British ISPs in a Huff Over BBC iPlayer’s Bandwidth Needs

The release of a beta version of the BBC’s new iPlayer late last month has reportedly drawn the ire of UK Internet service providers upset over the media player’s bandwidth requirements and added more fuel to the fire in the net neutrality debate.

Broadband providers including Tiscali UK have charged that downloads via iPlayer require so much bandwidth that they will result in network congestion and ultimately require upgrades to the network, according to reports. Either consumer prices will have to increase or such video download services will have to be limited, the Internet service providers (ISPs) reportedly say.

The iPlayer is an on-demand TV service based on peer-to-peer technology that lets viewers download BBC content for free within the UK. Users have 30 days to view the content, after which time it automatically deletes itself. Users can also watch promotional clips of programs and link back to the iPlayer to download the full shows. The BBC launched a beta version of the technology on July 27, with a full rollout scheduled for the fall.

‘A Young Service’

“We are in regular discussions with the ISPs and together are monitoring the costs associated with video-on-demand,” the BBC said in response to the protests from the ISPs.

Internet TV content delivery is still “a very young service, and we can expect that everything from service propositions to ISP service packages to consumer electronic equipment in the home will evolve over the next few years. We will be playing our part in this, and are working closely with ISPs and consumer electronics manufacturers to deliver the best experience that we can to the audience,” it said.

ISPs Tiscali and BT Group could not be reached for comment, nor could the UK’s Internet Services Providers’ Association.

Some Out in the Cold

The BBC is funded by a TV tax paid by television owners in the UK, and iPlayer is one way the media organization is trying to make its archive of almost 100 years’ worth of content more accessible to those taxpayers, Gerry Kaufhold, principal analyst with In-Stat, told TechNewsWorld.

Ashley Highfield, the BBC’s director of future media and technology, was brought in several years ago from CNBC with that task as part of his mandate, Kaufhold added.

The approach to providing that content via iPlayer has not been without its critics, however, Kaufhold added. In addition to the bandwidth issues, the technology uses Microsoft digital rights management technology to prevent its use outside of the UK, Kaufhold noted. While that protects the company’s revenues from content sales in other countries, the choice of Microsoft’s technology has left Macintosh and Linux users out in the cold — at least temporarily, he said.

‘Open Season on the BBC’

The BBC has announced it is working on versions of the technology for those other platforms, but until those versions are released, “it’s open season on the BBC,” Kaufhold said. “Users are saying, ‘I’ve paid for this, but I can’t use it because I have the wrong kind of PC,'” he explained.

iPlayer’s use of peer-to-peer technology also taps into the net neutrality debate, Kaufhold said, raising the question, “OK, if the BBC is going to deliver this content, using lots of bandwidth in the process, who is going to pay for it?”

Incumbent providers generally don’t like situations in which their bandwidth is being used heavily by a competitive or peer-to-peer network, Gary Schultz, principal analyst and president at Multimedia Research Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Possible Steps

“We think eventually that issue will go away, partially because the cable and telco operators need net neutrality for certain kinds of services, but they will fight it,” he explained.

Such providers do have a right to price in tiers, he added, so that heavier bandwidth users must pay more. Traffic shaping, or the practice of saving bandwidth for particular types of traffic, is another strategy the ISPs could adopt, Schultz added, as is lobbying for favorable regulations.

In the meantime, the stakes are increasing. While there are currently about 7.2 million Internet protocol TV (IPTV) subscribers in Western Europe. That number is expected to jump to about 21.3 million subscribers by 2010, Schultz said.

Planning Ahead

Looking forward, it’s unlikely that the iPlayer will have much impact on the British broadband industry all by itself in the short term, Kaufhold said. Down the road, however, it’s possible problems will arise when millions of users all want to download the same content at the same time, he added.

“Everybody that’s complaining has a stake in this being figured out,” Kaufhold concluded, “and some of the people complaining the loudest may actually be the ones who benefit most.”

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