Thursday, 10 April 2008

The BBC is losing some friends...

...but could it be gaining others?

Another day, another report of how the BBC is upsetting the apple cart in ISP land. The Register is carrying this report of how the ISP Tiscali is up in arms about the high bandwidth consumption being driven by the iPlayer (as I mentioned recently).

It seems that Ashley Highfield's comments regarding ISPs have incurred more wrath as Simon Gunter, strategy chief at Tiscali, claiming it's
"bit rich that a publicly-funded organisation is telling a commercial body how to run its business".
The issue here seems to be that the BBC have delivered a simple service that people are wanting and are willing to use, yet this is having an adverse effect on ISPs working on slim margins.

The suggestion that the BBC be charged with a bandwidth tax for driving web content is a bit rich given that other sites like YouTube seem to be excluded from this rhetoric. Who knows where this will end up?

Meanwhile, just to add further flames to the fire, Anthony Rose announced that the BBC were bringing its popular iPlayer to the world's favourite console, the Nintendo Wii. IGN are reporting that the Wii is outselling the PS3 in Japan by a ratio of about 3.5-1 through March. The homepage of nexgenwars keeps a rough estimate of consoles sold to date (note that the Xbox 360 is 2 million sales behind the Wii despite being on the market a year longer).

The BBC announcement is a little misleading - it's not as if Wii owners are going to get a dedicated iPlayer channel on their Wii-desktop just yet. They will need to use the Opera-based Internet Channel that came free with the console at launch (but later at a cost of 500 Wii points, or approximately £3.50) and bookmark the iPlayer URL.

The major problem the BBC is facing here is the Wii's native use of an inferior quality video codec for playback as Rose spells out:
"Nintendo Wii supports only Flash 7, which uses the Sorenson Spark codec rather than the ON2 VP6 codec introduced with Flash 8. Unfortunately the Sorenson compression isn’t nearly as good as ON2 VP6 compression, which is why most video sites gave up encoding their content in Flash 7 compatible format."
This means that the BBC are having to transcode their programmes to fit the console. However, they figure that instead of people watching iPlayer content on laptop or desktop monitors, there are plenty of Wii's connected to flat panel televisions in the front rooms of the UK (approximatively 2.5 million) - ideal for those people who don't have Virgin Media's 'catch up on demand', Sky+ or another PVR option like Tivo.

The iPlayer normally streams at 500 Kbps and delivers excellent quality video (way better than YouTube which is most likely why they are not being dragged into the furore), but in order to make this work on the Wii, Rose points out that the BBC:
"had to increase the bitrate to 820Kbps because the Sorenson codec used by Wii simply needs more bits to achieve the same picture quality. So, for a smooth playback experience on Wii you’ll need an internet connection that can give you 1Mbps or better."
So what does this mean for the ISPs? You guessed it - more data being streamed adding to their woes. It shouldn't be too long before this kind of service gets integrated into Xbox Media Centre or the Playstation Network, further compounding the bandwidth situation. That is if Sony and Microsoft agree to open up their services. Is the BBC purposefully sticking its head above the parapet and deliberately antagonising ISPs? Is it hoping that if it gets enough people using its service it can justify itself and its license fee?


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