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BBC iPlayer HD now on Virgin Media

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Gideon Summerfield Gideon Summerfield | 15:17 UK time, Friday, 1 May 2009

Fast on the heels of our launch of HD in BBC iPlayer on the Web we are now able to bring HD catch-up to the TV in the living room. Content from our BBC HD channel is now available in BBC iPlayer on Virgin Media Digital cable and I think it's the best BBC iPlayer picture quality yet.

picture taken from mobile in front of a very sunny window

The continuing demand for large, flat screen HD TV sets flies in the face of the credit crunch but there is still not much high-quality HD content available. The BBC HD channel is, of course, at the forefront of making more available as far and wide as possible, but adding a catch-up element to this provides more opportunity to watch some of the best of it.

iPlayer users with fast internet connections are already benefitting from HD on the web version of the iPlayer. And, by using the proprietary VOD cable TV network, we can now also offer even better HD video to the 500,000+ homes who already have an HD-capable set-top cable TV box*. And just like the standard-definition BBC iPlayer content, that 1.5 million cable homes regularly watch, the HD programmes play to the end without hiccup or pause, for everyone.

That's not to say what's being achieved is easy. HD video in the 1080i video format we're using has five times the resolution of regular TV pictures. The size of the HD video files we are shipping around are enormous, so we have to get them down to a size that can be sent more comfortably over the web: we squeeze 720P HD video into a data rate of just 3.5mbit/sec with clever use of the very efficient H.264 encoding system. The older MPEG2 format supported by digital cable, however, needs 18mbit/sec for 1080i To support the older MPEG2 format needed by digital cable, however, we are encoding 1080i HD video at 18mbit/sec - a rate that is unthinkable on the open Internet today - a rate that is unthinkable on the open Internet today.

* To watch HD in BBC iPlayer on digital cable you will need a V+ set-top box connected to an HD-capable TV with an HDMI or component cable (not SCART). Also, the HD options will only appear in the extended BBC iPlayer user interface if you have chosen a "HiDef " video display option on your set-top box (from the Virgin Media Home page chose Settings > Change Display and Audio Settings >TV Display Format).

Gideon Summerfield is Products Manager, TV iPlayer, BBC Future Media & Technology

picture taken from mobile in front of a very sunny window


  • Comment number 1.

    I have to say I am disappointed with the PQ of the HD downloads from the online version of iPlayer. Yes, they're significantly better than the previous best and I know that there's only so much information that can be crammed into 3.2Mbit/sec.

    However, I was hoping for something that would really say "this is HD!" and I don't think this is it. I did a quick side by side comparison of an HD show from iPlayer and the same show I recorded on Freeview. There was very little between them and I asked my brother to tell me which he thought was HD and he just said "they're both the same".

    Is the Virgin Media version visually better than the online version?

  • Comment number 2.

    The Virgin Media version is very good. It looks spot on on my Toshiba 32in LCD.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm really thrilled we got this service off the BBC and Virgin Media so quickly, I've been waiting some time for it. I think your hard work will pay off and it'll be pretty popular and get that HD reach up. When the service in SD and HD reaches freesat I think that will also do good things for that platform and the iPlayer. Well done. I hope these big efforts technologically can move onto other areas now such as encoders and planning additional channel launches and really take the service forward to be very strong.

  • Comment number 4.

    "18mbit/sec - a rate that is unthinkable on the open Internet today "

    ....unless you're a Virgin broadband customer, in which case you can get 20 mb/s or even 50 mb/s broadband....

    "unthinkable" ?

  • Comment number 5.

    "....unless you're a Virgin broadband customer, in which case you can get 20 mb/s or even 50 mb/s broadband...."

    ...For four minutes, before Virgin traffic shape you to the point where it'd be quicker to communicate by carrier pigeon.

    So yeah, unthinkable. It's also worth noting that Virgin's backhaul infrastructure is nowhere near capable of delivering 50mb/s to any of those subscribers.


  • Comment number 6.


    Please conduct the appropriate research before posting derogatory comments.


    Look at the 50Mb section, do you see ANYTHING about traffic shaping? Thought not.

    I am in a 50Mb trial area and ALWAYS get maximum speeds with NO traffic shaping, besides when I was on 20mb before this, even if I went over the limit, (rarely that I download 6GB in a few hours as this is a VERY high amount of data).

