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Will BBC iPlayer usage break the Internet? - The bandwidth timebomb!

February 22nd, 2008 at 15:07 by Dave Tomlinson

BBC iPlayerSince we published the iPlayer Usage Effect blog we've been doing a bit more analysis of the usage and reading up on what other people are writing.

As before we'll have a couple of headlines.

  • iPlayer usage is continuing to grow but at a slightly lower rate, up between 10% and 25% per hour comparing last week with the same week in January.
  • iPlayer streaming outnumbers downloads by 8 to 1.
  • iPlayer usage now accounts for approximately 5% of our network capacity.

We'll start off first with a link to Telco 2.0's BBC’s iPlayer nukes “all you can eat” ISP business model post.

This contains a lot of data about how much extra usage is being used (or could be used) just through the BBC's iPlayer.

One thing that does stand out though is:

"I would suggest that the easiest way for the BBC to escape the iPlayer conundrum is for them to pay an equitable fee to the ISPs for distributing their content and the ISP plan comes with unlimited BBC content, possibly with a small retail mark-up."

That sounds like a very interesting proposition. We can see exactly how much extra usage is being generated because of iPlayer and the BBC should be able to see how much data they are sending to each ISP so measuring the amount shouldn't be that much of a hurdle. For ISPs that use BT's IPStream products the costs are in the public domain so working out the costs aren't too hard, might be a little harder for LLU but should still be straight forward enough.

We've already seen a tripling of bandwidth costs for streaming in less than two months, to offset that we've also seen an increase in revenue from extra usage being purchased but looking at the wider aspect there is the argument that the cost should be met by the BBC, but at what expense? Does the licence fee increase or do the BBC meet the cost from another source (e.g. cutting costs, more repeats, adverts in online content).

The BBC have recently launched on iTunes, people in the UK can now download shows for £1.89, so far there aren't a huge number of shows available, but that is expected to grow and one thing that is expected is that shows will become available via iTunes once the 7 day period on iPlayer has ended.

If successful this sort of thing could provide a potential revenue stream for paying for, at least part of, the ISPs' capacity.

Another article on The register about the BBC considering dropping Flash for the streaming version of iPlayer, and also on Think Broadband, includes an old quote from the BBC's Director of new media and technology Ashley Highfield saying the impact of iPlayer on ISP networks has been "negligible", with traffic representing a "few per cent" of overall bandwidth. Mr Highfield has also posted an iPlayer Figures and Feedback blog on the BBC website.

We thought we'd like to provide a little bit more information on what we are seeing. The following three graphs show the traffic on our network at three different hours of the day (7-8pm, 8-9pm and 9-10pm) since 1st November 2007. (Click any of the images for larger versions).

Streaming 7-8pm

Streaming 8-9pm

Streaming 9-10pm

There are a few things that are immediately noticeable; first over Christmas it's a lot quieter, second Friday and Saturday nights are generally quieter but third and most important for this blog is that streaming traffic is on the way up.

Back at the beginning of November streaming was using around 4-5% of the network during these hours but as at the middle of February it's around 9-10%. So an increase of about 5% and that's with an increase in capacity during that time as well. Our analysis of the streaming traffic is that in percentage terms most other applications are using roughly the same amount as before and that almost all of the growth is down to iPlayer. And so far we are seeing that most people are choosing to stream rather than download (The Guardian reports that streaming outnumbers downloads by 8:1).

If the BBC plan to improve the quality of the streams then that's going to mean larger file sizes and an even higher percentage of traffic going into the streaming bundle.

If we remove Web and PlusNet FTP from the graph for 9-10pm the growth looks like this.

9-10pm without Web and PNFTP

You can see where this is going, more people using iPlayer, more people using iPlayer more often and even more bandwidth being used by better quality streams. ISPs only have so much bandwidth available as do the peering and transit links between them. It only takes around 300 customers streaming at 512kbps to fill 155Mbps of capacity (which don't forget costs around £17,000 per month), if the improvements to the stream quality means the bandwidth doubles to 1Mbps then that's down to 150 customers. Even with 4Gbps of capacity available you're still only talking about 4000 customers at 1Mbps that can stream at the same time and that's without any other traffic.

For now usage seems fairly spread out, we've looked at each hour of the day and each of our products and seen that by and large every product has seen an increase in streaming and across all hours of the day. There's no big spike of usage of everyone using it at the same time on Monday evening or Thursday afternoon for example. There's obviously more usage in the evenings as that's when people are using their connections but it's still fairly well spread.

