BBC iPlayer: The "Hidden Costs" of Watching TV Online? - The PlusNet Perspective
A few weeks ago Ashley Highfield, former Director of Future Media & Technology at the BBC, posted an article called the "Hidden Costs" of Watching TV Online. It makes for an interesting read and is a good starting point for having a debate on this topic. Ashley raised 19 potential 'actions' although stressed that these weren't necessarily his opinion.
The article kicked off a lot of speculation in the press and online about an 'ISPs versus the BBC' war. Many of these articles portrayed that ISPs hate the iPlayer. As far as I can tell Tiscali is the only ISP to raise concerns. But we love the iPlayer - and I'll expand on why, as well as addressing some of the points from the BBC Internet blog. Streaming TV over the Internet is just on the cusp of real mass-market adoption. The BBC iPlayer is the right application at the right time, a trusted name with an easy to use service with content people want to see. No surprise that people want to use it and are doing so, as we've discussed in previous posts. Even my Mum uses it instead of a video recorder. The BBC iPlayer is however, just one of dozens of sites delivering TV over the internet along with Joost and YouTube which in turn is increasing the average amount that customers are downloading. With the increased usage comes increased costs to ISPs because we're responsible for the network it travels across. We've highlighted this over the years in how we design products and it is the reason we have sophisticated traffic prioritisation controls on our network. That means we can always give our customers what they want, and if they use more they have to pay more. The UK is arguably the most competitive broadband market in the world. Each ISP will have a different customer base, average usage, pricing strategy and therefore overall business model. What are our customers buying?
Setting a clear customer expectation is of paramount importance to us. We have spent a lot of time and effort in making our product pages for broadband as transparent and open as possible. We publish clear usage allowances as well as details about exactly what performance customers will see at what time of the day on each account type. We also provide customers with a speed tester so they can see how fast their line might go before they buy. We sell our products with a clear usage allowance that customers can top-up. With an 8Mbps broadband line rate it's possible to use over 2TB (2,000GB) in a month (in theory if you max your line 24/7) which could cost your ISP over £1,000 per month in bandwidth alone. Whether a product is profitable for an ISP depends on what average usage the product is designed for versus what average usage actually is - in the past we've made the mistake of offering products where the allowance was too high which then became loss making. How fast is 'up to 8Mbps'? The Gadget Show recently ran a campaign about this and we responded with this blog on the Speed of Broadband. The speed any customer gets is firstly determined by line length and line quality to determine the sync rate, but throughput can be influenced by a number of other things as well. Broadband is a contended service, which means that the available capacity is shared amongst the users. As more people use it at the same time that capacity gets eaten up and because it's finite it can run out, so that at the busiest times in order for everyone to get a fair share there will be some slowdowns. Predicting a speed is therefore a very tough thing, you could live right next to the local telephone exchange and sync at 8Mbps (on BT IPStream Max) or at 16Mbps (on ADSL2+) but if it's a very busy exchange or there is a lot of traffic that particular evening, you could see speeds reduced to less than 1Mbps. On the other hand you could live miles from a very quiet exchange and sync and download constantly at 2Mbps. We supplied data last month to Telco2 to show the distribution of sync speeds on Max, while about 40% of our customers have a sync rate over 6Mbps there are still nearly 20% who get 2Mbps or less (note that doesn't include those customers on fixed rate 512kbps, 1Mbps or 2Mbps services). Setting expectations of what speed a customer could see is certainly a good thing but anything we say will only ever be an estimate. Headline speed really isn't everything. What really matter is the actual throughput achieved and the experience that customers receive. We graph the performance of our network in real time so customers can see what to expect. We also faired very well in recent Epitiro tests. How much does iPlayer use and what will it cost me? We publish our average usage data every month. Most customers don't yet use more than 6GB a month and as this increases we will review our packages. Understanding why ISPs use traffic prioritisation is essential here. Traffic management is not necessarily a bad thing provided there is customer benefit, such as guaranteed VoIP and gaming performance. We actually think customers *should* look for an ISP with good traffic prioritisation policies. It will always be impossible to guarantee that everyone can download at full line-rate all of the time (and in practice this never happens anyway). As the network gets congested at busy times, making sure real-time traffic gets treated as real-time is really important to customers' experience. Customers can also choose specific products like Broadband Your Way Pro where all traffic is prioritised for a premium price. We already pass on the increased cost of usage to our customers in the form of top-ups on their account. Customers can use our View My Broadband Usage (VMBU) tool to see how much they have used broken down by time, date and application type. Customers can then add usage for £0.75 per Gigabyte in advance, or pay for top-ups after the fact for £1.00 per Gigabyte. Usage is measured between 8am and midnight (i.e. usage overnight is free of charge). So whether increased usage comes from iPlayer, or ANOther.com really doesn't matter to us, but we can't yet show how much usage is from a particular website. Overnight usage is already free on our broadband products, to encourage customers to schedule large downloads overnight when it is cheaper and faster. One disadvantage of using P2P such as Kontiki is that the user is also an uploader as well as a downloader. A novice user who leaves their PC on and doesn't understand this might well find themselves with a large usage bill that they weren't expecting. The key thing here is education to make sure that customers don't get a surprise when they get their bill. So what happens next? We've obviously known about iPlayer for quite a while and tested it out while it was still in the beta phase. We didn't know exactly how big it would become, but we knew it would be big. Adding the flash streaming version fairly late in the development is what has driven most of the usage growth. Arguably the Kontiki/download only version wouldn't have proved as popular. A couple of years ago YouTube emerged and that now accounts for around 8-9% of our total network bandwidth at peak time. Joost came along last year and while not as big in the UK, was doing 1-2% of the US bandwidth within only a few months. I expect iPlayer will very quickly account for 10% of our network at peak times. When the new series of Doctor Who started we saw a noticeable increase in streaming usage versus the previous Saturday. As the BBC continues to push iPlayer, more and more people will use it, increasing average usage. What is also inevitable is that something else will come along that will equal or beat iPlayer in terms of usage sometime in the future. We don't know exactly what it will be yet (could be iTunes HD movies, YouTube HD, Project Kangaroo or something not yet thought of) but we are already planning for it. It would be really interesting to give customers the ability to download programmes free of charge overnight ready to view the next evening, or perhaps paying for on-demand instant viewing. Trying to make this work across different content providers, different ISPs and different end-user operating systems could be very difficult problem for the industry to solve though. We've produced a lot of data recently about the impact that iPlayer has had on our customers in particular, data that we think is pretty unique because of the technologies we've developed. Hopefully this continues to be interesting and useful to our customers and others as well. As always, we'd love to know what you think, so why not add a comment or visit our discussion forums. Anyway, that's enough for now. There are only three days left to watch Jonathan Ross on the iPlayer. 🙂 Neil Armstrong Products Director, PlusNet
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