BT Group makes net neutrality call as it looks to improve network efficiency

Telco claims breakthrough technology that improves quality and reliability of live content for viewers while driving down costs for broadcasters and network operators, but calls for rethink in net neutrality debate

BT Group has launched what it calls a live TV technology breakthrough that will meet growing customer demand and provide a more reliable, quality-focused and sustainable way of delivering live content over the internet.

The technology, Multicast-Assisted Unicast Delivery (MAUD), aims to improve the viewer experience and increase the efficiency of the complex network journey that content takes to reach them.

The launch comes as BT Group published research showing the UK public’s appetite for watching live content is undiminished, despite the growing popularity of on-demand content services. Some 90% of the British public still consume live content – primarily news and sport – via television, with more than half doing so at least once a day.

Despite new service innovations, more than nine in 10 viewers believe picture quality and reliability are paramount, outstripping interactive features, commentary and stream syncing by nearly 3.5 to one. When it comes to sport, viewers still prefer picture quality and reliability over latency.

Unlike traditional unicast delivery, MAUD technology uses multicast to group single streams into one shared stream. A further advantage over “ordinary” multicast streams, according to BT, is that its integration is made completely transparent to the player application, which means content service providers don’t need to modify their customer apps to take advantage of the technology.

The company added that removing the need to select and serve millions of individual streams to viewers increases the efficiency of content delivery, but also reduces the environmental impact and overall costs for broadcasters, content delivery networks (CDNs) and internet providers.

MAUD technology is said to use up to 50% less bandwidth during peak events, reducing energy usage through the use of fewer caches. By freeing up internet capacity, MAUD is also said to deliver a higher quality of experience for live and non-live content. Major broadcasters, including the BBC, will be involved in evaluating and potentially trialling the technology to support a range of live content.

Yet as it was announcing the technological solution to alleviate what could be issues facing network users in the face of growing consumption, BT warned of the general need to discuss the issue of net neutrality and scheduling with broadcasters and games companies. Downloads of popular games – the update of Call of Duty Modern Warfare was cited – are placing extra strain of networks.

As MAUD was being unveiled, Howard Watson, chief security and networks officer at BT Group, said traditional unicast technologies were inherently wasteful in terms of energy use in content delivery and wasted storage sat in BT’s server racks. Yet he warned that as a content distributor or internet service provider, BT had no means of influence over the content providers to encourage them to deliver content in an energy- and network-efficient way.

He noted that despite investigating the issue in October 2023, UK broadcast and communications regulator Ofcom had not provided any regulatory backstop to prevent a content provider flooding the BT network over an inefficient route.

“Whilst we innovate … we do need a framework to evolve to allow us to accommodate some of those [issues], and that’s why we welcomed Ofcom’s recent look at this. The first thing [it has done] is to look at more flexibility to prioritise different categories of traffic, which means we can therefore start to manage points of congestion. That gives us some options to prioritise live content, say a football match, over less time-sensitive content, say the Call of Duty download.

“Ofcom also provided some clear examples of what might be allowed as a specialised service in our net neutrality laws. You’re always allowed to do things slightly different for specialised services, [such as] ... high-bandwidth video; person-to-person voice and video applications; machine-to-machine communication; plus some of the new 5G innovation opportunities like network slicing.

“Without that on the network slicing, it would have been difficult to launch. And we do see some companies [flood the network], a very inefficient way of delivering content. We welcome the [regulatory] progress but we think it hasn’t quite gone far enough. We certainly believe that a fundamental review of net neutrality regulations would be welcomed…we think it should be modernised to adapt to the current means by which content comes from a small number of players in increased volumes, and then we should have a set of principles for how that is handled.”

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