Put a live sporting event on a stream and I'm sure they'll be a very different story. We've seen in the past when an England football game for example is on Sky that some people will find a stream somewhere online to watch, or with a cricket test watch people will listen to commentary on Radio Five Live online while they are work. So put an England football game on or an FA Cup quarter final and we'd likely see thousands or maybe tens of thousands of people on our network and hundreds of thousands across all ISPs all wanting to watch the stream at the same time.

This graph shows the amount of GBs of streaming downloaded per hour across the evening since 1st November.

Streaming GB Downloaded evening

As you can see since the end of December when iPlayer launched there's a huge increase across every hour during the evening.

For completeness here's the graph showing the rest of the day. In the early hours there's not a lot of change but certainly an upward shift but there bigger increases later on in the morning and the afternoon.

Streaming GB Downloaded day and night

Couple that with iTunes (BBC content, movies, HD content) or Dailymotion HD clips or whatever the next big thing is after them and it all adds up to one heap of bandwidth.

Look out for a further blog on this next month once we've had chance to review the full usage for February and see how it compares to January.

Dave Tomlinson

PlusNet Product Team


This entry was posted by Dave Tomlinson on Friday, February 22nd, 2008 at 3:07 pm and is tagged with , , and is posted in the category Traffic Management. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

32 comments on "Will BBC iPlayer usage break the Internet? - The bandwidth timebomb!"


Something I do find myself wondering about is a BBC blog post written at the time of Macworld, suggesting that the BBC were looking at providing iPlayer-like functionality to the Apple TV, because of its new rentals DRM which would allow the BBC to time-limit downloads to seven days. If this goes ahead though, I find myself wondering who's going to pay for the 'back end' data storage/transit costs. At the moment, the iPlayer PC software uses P2P to dupe the users into paying for the data transmission, rather than the BBC having to pay for it themselves. But iTunes/Apple TV uses straightforward downloading/streaming, not P2P. This means that either Apple or the BBC will have to spend money on more upload bandwidth... but I can't see either of the companies wanting to do that because the downloads will presumably be free, to match iPlayer for PC.


It'll probably work like the streaming version of iPlayer. At the moment all the streaming data goes from the BBC to the ISP, in our case and probably with many other UK ISPs we have a direct peering link with the Beeb.

What that means is we have a large fibre connection (can't remember off hand if it's 1Gbps or 10Gbps) between us and them and it doesn't really matter how much of that is used whether it's 10Mbps or 2Gbps it doesn't cost any more.

You'd probably think that Apple TV would do something similar (why re-route the traffic to Apple or store it with the iTunes infrastructure when you can build the frontend into iTunes and have a backend API from iTunes to the BBC) and Apple TV (or any other set top box for that matter) would stream direct from the Beeb.


I take your point, but what I'm saying is that, as far as I'm aware, the whole point of it is that it won't stream - Mac users already have access to streaming iPlayer, so what the BBC want to do is offer actual downloads for Mac/Apple TV users, using the new DRM that Apple have concocted for their move rentals. This will then be the BBC's way of offering Mac/Apple TV users an equivalent of the iPlayer PC software which can download programmes in better quality than the website steaming.

It is all getting very interesting...

Ashley Highfield more or less said in his blog that differentiated increased cost packages was the way to go for ISP industry.

The techno-readers at el-reg seem to think that metered usage is the way to go:

The government has appointed the promoter behind the Bulldog service to look into the problem


Be3G, interesting. I know that BBC Worldwide have just launched a small number of shows that you can pay for from iTunes, so do you think there will also be free shows? For example, you could watch last night's Ashes to Ashes via iPlayer (streamed for free) or via iTunes (download for free) or if you have Windows XP via iPlayer (download for free) and in a week's time the two iPlayer streams would be gone and the iTunes one becomes chargeable?


Yep, exactly, that's the way I envisage it operating - which is presumably why any BBC shows don't currently appear on (chargeable) iTunes until 8 days after the show has aired - i.e., until the show has disappeared from iPlayer.