    Get your facts right.

  • Comment number 7.

    It is only usually illegal downloaders who get capped, the average person is very unlikely to download 6GB in the space of just a few hours....

  • Comment number 8.


    If you have something against Virgin for an invalid reason, why are you commenting about them?

    Myself and everyone I know have never had any problems with them

    Enjoy your up to 0.005MB ADSL

  • Comment number 9.

    It is true that the 50MB is currently totally open, however it costs a considerable amount of money. The 10Mb Medium line only gives you 750Mb in the evening before it drops you down to 2.5Mb. That isn't much HiDef viewing before you hit the throttle cap.

    Having said that, 2.5Mb over fibre isn't too bad really anyway but if we were talking about streaming rather than watching over V+ box you would prob have to drop to standard def at that point.

  • Comment number 10.

    "If you have something against Virgin for an invalid reason, why are you commenting about them?"

    With all due respect magician2009 I feel you are being at least a little hypocritical after saying:

    "It is only usually illegal downloaders who get capped"

    Maybe your should conduct your own research before making such sweeping statements...

  • Comment number 11.

    50MB doesn't cost all that much, I pay £35 a month for the broadband and phone, good value.

    I have conducted research, anyway if the high definition stuff is on the v+ boxes, why would you watch it online?

    And if you check L 10MB limit is 2.4GB, not 750Mb...

  • Comment number 12.

    The MAJORITY of internet users in the UK have SUB 4 MB/s connections!

    So the statement about 18MB/s on the open internet being an unthinkable option for iplayer is perfectly correct.

    Just think yourself very lucky if you are one of the small minority that has access to such speeds.

  • Comment number 13.

    As a Virgin customer I'd say Phazer's comments are nearest the mark. On everything except the 50 megabit service Virgin throttle down to either 128 kbit or 192 kbit upstream once you transfer even a modest amount. At that rate a typical low resolution 700 megabyte movie takes about 15 hours to upload! Those sort of speeds are what I was getting when I first signed up to broadband 10 years ago, not a million miles better than dial up. If Virgin's network is so bad it has to throttle even it's premium customers (50 megabit isn't available in a lot of areas) down to such low speeds, you really think they're going to be able to support much 18 megabit usage very well? I'm not saying there isn't anyone out there that can't get 18 megabit if they do a quick one off test, but thats not the same as saying Virgin's network could handle that all over the country if a lot of people regularly tried, especially over the 'open Internet' (i.e. not just to a relatively local server).

  • Comment number 14.

    Sky recently announced they'd be launching a full Video On Demand service for their HD boxes using the broadband connection.

    Is there any chance that the BBC iPlayer might launch on Sky as part of this? It'd be a very welcome addition!

  • Comment number 15.

    Spencer4h, I hope it works out..but if it goes through Sky/BT ADSL, and it's HD I really can't see it working.

    Additionally, everyone I know is on the 20mb Package, they get their full speed, and the average user is unlikely to download 6GB (20mb threshold) in a few hours, and even so when it is throttled to 5 or 10 mb for a while, it is still far, far, faster than the competition

  • Comment number 16.

    The debate on broadband traffic will continue to rage for some time I suspect. However all broadband services suffer from the following drawbacks for the delivery of real-time video:

    1) You are contended. Pretty much across the board, providers have a 20:1 contention ratio. This means that if you are quoted 20Mb/s you will AT BEST achieve 1 Mb/s at busy times. Some providers go to 100:1 or more!!

    2) Any 'glitch' in the line speed can cause a drop in frames. Bear in mind that in the uk, frames must be delivered at 25fps. This is why any variation in delivery latency is critical.

    The other issue mentioned is that upload speeds are generally pretty rubbish. This is the 'A' part of ADSL i.e. the upload speed is generally much worse than the download speed. Of course, this isn't such an issue here as the uplink is used for command and control which is low traffic.

    Virgin implements a kind of switched network if you have fibre coming into the home. Hence the download link speeds run at real network speeds rather than the clunky ADSL service speeds. If you get Virgin ADSL, i.e. delivered over your phone, its no better than any other ADSL in principle.

