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BT says it can save UK up to £16.5B on streaming deluge

MAUD, a new technology developed by BT, could reduce the live-sports and gaming load on future broadband networks.

Iain Morris

December 8, 2023

5 Min Read
BT Tower at night
BT Tower in the UK still processes most of the UK's TV content.(Source: BT)

Top-flight televised matches in the soccer-mad UK are a nervy affair for telecom executives as well as club managers. Besides the typical fan worries about losing, the technical team of Howard Watson, BT's chief security and networks officer, must also deal with record levels of data traffic whenever streaming platforms show a few games at once. On December 6, yet another record was set when Liverpool, Manchester United and several other teams all took to the pitch. Data traffic peaked at 30.1 terabits per second. An ill-timed Call of Duty Modern Warfare update didn't help.

BT has mostly desisted from the European telco whingeing about "fair share," the idea that streaming platforms rather than soccer fans are to blame for this data deluge and should therefore pay for it. But Chris Bramley, BT's managing director of network applications, services and group network architecture, thinks the UK-wide industry could face investments of up to £16.5 billion (US$20.8 billion) if broadband networks fully replace broadcasting technologies and the current trends persist. Strengthening networks to handle those data peaks doesn't cost nothing.

But a BT breakthrough might be relatively inexpensive compared with traditional approaches. Internet Protocol networks are problematic because they are usually based on "unicast" technology, which sends a separate "stream" to each individual user. Add them up and a content delivery network (CDN) might have millions of requests. Since 2018, experts at the UK operator's Adastral Park research facility have been experimenting with a "multicast" alternative that would effectively allow one stream to serve millions of customers.

Dubbed MAUD, for multicast-assisted unicast delivery, it has already been successfully trialled with Qwilt, a company putting content "caches" into the BT network. "We would request one copy of that content to distribute across multicast and into people's home gateways, which then turn it back into unicast," explained Maria Cuevas, who manages BT's mobility research program, during a press conference at BT Tower. "This is a combination of multicast and unicast delivery and once it gets to the end device it is unicast and the device cannot tell that you have done anything in the middle."

Cache rich

BT reckons MAUD could slash bandwidth use by up to 50% during peak events. Without it, caches would need to be scaled up to cope with those peak loads, said Cuevas. BT currently does caching at 13 locations across its UK network, and the costs of not introducing MAUD or an equivalent fix would be much greater for other players, according to its estimates. Of the £16.5 billion figure that Bramley cites, BT would bear up to an additional £1 billion ($1.3 billion), according to Watson.

Rolling MAUD out nationwide would not be especially disruptive or costly, is the message from BT. One challenge is integrating the technology with third-party content delivery networks (CDNs), but this process apparently took only a day for BT's trial with Qwilt. Nor do content companies have to modify customer apps. "The beauty of MAUD is the total transparency to the client," said Bramley. "You can drop in this capability and the client would never know." Alternatives BT examined are much more complicated, he told Light Reading.

He concedes, however, that more heavy lifting is needed at the customer end. BT has engineered its latest smart hubs to support MAUD software and henceforth will only provide MAUD-compatible customer equipment. Supporting the older estate would be harder, but that does not invalidate the effort, insists Bramley. "It doesn't have to be all or nothing."

Even so, BT is not prepared at this stage to say when MAUD could be more widely deployed. "We need to work in partnership with the content ecosystem," said Bramley. "We think this is something very transparent and there are very limited client changes. But until we've worked with a few more of them, we don't really know the answer to that question." BT is, however, to begin working with the BBC on a scale deployment for live events in advance of next year's European Football Championship, hosted by Germany.

Paolo Pescatore, an analyst with PP Foresight, is encouraged by what he has seen of MAUD and thinks the market is under growing pressure to find a common answer. "Ultimately, gathering support among content providers will be critical for adoption and success for all, including a much better experience for viewers," he told Light Reading by email. "Sure, some of the leading players may have their own plans; let's not forget that it still has to be delivered over the telco networks!"

Telco innovation

What's especially interesting about MAUD is that it's the rare product of research and development (R&D) by a telco rather than a vendor. Including capitalized development costs, BT pumped about £683 million ($859 million) or 3.3% of revenues into R&D in its last fiscal year. And while that is a small amount compared with spending by the likes of Ericsson and Nokia, it puts BT ahead of most peers. All this, including BT's ownership of the intellectual property, raises questions about the role it could play in providing MAUD to the broader ecosystem.

"We need to think about the right commercial models," said Watson. "We are going to find a partner who can build the capability and productize it and be able to deliver that in volume to people in addition to ourselves and support the software – all the things that a product vendor needs to do – and then the key question is we do retain some intellectual property in this."

On that front, BT is understood to have been in talks with Broadpeak, a French developer of video-streaming technologies, about the incorporation of MAUD into its products. Earlier this year, Broadpeak began offering a different flavor of multicast technology to DAZN, a popular video-streaming service.

Still, given the underlying message about slashing that £16.5 billion investment need, MAUD is unlikely to be a money spinner for BT. Its main interest is in being able to deploy it and cut spending, not "some licensing revenues from intellectual property," said Watson. It would be good to see more of this proactivity, and hear fewer complaints about freeriding Internet giants, at Europe's other big telcos.

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Europe

About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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