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UK Broadband ISP BT Calls on BBC to Pay it for iPlayer Content Delivery

Posted: 11th Jun, 2009 By: MarkJ
The BBC's Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, has published extracts (BLOG) from an email the broadcaster received from broadband ISP BT. It quotes the provider as warning that content owners "can't expect to continue to get a free ride". In essence, BT expects content developers to help contribute to the costs of its broadband service.

Rory Cellan-Jones said: "BT also pointed out that Lord Carter's Digital Britain review next week will call for broadband for all at high speeds and low prices - and said making that happen would involve content owners paying their fair share.

Now while other ISPs have grumbled about the impact of the iPlayer on their costs, I could not remember BT ever making such an forthright call for cash. And when I called the company, a spokesman made it clear that this was a new stance, and BT was happy for the world to know about it.

This comes in the context of negotiations between the BBC and ISPs, and obviously both sides are manoeuvring in advance of the Carter report. So far the whole issue of net neutrality - the idea that the internet should not discriminate between different types of traffic - has not made much of an impact in Britain.

Now Britain's biggest internet service provider is making it clear that, in a cut-throat broadband market, something is going to have to give - and net neutrality may have to be chucked overboard.

BT claims that this is a new position, yet 2008 and 2007 saw more than a few column inches being devoted to similar calls from Tiscali , BT and Virgin Media . It's perhaps no coincidence that the calls come just one week after the BBC complained that BT's broadband service was restricting traffic to iPlayer and thus lowering the services video quality or causing it not to function at all (original news).

In a statement, the BBC said: "While customers listening to audio and lower quality video streams would be unaffected, we are concerned that at peak times some customers' higher quality video streams may be interrupted by buffering before falling back to a lower-quality version. This would suggest that traffic identified as BBC iPlayer traffic is being throttled back, thereby limiting the bandwidth used up by the service on slower connections."

That situation reminded us of another 2008 news story we wrote (here), in which the BBC said it was introducing tiered video quality streams (based on your connection speed). The reason for this was to ease the burden on ISPs by allowing iPlayer to function at slower speeds, thus the ISP could lower its performance to the BBC without stopping the service. It’s perhaps curious that the BBC should then moan at BT when the method is used.

Certainly iPlayer traffic is a burden and the BBC's Controller for Vision and Online Media, Anthony Rose, last year estimated that "about 7% of peak UK Internet usage is due to the iPlayer. So, the iPlayer service is only a small fraction of the overall traffic and will certainly not cause internet failure." To be fair, 7% of traffic for any one specific service is still a lot. Ironically the BBC then went on to suggest that ISPs could charge more for viewing higher quality streams.

This then brings us back to today, where BT is once again calling on the BBC, and perhaps content developers as a whole, to help pay for the delivery of its service. However, content is what makes the Internet and for any ISP to suggest that the creators of this should pay is patently absurd. The costs of bandwidth may not always be cheap but it is ultimately the consumer that has to pay for what they use; just like your gas, water or electricity supply.

It's not that we don't mind somebody offering to help pay for the bandwidth we all use but that doesn't make it right. The problem here is, once again, with a highly competitive broadband market where every big ISP is scrambling to under-cut the other with lower pricing. Sometimes these ISPs can forget that you have to be realistic about what you charge.
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