Interview: Sian Baldwin of BT Wholesale

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ISPs are struggling to cope with consumers’ demand for online video. In the UK, BT is responding by launching its own wholesale content network for video.

BT plans launch of content delivery network for UK internet providers

Sian Baldwin

Sian Baldwin: hundreds of content caches across the
country, integrated into ISPs’ networks

BT is planning to launch a UK-wide content delivery network that will offer owners of video and other content high-quality access to internet service providers and on to their end customers.

The UK incumbent is building the new network because of increasing customer demand for high-bandwidth video content — and a realisation that high-definition TV and movies will put an even greater strain on the existing internet services in the next few years.

“We’re planning to launch the new network in May,” says Sian Baldwin, BT Wholesale’s director of broadband and content services. The UK incumbent has already built a number of caches to store video content and deliver it into the network on behalf of content owners.

The company then plans to launch a video streaming variant of the service in March 2011, providing broadcast channels and other live content to ISPs.

BT Wholesale is making the investment — though Baldwin would not put a figure on the sums the company is spending on the CDN — in the light of increasing capacity in the local loop thanks to high-speed DSL services and the arrival of fibre-to-the-home.

“IP traffic will quadruple between 2008 and 2012,” says Baldwin — that’s a doubling every two years, similar to Moore’s law for microelectronics.

In 2012 traffic in the UK will be equivalent to a continuous 120 kilobits a second spread throughout the 24 hours of each day, she adds. “That’s how we measure it.” In 2008 it was 30 kilobits a second. “And it’s almost entirely video.”

In the UK, the BBC — the national broadcaster — provides online access to most of its TV and radio programmes for seven days or more after first transmission, in high quality video and audio. This service, called iPlayer, is so popular that it is consuming 12 gigabytes of data every second.

Project Canvas

This service is likely to be succeeded later in 2010 by an even more ambitious online TV project, Canvas, which will be a cooperative venture of four broadcasters — the BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 and ITV — and two telecoms operators, BT and TalkTalk.

“We are fast approaching what we call the ‘grumpiness triangle’,” says a BT spokesman. “ISPs are grumpy because the growth in video increases their backhaul costs and so they traffic shape. This makes end users grumpy because they don’t want to wait to watch their favourite television programme. And, in turn, this makes the content creators grumpy because viewers can’t enjoy their programmes as they intended.”

The problem for network providers and ISPs is that current networks were designed for email and web surfing, not for continuous video, and users’ habits have changed. For every one minute of surfing people consume 30 minutes of online video.

“We’re planning ahead of the launch of Canvas,” says Baldwin. “The CDN service will be tightly integrated into our network.”

At the moment ISPs “are cut out of the process”, she adds. With the CDN in place — using caches close to the ISPs’ networks — they will be “about to make quality guarantees to their customers”.

BT Wholesale is hoping that ISPs will not be tempted to build their own CDNs — warning that they will then need to arrange interconnection with all the broadcasters and the content aggregators. “We can provide a single point of entry,” she adds.

This will fill a gap she believes exists between the companies that specialise in transporting content internationally — mainly Akamai Technologies, CDNetworks and Limelight Networks — and the ISPs’ and local-loop unbundlers’ networks that reach the consumers.

“Once the content is in the UK, what happens to it?” asks Baldwin. “I see that localisation of content delivery is the trend.”

BT Wholesale already has four content caches in operation as part of its pre-launch trial — one in the division’s headquarters in Faraday House, central London. “We’ll have hundreds by the time we’re finished. It’s part of our capacity planning.”

Service options

The company hopes to launch the service with three variants that ISPs will be able to select: a basic service, which brings content to the edge of the network; a “best efforts” service, with caches integrated into the network, “but no quality of service guarantee”, she says; and “an assured service, where we’ll deploy caches deep within the network”. 
The caches are actually in the same place for both products, but best efforts has no video QoS, she adds, and so the retailer would need to prioritise the traffic instead of BT Wholesale doing it for them as a complete service. What will BT Wholesale charge ISPs for the service? She won’t say.

Though Baldwin is planning for a launch in May, the real test will come in December 2010 — when viewing peaks for the Christmas and New Year holidays. “Christmas will be critical,” she says.

“This is the biggest growth market in the industry,” she says. “There’s a huge explosive market for content. It would be just crazy to ignore it.” GTB