How the BBC is making the UK more tech savvy

Boosting broadband, upping access and aiding the digital switch
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

Boosting broadband, upping access and aiding the digital switch

The BBC plays a major role in improving the country's digital infrastructure and making sure the UK gets access to tech, says Tim Ferguson.

Everyone knows the BBC makes radio and TV programmes but perhaps less well known is the influence the corporation has on the development and uptake of technology in the UK.

The BBC's technology projects impact the media industry as they often provide examples for others to follow and in some cases compete with. More importantly, they create the impetus for the UK to become a more tech-savvy society and high-tech economy.

Due to its scale and public service remit, the BBC also plays an important role in improving the UK population's access to technology and driving business for third party tech developers.

As the BBC's output is one of the cornerstones of British culture, changes in the way the broadcaster distributes its content is felt by the vast majority of the UK population - whether they access the content via the web, mobile or cable.

This is true now more than ever as the UK undergoes a fundamental shift in broadcasting from a world where audiences consume content when it's broadcast, to one where they access content through a wider range of methods and increasingly view content when it's convenient to them.

iPlayer shows the impact of BBC technology

iPlayer shows the impact of BBC technology
(Screenshot: silicon.com)

In order to meet the changing expectations of its audience, the BBC is focusing on digital content, distribution and production, a move which is having a wider impact on the UK's economy.

A good example of the wide impact of BBC technology is iPlayer. The BBC's online on-demand TV service has become a mainstream technology two years after its launch and has highlighted an important issue about the digital future of the UK: bandwidth.

The surge in video streaming that iPlayer has brought about has raised the question of how the nation's broadband infrastructure can be upgraded to cope with the increasing demand for streamed content.

ISPs have already expressed concern about iPlayer and BT has even admitted to restricting bandwidth for people streaming content from iPlayer in order to cope with demand and allow users of other services to have their fair share of bandwidth.

Another BBC project that could make bandwidth an even more pressing issue is Project Canvas, the BBC, BT, Five and ITV initiative to bring IPTV to the nation's living rooms through broadband-connected set-top boxes. It's likely to put even more pressure on the nation's broadband networks.

Among the UK broadcasters, the BBC has been the one that has brought online content to the mainstream and as a result its services have been the ones that have prompted debate about future technology investment in the UK and how the nation's infrastructure can be upgraded in a viable way.

In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the BBC's success with iPlayer and its plans with Canvas aren't major contributory factors in making the government, BT and other ISPs address the issue of next generation broadband by providing services beyond the 2Mbps bandwidth provision laid out by the government's Digital Britain report.

iPlayer's success also shows how the BBC can play a role in increasing the nation's engagement with technology - it has encouraged people who may not have really engaged with online content before to give it a try and added a new dimension to what they can do with the internet.

Competing services such as Channel 4's 4oD have yet to prove as popular as iPlayer. According to Channel 4, Channel4.com had more than 10 million views of long form content in September 2009. In the same period, iPlayer had around 45 million requests for TV content alone.

The theme of increasing the UK population's engagement with technology is another key tenet of the BBC's technology strategy. Controller of BBC Online and head of the BBC's Media Literacy strategy, Seetha Kumar, told me the BBC is working with the rest of the industry to encourage people who may have felt excluded previously to engage with technology.

This doesn't just mean rolling out services that depend on technology - such as iPlayer and Canvas - but also working with different bodies to educate people who aren't using technology to its full potential.

The BBC is a partner in the Race Online 2012 project led by Digital Inclusion, a government-funded not-for-profit organisation. The initiative is aimed at helping people - namely the 10 million people without home internet access - to access more online opportunities such as finding jobs.

The corporation is also part of an Ofcom consortium created to promote digital participation.

Another way the BBC is helping people engage with technology is by offering its expertise to help with the digital switchover, in which a digital signal gradually replaces the analogue television signal. BBC distribution teams are now working with residents in areas where the switchover has been made to ensure they're able to receive the signal and make the best use of it.

The BBC also impacts the UK tech sector through the investment it makes with third party technology developers and manufacturers. Although it develops technology in-house, the BBC is also a significant user of technology developed by others.

Seetha Kumar explains: "Because the BBC is public service, we do have a responsibility to help the creative ecology of the UK and we do have an external supply policy where within the online space we spend 25 per cent of what is eligible externally."

In 2008, for example, the BBC spent £20m with160 technology suppliers on projects ranging from externally built websites and integrating new technology to moderating online user comment.

BBC CTO John Linwood told me recently that the BBC is thinking about how to communicate its technology requirements to suppliers more effectively in order for them to come to the BBC with the most suitable technologies and services.

This will mean technology developers know how to win business with the BBC to the extent that they could plan the tech they produce to meet future BBC demand.

The BBC's technology strategy isn't just about providing the UK with cutting-edge media, it also fuels debate around the future of the UK's communications networks, improves access to technology and has a significant influence on the parts of the economy it touches.

The corporation's current technology projects and those in the future will continue to influence the media industry but, possibly even more importantly, it will also help create impetus for the UK to become a more tech-savvy society and high-tech economy in the future.

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