Online TV blamed for choking broadband networks

The huge increase in bandwidth-heavy online TV downloads by UK broadband users is causing rifts over who should pay for upgrades to gridlocked networks
Written by Tim Ferguson on

The massive increase in bandwidth-heavy online TV and video content being downloaded by UK broadband users has raised questions about whether current networks can cope and who should pay for any upgrades.

Specifically, the recent surge of interest in the BBC's iPlayer online, on-demand TV service raised this issue following a massive 3.5 million programmes being streamed or downloaded in the two weeks following its marketing launch alone.

And, as more of these bandwidth-heavy content services — such as the multi-broadcaster Kangaroo media player — are launched and more people use them, the result could potentially be gridlock on broadband networks as bandwidth is used up.

But, if this is going to be a bandwidth problem, does the responsibility to fund network upgrades to cope with it lie with the internet service providers (ISPs) or the content providers?

Tiscali, which also owns Pipex, has been the most vocal ISP on this subject and has stated in the past it believes content providers such as the BBC should foot the bill for upgrading networks to cope with the content they're now churning out.

Tiscali claims that both the streaming and download versions of the BBC's iPlayer can create problems on its network.

Last August, a Tiscali spokeswoman told silicon.com: "We don't believe that the potential for it to cause congestion is being properly recognised and acknowledged."

Tiscali employs traffic shaping on its network, with bandwidth for large packets of data restricted at peak times to ensure every customer has a similar service.

This means services such as iPlayer or Channel 4's 4oD can be slowed, but not interrupted, as available bandwidth is reduced.

Despite its comments, Tiscali says it would not target iPlayer content specifically for traffic shaping — possibly as it can't distinguish iPlayer content from other BBC traffic — but the issue is something the company is concerned about.

Speaking to silicon.com this week, a Tiscali spokeswoman said: "If the content providers don't come to the table on this, the cost will be solely on the end user. It is an issue and we want to talk about it."

The spokeswoman added: "My hope for this year is there will be some sort of cross-industry consultation on this."

Industry regulator Ofcom is also aware of the potential conflict that is looming and told silicon.com that broadband traffic prioritisation is likely to be necessary in the near future as different kinds of traffic, such as voice, video and data, continue to proliferate.

However, Ofcom also said it isn't aware of there being any bandwidth reductions as a result of iPlayer, although it is "keeping an eye on developments".

Ofcom suggested the next generation of broadband networks may require new types of business model or commercial relationship to fund them.

This could see content providers paying for the delivery of services, as well as customers paying to receive them, much like the way retailers and customers pay to use credit-card services.

But the other major UK ISPs are less concerned with this issue than Tiscali.

BT told silicon.com that the full launch of iPlayer hasn't had any impact on the service its customers receive.

On whether content producers should fund the upgrading of networks, the company said it's "assessing all options to meet the demands of its customers".

Although BT wouldn't say whether it employs traffic shaping, the telco said it manages its network to "ensure the best experience for its broadband customers".

Virgin Media also told silicon.com it has received no reports of reduced bandwidth due to iPlayer usage.

The company said it will soon launch iPlayer via its TV service, which is separate from its broadband, and it is unlikely that additional uptake will have much impact on its broadband service.

Virgin Media added that download services such as iPlayer are a sign of increasing demand for higher bandwidth speeds and said it will continue to improve its network to cope.

But the company did admit it employs traffic shaping at certain times to ensure heavy users don't disrupt the service of other users.

Orange declined to comment.

For its part, the BBC told silicon.com that, although its content puts demand into the networks, the solution is not to "throttle demand and, by doing so, create a digital divide".

A BBC statement said: "This is not just an issue for the BBC but for all broadcasters and for all content producers."

The BBC claims it's in the interests of the UK economy for all parties to work together to make sure the country is in the "vanguard of next-generation broadband nations".

At the moment Tiscali is pretty much alone among ISPs in publicly suggesting content providers, such as the BBC, should stump up to fund broadband network upgrades.

But, with Ofcom saying content-provider business models may need to change in the future, there is the very real possibility that the BBC and others may one day have to put their hands in their pockets if home internet users are to continue enjoying shows such as Top Gear online.


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