    Like Virgin we are implementing a full networked switch solution into homes. This allows full broadcast HD right to your living room. This is ONLY possible as we implement a Gb network which is 1:1 i.e. uncontended.

    So, in short, if its contended you can't do linear deliver of HD, regardless of the line speed claimed, if you are getting VOD content, the service will be a function of the buffering implemented at your client and the actual speed you are achieving.

  • Comment number 17.

    I am afraid it is magician2009 that needs to conduct his/her research a bit more dilligantly as The_Phazer is correct to say that Virgin Media throttling practices make the speeds mentioned unthinkable.

    The current situation where 50Mb is not capped/traffic shaped is a *temporary* situation. The CEO of Virgin has already publically stated that the 50Mb service will be traffic shaped in line with all it's internet packages once the roll out is complete.

    Remember that Traffic Shaping has been enforced on VM customers for one reason only, VM simply do not have the infrastructure to supply all of it's customers with the "up to" speeds they signed up for, so while any some users on XL+ packages might manage to squeeze out over 20m/bits per sec, it is pie in the sky to think it's achievable across the entire network.

  • Comment number 18.

    Even if VM introduce capping on their 50Mb, it will be at a very high threshold, if 20Mb is at 6GB, and this is over twice the speed, a good example would be 10GB, it is very unlikely, even when using HD that either 6 or 10GB be breached in a few hours.

    Additionally, it is a fact that the average user is unkily to exceed 6GB of downloading in a few hours.

    I don't know if you have just had a bad experience, but all of the people I know with VM always get the full speed and they are all on either 20 or 50MB

  • Comment number 19.

    Content is sadly lacking on iPlayer HD via Virgin Media compared to the online version.

    Why is this??

  • Comment number 20.

    Yes what has happened to Virgin Media HD iPlayer. Last week it had 2 pages of programmes now we are down to only a few programmes.
    I missed Last of The Summer Wine on Sunday and was hoping to catch in HD Catch up as it has been there in the past.
    South Pacific last night was Fantastic more of this please.

  • Comment number 21.

    The arrival of content in the Virgin Media HD iPlayer appears most erratic. There has been no sign (yet) of recent prestige BBC series George Gently, South Pacific or The Incredible Human Journey, but we're treated to the likes of Kerwhizz and Doctors - hardly the most compelling HD programming. If the service on cable is to add any value, surely it is with the flagship programming rather than kids programming and a second-rate soap. I can understand rights restrictions prohibiting the inclusion of US imports such as Damages and Heroes, but the omission of the better BBC HD homegrown series seems most bizarre.

  • Comment number 22.

    magician2009 "I don't know if you have just had a bad experience, but all of the people I know with VM always get the full speed and they are all on either 20 or 50MB"

    Personally I get a very good service (touch wood), and luckily can get the full 20Mbit. The Virgin support newsgroups have many 50Mbit and 20Mbit customers complaining about poor speeds however. Whenever I mention my 20Mbit package to anyone the reply is quite often "aye, but you don'e actually get "20mbit". Of course I tell them that actually I do, but in light of the problems many other customers have I count myself very lucky.

  • Comment number 23.

    More content has been added to iPlayer HD on Virgin Media:

    South Pacific, Reggie Perrin, Jonathan Ross, Cruikshank on Kew, The Unsellables, Wainwrights's Walks amongst them.

    Keep it coming!

  • Comment number 24.

    When will we see iPlayer developed for Windows Media Center? A nice remote control driven Media Center add-on similar to the one used for Virgin would be fantastic. The Nintendo Wii even has one, so why not Media center?

  • Comment number 25.

    Re: "Additionally, everyone I know is on the 20mb Package, they get their full speed, and the average user is unlikely to download 6GB (20mb threshold) in a few hours,"

    Really people aren't understanding the issue. The question was 18 megabit video streams. That's 8.1 gigabytes of data an hour, every hour, for every household watching. So even the 6GB figure you quote for the 20 megabit premium service would only be 40 mins of such a video stream before it got throttled.

    The fact that only a low amount of households are capped just shows that people aren't making use of their Internet connections, but just imagine how bad Virgin would struggle if a significant percentage of people did try viewing a video stream that required 8 gigabytes of data an hour? Or even one tenth of that?

    The key thing to note on Virgin's webpage on their traffic management is that the limits are subject to change - the more people use their Internet the lower the limits will be.

