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"Hidden Costs" Of Watching TV Online?

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Ashley Highfield | 12:57 UK time, Wednesday, 2 April 2008

According to The Daily Telegraph,

Britain's broadband usage has changed beyond recognition in a matter of months. Since Christmas Day - when the BBC launched its online catch-up service, the iPlayer - a trend towards watching TV on the web has grown enormously.

(A bit of theatrical licence can be granted: Britain's broadband usage has not in fact changed beyond recognition, but perhaps the expectations of broadband users have.)

A diverse number of players, from Channel 4 to MSN to Virgin Broadband have gone on record to say that this is a good thing: all on-demand TV boats are rising on the BBC iPlayer tide.

But many commentators have pointed out that some Internet Service Providers who offer "unlimited broadband" can start to charge their customers extra after only a few TV programmes have been accessed.

What's to be done?

The Telegraph suggested that users stream content rather than download to save money. We don't think this makes any difference.

the_passion.pngAs an aside, the BBC iPlayer service offers both streaming and downloading, and will continue to do so. Most programmes have a ratio of around eight streams for every download, but high-end drama, such as The Passion had over a quarter of its iPlayer consumption via the P2P download service. To reiterate, the BBC iPlayer is not, as the Telegraph keeps saying, exclusively a peer-to-peer download service.

So, if streaming rather than downloading is not the answer for users to reduce their chances of exceeding their monthly cap and ending up with an additional bill, what is?

How about a Broadband Charter? Here are nineteen potential actions that could help bring clarity to this issue, enable audiences to know what they're paying for, and help ISPs move the broadband market forward (in no particular order):

Internet Service Providers:

1. ISPs should be clearer in their marketing (Ofcom can help them). Unlimited broadband should mean unlimited.

2. There should be industry agreement on what you buy is what you get: for a start, an 8Mbs-1 tariff should deliver "at least" 8Mbs-1, not "up to". (I recognise the difficulties with the quality of the line and contention ratios etc., but this issue needs tackling).

3. ISPs which offer genuinely unlimited broadband - i.e., without a cap (or with very high caps) - should (and probably will) more aggressively use this fact as a key point in their marketing.

4. I would not suggest that ISPs start to try and charge content providers. They are already charging their customers for broadband to receive any content they want. If ISPs start charging content providers, the customer will not know which content will work well over their chosen ISP, and which content may have been throttled for non-payment of a levy.

5. There could be an industry standard for "high definition broadband". HD Broadband (working title) would be a minimum guaranteed speed of connection (probably 8Mbs-1). All ISPs could market the service (like Sky HD and Virgin HD) and drive up revenue per sub. If this happened, then...

Content Providers:

6. All content providers could create packages or tiers of HD content optimised for this new standard tier of "HD Broadband". (It might need guaranteed quality of service - or, alternatively, this could just be a marketing initiative rather than a regulated service).

7. Content providers, if they find their content being specifically squeezed, shaped, or capped, could start to indicate on their sites which ISPs their content works best on (and which to avoid). I hope it doesn't come to this, as I think we (the BBC and the ISPs) are currently working better together than ever.

8. There are a number of functionality solutions which content providers can implement to lighten the load on the network which should help ISPs refrain from resorting to capping. One of these is bookmarking, which would enable us to know what programmes a user wants, ahead of transmission, and download them off-peak to the user's hard-drive pre-transmission (hidden and encrypted), to be ready to be unlocked immediately after the programme has gone out on traditional linear TV. We are applying to the BBC Trust to be able to offer this service for iPlayer downloads.

9. The best technical solution is usually Moore's Law, which has delivered massive reductions year on year in the wholesale cost of bandwidth and also reduced the bandwidth needed to consume a good quality full-screen TV picture (ever improving video codecs and compression algorithms have helped enormously). But BT Wholesale's prices are regulated by Ofcom, and not subject to Moore's Law.

10. Although some have reported that we are exploring the costs/benefits of moving our content closer to our audience (potentially reducing much duplicated traffic, basically by putting BBC servers into the network), it is far too early to say whether this solution will work, or is even an appropriate intervention for the BBC.

11. We are already taking measures: we make it clear to users to check their ISP's tariffing structure: BBC iPlayer has a warning in its Terms and Conditions before you install the download manager. Further, a pop-up appears after 2GB of iPlayer programmes have been downloaded recommending that you check your ISP monthly cap.

12. Finally, we can either reduce the amount of content we offer, or reduce the quality of the programmes (by reducing bit-rate). As a fixed revenue company, this would be our only recourse if we had to pay more for distribution. This is not a desired outcome for anyone: my worry here is this could stop the rising spring tide of increasing supply, demand and consumption.

Users:

13. Subscribers should (and will) increasingly look for genuinely unlimited deals from their ISPs, and for ISPs that do not throttle bandwidth at peak hours, which can have the effect of causing streaming playback to fail to work correctly.

14. Users can set alerts on some ISPs to warn them when they have exceeded certain levels of monthly consumption.

15. Users should not panic unless they are very heavy users. Typical iPlayer usage (one programme per week per user) on a standard tariff on the UK's largest ISP (BT) would utilise 20% of their monthly allowance, and incur no additional charge.

16. Users should let us, and the ISPs, know their thoughts (hence this blog post).

Government and the Regulators:

17. You can't have a debate about this issue without reference to BT Wholesale (with whom we actually have a very good relationship). The ISPs which have their own network (Virgin) are busily rolling out 50Mb/s broadband. The rest have either installed their own equipment at BT switches (local loop unbundled - LLU), or simply buy capacity wholesale off BT Wholesale (e.g. Tiscali), and are, to a greater or lesser extent, beholden to the (regulated but quite reasonably profit-making motivated) BT Wholesale. There are those who are starting to ask whether, as with the regulator led introduction of LLU that was necessary to kickstart broadband in the first place, there is another sizable intervention required again now.

18. A less radical alternative to an intervention against BT Wholesale would be to encourage alternative forms of distribution. Ofcom is actively looking at everything from Wifi and Wi-Max to sewers, and exploring what encouragement and relaxation of regulation would be required to accelerate these nascent markets.

19. The regulators will undoubtedly determine whether this whole issue is structural, or whether what we are witnessing is that the ISPs are fighting a commercial war on a public policy stage, and that this has nothing to do with content providers or the BBC at all (indeed Ofcom, in their market impact assessment of iPlayer, believe that much of the increase in consumption over IP would happen anyway, with or without iPlayer).

I put down all these points to get the conversation going.

I'm not advocating them (except where I explicitly say so), but we are pulling together our thoughts here at the BBC, and liaising with the ISPs both individually and through the Broadband Stakeholders Group, and with the BBC Trust and Ofcom, so your thoughts on these points are, as ever, very welcome.

Ashley Highfield is Director, BBC Future Media & Technology

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