Pretty much every major ISP in the country have peering agreements with the BBC, plusnet included I'd hope. This brings any bandwidth cost right down compared to say streaming from you tube clone hosted somewhere in Russia for example. There are still increased costs in the data centres but they can surely be absorbed? Is is BT's charge to the tier 2 ISP's for transit along their network which is the real problem here? As has already been mentioned in some of the comments, surely caching popular content providers although not cheap will in the long term save money?

Thanks for the blog Dave, it's been quite interesting to see someone elses statstics and observations for once.

I went hunting, and found data suggesting the data carrying capacity of fiber optics has grown by a factor of 10 about every 5 years (very back of the envelope calculation). Obviously fiber is not the be-all end-all of data transmission, but it does imply that as usage grows, so too is our ability to carry it. Although the introduction of a new application does allow a real-world 'shock' type experiment, growth of internet usage generally is not happening in a vacuum. I do not deny that the real world economics may not currently be working, but I would assert this may be as much due to some serious inefficiencies in the UK market (as others have noted) at fault here.

Also as others have noted, this blog is excellent - I really appreciate seeing this from another angle.


I think Dave said he was going to work on a blog to explain the real costs we see and where they are incurred. The truth is, Internet transit is a minor factor in the overall cost we are talking about here. We peer with the BBC at multiple peering points in London, so there really is little cost increase there however much traffic flows over that part of the link.

The problem is that our customers connect to the local BT exchanges round the contry, and their data has to be moved across BTs network. Like many other ISPs we buy in a BT Wholesale product called IPStream to achieve that. This costs about £148 per month for every Mbps of capacity we have available. When you consider that we offer each of our customers up to 8Mbps connectivity, you can see where the costs come from when usage increases like it has.


Interesting news about an EU effort for a standard IPTV format based on BitTorrent:

"For the broadcasters the incentive is to take their distribution mechanism beyond terrestrial, satellite and cable," said project co-ordinator Jari Ahola, from the VTT technical research centre in Finland. "They can use the internet as a distribution platform for very low cost."

Hmmmm... :/

I don't mean to be rude but its obvious the way forward for TV is IPTV and VoD and if an ISPs infrastructure doesn't have the capacity to cope with the bandwidth this will require then they should upgrade their network!

Its also mad to think you can charge content providers like the BBC for streaming content. The internet doesn't work like that!

Maybe ISPs should stop cutting their prices so much and charge a reasonable amount that leaves them with enough money to pay for a higher capacity infrastructure.


That's the point Dave is trying to make. See is latest blog for an explanation of the costs involved.

This is a really interesting blog. I have tried iPlayer - and the quality doesn't really interest me.. I can watch BBC TV on my large telly, in high definition, via Sky without worrying about using up everyones bandwidth - if I miss something I can Sky+ it, or watch one of the many many repeats shown of popular shows.

If PlusNet announced increased subscriptions to fairly reflect increased usage AND at the same time offered a discount if you selected a "non-iPlayer" service I'd approve!


iPlayer resulted in my first every sanction for exceeding bandwidth limits (all down to my daughter watching two one hour programmes)! I don't need braodband to watch TV any time I want - I can do that with a set top box, an aerial and a PVR. The web should be for innovation not duplication - watching TV on computers feels like step backwards to me - if it ain't broke - why fix it?

I do not have TV because I do not like TV! Therefore BBC's iPlayer is of little interest. Why would anyone want to sit-up to watch a program if they could sit-down for the same entertainment? However, I do like to stream radio programs. Mainly words.
I used to enjoy reading World News with still pictures. Since the latest update of the Beeb's 'front page' it seems there are no still pictures allowed and a commentary is forced on one!
In my book a retrograde step. Whilst I am still able to see a screen, I’d far sooner read the news than have an indistinct voice with juddering pictures long after the spoken description. Can they be stopped?

Is there any benefit to caching high-demand static content like this? Do you already do this? Presumably the main contention is on the "pipes" to the internet.


Mark: Not really. We'd have to place caching servers in each exchange around the country. The contention is in the extremely expensive connectivity between the ISPs and the customers. More details can be seen on Dave's latest blog:

Thanks Kelly. Good article :)

Maybe if there was a networking technology available that would allow the bandwidth used by this kind of streaming to be lessened significantly, then the overall impact on as ISP's bandwidth would be lessened? Oh wait, there already is... it's called multicasting. Unfortunately, the majority of ISP's are not willing to use multicasting because they would lose revenue, due to the fact they charge for bandwith usage!!! (n.b. I don't include plusnet in that statement as I believe they are multicasting enabled).