    The way people view the download speed of their Internet is like people chosing a car based purely on whether it can do a top speed of 200 mph or 300 mph, without being concerned whether the car can go round corners, or needs engine rebuilds every 10 miles, or the fact the speed limit is only 70 mph, or whether it only gets half a mile to the gallon, etc.

  • Comment number 26.

    The whole point of the article that HD is being launched on the TV SERVICE, which has NOTHING to do with the internet type or speed, and is NOT subject to throttling, so as much HD content can be viewed as wanted without caps.

  • Comment number 27.

    Additionally, if you are really into HD and Blue ray formats, you are far more likely to have 50Mb, and then would have no capping, no problem.

  • Comment number 28.

    I just want to clarify the figures of the VM Traffic Management. For the 4 main broadband services that are currently traffic managed, 2Mb, 2 tiers of 10Mb and 20Mb the management is spit into two. The daytime (10am - 3pm) is capped after 1000MB, 1500MB, 3000MB and 7000MB but crucially the Evening Management (4pm-9pm), lets face it the most likely time to be online, is halved to 500MB, 750MB, 1500MB and 3500MB.
    So for example in the peak time you will easily reach the lower tier 10Mb limit of 750MB if you try and watch any iplayer HD content. The speed is then throttled to 2.5Mb which is not enough for streaming HD (3.5Mb min). After recently being upgraded to 10Mb for free I've been enjoying the speed but raising the download cap would be good, or at least reducing the throttling. Instead of throttling 10 to 2.5, 10 down to 5 would be much better. Considering the total amount I pay each month for 3 services its not too much to ask.

  • Comment number 29.

    All this technology is great, but for the vast majority of the UK we cannot receive it because Virgin Medias HD Short Sighted Department firmly refuses to connect any new homes to their network. Even if we offer to pay ALL the costs like offering £1000 they still won't budge.

    Even though we can see the (working) VirginMedia cabinet round the corner from our house doesn't mean you can get it. We have tried extremely hard to get connected only to receive the repetitive droan of "it is not available in your street". The script readers at Virgin Media are not allowed to deviate from their computer screen scripts which makes it so much harder to deal with them.

    Unless Virgin Media are willing to extend the network (I will willingly pay my own costs) this should NOT be hyped-up about so much.

    Added insult to injury we live in an ADSL area of average 1 Meg. ONE measly meg. BT think this is high tech and "the future". I can actually get twice as fast downloads thru a 3G phone (compared to ADSL) but 3G has a paltry data allowance and its possible to use a 1 months data in 1 hour with iPlayer, youtube etc...

    All of these companies: Cable, ADSL, 3G, have ALL got it totally wrong.

    Somebody please tell them all to listen to the customers

  • Comment number 30.

    Whenever I purchase a Blueray disc I 1st turn it into a non-HDPC file. Then I encode it to h264 (or x264). I tend to cut the size down to 1/3 or 1/4 of the total Blueray data & downsize (& possible crop) from 1080p to 720p & then include either DTS or DD. With the 3.5Mbps indicated it will do the absolute minimum from a quality perspective. My Micheal Clayton does 12Mbps @ 1280*528 with DTS w/o a single glitch while the The original Bluray will push 36Mbps @ 1920*1080 thru

  • Comment number 31.

    I have a full HDMI satellite system and have been watching BBC HD on satellite Astra 28E with perfect reception...
    But for the past few weeks,all I have been getting when I click on BBCHD on the channel list is a black screen and a somewhat fuzzy sound track - whilst all the other BBC channels (non HD of course)on this sat continue to come through loud and clear.
    Is this a pb at my end? Or has someone at the BBC/Satellite end pulled the plug? Any info would be much appreciated!

  • Comment number 32.

    Dear gnome39

    BBC HD still "full on" - do you have a Freesat (if so which one) or Sky set top box?

  • Comment number 33.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 34.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 35.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 36.

    For andyquested -sorry for delay in coming back. Still no joy getting any BBC HD pic on Astra 28 (only sound) My HD Sat receiver is a CoMAG HD-S CI100 and my set a Panasonic full hd 1080 job. I also have a standard Virgin box for UK stations. Unwilling to pay for their V+box. Any ideas please?


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