC's big guns.

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