Andy: You are slightly misunderstanding the problem. Multicasting will help with any bandwidth issues before the traffic hits our platform. However, this connectivity ISN'T the limiting point. It is the connectivity from our platform to the exchanges where the problem exists and multicasting or similar technology (without significant investment from BT, or the 21CN launch) won't help.


Well I note that the BBC is providing this data over direct link to the the ISP's so surely that is where the ISP's could themselves levy charges for that connectivity, should enough ISP's see the same problems you do which I am sure they will do then they are likely to be levied at the same time (preventing the BBC saying STFU to the ISP's doing it without aggravating users by the millions) and others would be sure to follow I imagine.

Having said that there is the other side of the coin, first it was illegal P2P, then it was legal P2P, then it was download stores, now iPlayer, soon presumably other services, the increases in speeds available have raised the possible applications of the system and applications are now appearing one by one to fill it, perhaps then what we are finding is that the model of overselling bandwidth to enable home users to purchase the bandwidth of broadband for much less than the true cost of that bandwidth is becoming a restriction perhaps as this continues to increase ISP's may have to consider offering unlimited packages again, or ones with high allowances, only unlike last time actually reflecting the true cost of bandwidth in their pricing.

The only problem I can see is while attempting to attract as many people to broadband through overselling at a lower price point than the true value while managing to actually make a profit as well has inadvertently shot themselves in the foot because now many users think that bandwidth is actually a cheap commodity and it isn't certainly not towards the local loop end especially (the backhaul end is far cheaper, but one massive fiber is much cheaper to maintain and run than thousands of bits of low capacity copper on the other end).

Has anyone ever considered that perhaps what we are seeing is that cheap broadband may well be as much of a myth as the unlimited broadband was?

Ordinary users are now starting to USE the broadband capacity they pay for? OH NOES!!!!!1!!one

[...] The bandwidth timebomb! | Community Site News [...]


I get annoyed when i read these "death of the net caused by streaming" items. Users who pay for bandwidth should have the right to use that bandwidth for whatever they wish.

Its like paying for petrol for a car and then being told you can only use the fuel for driving up and down a few roads.

The real problem as i see it are these companies who operate "unlimited" use policies based around fair usage policies.

Their idea of fair is that people should be penalised for daring to try and use the product they were sold.

Companies like Tiscali are hinting that they want the BBC to pay towards their unrealistic, oversubscribed, and untenable pricing structures, and when you combine that with fact that you (currently) do not need a tv licence to watch streaming content this seems to be wishful thinking.

[...] use it and you ain't streaming video at that rate. There is a really good blog on this by plusnet Will BBC iPlayer usage break the Internet? - The bandwidth timebomb! | Community Site News It's also worth reading the post on how ISP's are charged: How UK ISPs are charged for broadband - [...]

This is due to the neglect and low investment by BT in the UK network infrastructure.

It is intresting to note that Virgin media are activley promoting the iplayer on their site for their customers, why? beacuse their network can handle it.

BT have been happy to rake in millions over the last 2 decades, but have invested little of this money back into their network, prefering to look after their shareholders dividends rather than look to the future.


Virgin Media offer the iPlayer on their cable television platform, they've gone to great expense to install servers in each locality that provide broadcast quality true VoD programming without using any of their internet bandwidth.

How I miss living in a cabled area; being able to sit on your sofa and watch a program you forgot to set the Sky+ for truly is the next generation of TV.

[...] not been without controversy, however: data from one ISP suggested that iPlayer was responsible for 5% of all traffic on their network, and the BBC came under increasing pressure for its impact on ISP and consumer [...]

[...] not been without controversy, however: data from one ISP suggested that iPlayer was responsible for 5% of all traffic on their network, and the BBC came under increasing pressure for its impact on ISP and consumer [...]

Excellent blog by Dave Tomlinson a very good overview the provision of broadband BT IPStream ,BT Wholesale and ISP. LLU – LLU. The world has moved forward will David Tomplin provide an update on the bandwidth trading market

[...] been a couple of weeks since we posted the last blog about usage and in particular what’s becoming the “iPlayer effect” so figured an update was probably due now that we have February’s usage data [...]

[...] reading and discussing some of the comments on our recent iPlayer usage blog and the follow-up I thought that for the next topic it would probably be useful to put together a piece on how UK ISPs [...]


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