BBC's multimedia player causes row over bandwidth

The BBC is under fire from ISPs over how its new multimedia player may cause an increase in demand for bandwidth.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is under fire from Internet service providers over how its new multimedia player may cause an increase in demand for bandwidth, placing greater stresses on the infrastructure of ISP's.

It's the latest controversy to erupt over the BBC's iPlayer, an application in a public beta that lets people download and watch programs broadcasted within the last seven days. The iPlayer uses peer-to-peer technology, which allows bits of content to be download from other users, at speeds that enable up to 300M-bytes of data to be downloaded per hour.

A BBC spokeswoman said on Monday the broadcaster is in regular discussions with ISPs regarding the costs of downloading video. 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 Group and Tiscali U.K., 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 catalog of titles."

Broadband provider Tiscali U.K. 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 U.K.'s Internet Service Providers' 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 prioritize 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 catalog of shows and programs. Right now, U.K. residents can watch some programs that aired during the previous week for free and without advertising. After users download a program, they have 30 days to watch it before the program deletes itself.

At the moment the iPlayer only works with Microsoft's 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.

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Jeremy Kirk

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