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BBC speaks out over ISPs' iPlayer objections

Row over UK iPlayer bandwidth continues

The BBC is seeking to diffuse the growing controversy over the BBC iPlayer’s heavy demands on the web infrastructure in the UK, claiming it’s in regular discussions with ISPs regarding the costs of downloading video.

As reported this morning, the BBC is under fire from ISPs over how its new multimedia player may cause an increase in demand for bandwidth, placing greater stresses on the infrastructure of ISP's.

But in a statement, the BBC pushed the issue back to the ISPs, which it said are responsible for pricing, monthly limits on how much data can be downloaded as well as acceptable use polices for their users.

"Inevitably, some ISP packages will be more suitable than others for the download of large amounts of data," the BBC said in a statement. "All broadband is not equal."

The row highlights how much investment ISPs will need to put in their infrastructure to accommodate greater demand for video. Supplying broadband access is not a high-margin business, and ISPs are increasingly looking to provide their own packages of internet access plus content offerings such as IPTV (Internet protocol television), said Jonathan Coham, a broadband analyst at Ovum.

The rift with the BBC over bandwidth may be a red herring, where the real issue is that the BBC's content will eventually compete with content offerings from ISPs such BT and Tiscali, Coham said.

"It's interesting they are making such a big deal out of the BBC's iPlayer," Coham said. "Obviously, the BBC has a very strong back catalogue of titles."

Broadband provider Tiscali said services such as the iPlayer and others "are being launched without proper attention to the cost of delivery". Increasing bandwidth will cost broadband operators more money, Tiscali said in a statement.

A BT spokesman would only say that the iPlayer and other video download services are "being factored into our decisions on bandwidth and quality of service".

It's not clear how much strain the iPlayer has had so far on ISPs. The BBC opened up the iPlayer to a public beta last month, and a BBC spokeswoman said "well over" 100,000 people have downloaded it so far. The BBC plans to let anyone download the iPlayer by the fall.

The UK's ISP Association has not take a public stance on the iPlayer so far, according to a spokesman.

"Obviously, ISPs need to stay ahead of the game, so it's not unlikely that they will be investing in that infrastructure," the spokesman said. "It's obviously a competitive advantage."

Questions have also been raised if ISPs could use so-called "traffic shaping" technology, which can limit the transfer of certain types of data. Some British ISPs already use technology to prioritise VoIP (Voice over Internet protocol) traffic to maintain the quality of voice calls over the internet, the ISPA spokesman said.

Tiscali is using traffic shaping to manage bandwidth to ensure all customers have equal access. At peak times, Tiscali said peer-to-peer traffic is slowed but not limited. The iPlayer would fall into the same category, although Tiscali has not yet specifically targeted its traffic, the company said.

But regulating bandwidth based on the type of traffic leads to the net neutrality debate, which revolves around whether service providers should be able block or slow content from other service providers.

Ultimately, ISPs should be able to make enough money for infrastructure improvements by charging their customers more for higher data consumption, Coham said.

The iPlayer is key in the BBC's strategy to eventually let users buy the right to view its back catalogue of shows and programmes. Right now, UK residents can watch some programmes that aired during the previous week for free and without advertising. After users download a programme, they have 30 days to watch it before the programme deletes itself.

At the moment the iPlayer only works with Windows XP, which prompted critics to complain taxpayer money was being spent to support a single software vendor, although the BBC has pledged to create versions for other platforms.

See also:

iPlayer review


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