Tuesday, 8 April 2008

The BBC vs ISPs

It looks like the current bête noir of the web, at least in the UK, is not the pirates but the BBC. Charles Arthur over at The Guardian is running a piece on the extra traffic that the BBC's iPlayer is generating.

Recently, we have had rumour and denial regarding Virgin Media's decision to implement the three-strikes-and-your-out policy on customers using peer-to-peer software on their networks. Earlier this week, Charles Dunstone, head of the Carphone Warehouse and Talk Talk openly rejected demands from the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) that the ISP should police it's networks on their behalf. It seems that the ISPs have bigger concerns than a minority of users sharing music and film -

Now, it might seem strange to hear that the BBC has a two part iPlayer: one which streams data much like the kind of streams we see on video sites like YouTube; the other which works like the current BitTorrent protocol via the BBC iPlayer Download Manager - data from files is distributed across users computers and shared in a decentralized way, thus making distribution more even and efficient. The video quality of the second option is far superior than the first option.

One can guess that the streaming bug is a no-brainer for web users accustomed to clicking the play button and expecting their good quality BBC footage streamed on demand. The peer-to-peer option is a little more complicated (but the BBC have done a good job of making it fairly simple). Indeed, a BBC press release from January points out that users stream video at a ratio of 8-1 over the more efficient peer-to-peer route.

YouTube itself is already testing higher quality streamed video as reported by Lifehacker. This looks set to add further misery upon the already strained ISPs as the data load increases.

But let's get back to the iPlayer traffic. Arthur is reporting that all the extra streaming people are doing is adding to the costs of ISPs who tend to pay BT per gigabyte of data used due to the relaince on the latter's IPStream technology. The cost of streaming has almost trebled for some ISPs in the first month alone. These IPStream pipes ted to come in at 155-megabits. Arthur estimates that this means when 300 people are streaming BBC content at 500 kilobits per second, the pipe is choked.

ISPs have suggested the BBC contributes to the situation, perhaps by installing hardware within the UK Broadband network (The Telegraph leaked this last year, dubbed Project Cheetah), although the BBC's head of future media and technology, Ashley Highfield, used a BBC blog to claim that ISPs need to get their house in order and actually deliver on what they advertises to customers. Unlimited broadband should mean just that.

The BBC may be setting itself up for a fall if it is not careful. With the future of television looking increasingly to the internet they do not want to upset those companies best placed to provide the content - it's not as if the BBC own the pipes that connect the houses of the UK. Yet.

ISPs may want to exert some pressure back on the BBC and close down the iPlayer streaming service if it costs them too much. After all, it is carried on port 1935 and we have seen ports blocked before. China does it very well. It would not be too surprising if the BBC was forced to curtail the streaming service in favour of the peer-to-peer model...

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