BBC squares up to operators over iPlayer

Next Wednesday the BBC and Nokia will be launching the iPlayer on the N96, as a kickoff for the media player's eventual availability across a variety of phones.At yesterday's Westminster eForum on mobile regulation, the Beeb's mobile "controller", Matthew Postgate, said the broadcaster was "the content provider that has had the deepest engagement with network operators".

Next Wednesday the BBC and Nokia will be launching the iPlayer on the N96, as a kickoff for the media player's eventual availability across a variety of phones.

At yesterday's Westminster eForum on mobile regulation, the Beeb's mobile "controller", Matthew Postgate, said the broadcaster was "the content provider that has had the deepest engagement with network operators". "We have been sitting down with network operators to see how it could be enabled on 3G [and] will be making announcements regarding which operators will enable it on 3G," he added.

Oh to be a fly on the wall at those discussions!

I should, at this point, make the disclosure that I benefited from a BBC scholarship when I did my journalism degree, and therefore benefited substantially from the licence fee. However...

I find it hard not to think the BBC is starting to extract the urine, just a little. On fixed-line networks, the iPlayer had a large effect in terms of congestion - not nearly as overwhelming as some reports suggested, but very significant nonetheless. The client will probably have at least as great an impact on mobile networks. It's not hard to see why operators might be slightly outraged, as they - like their fixed-line counterparts - are generally doing data as a flat-rate proposition.

Should the BBC have to help pay for its traffic, or for network upgrades that might ease the flow? I'm not so sure about that - I think it would be a dangerous precedent - but the organisation does seem to be pretty blithe about the effect services like iPlayer have on networks. What's the solution to this? Damned if I know.

The other side here, of course, is that of competition. Is this where the licence fee should be going? Should you pay the licence fee if you use iPlayer, on the PC or the mobile? If not, why not? This is all a deeply uncomfortable discussion. One advantage of the licence fee is the commercial independence it gives the BBC - useful on an ethical basis, at times, but also undeniably distorting to the market. I know I wouldn't even bother trying to set up a rival service to the iPlayer on handsets.

Also at the event was Scott Beaumont of the mobile content company Mippin. He has a vested interest, but what he said contained a grain of truth: "iPlayer… changes the dynamics increasingly for the ISP. The amount of traffic mobile operators will be asked to handle for relatively little reward is going to be astonishing."

These issues will not go away, and I hope the BBC really is constructively engaging with providers. One way or another, this will have to get sorted out.

UPDATE (Friday October 3rd): So much for the Wi-Fi lock. Check out this hack, which makes it possible to run the iPlayer over 3G (and on the E71, which is not supposed to be supported). By the way, a half hour programme equals about 40MB of data usage, just for future reference.